Saturday, October 29, 2011

Brewery Tour Stop #10: Berkshire Brewing Company

South Deerfield, Massachusetts, seems like a sleepy little town. However, I’m guessing it gets a fairly large number of visitors and tourists. Maybe not to visit the Berkshire Brewing Company (BBC), but to visit a place that is 0.5 miles down the street. That place is the Yankee Candle flagship store.

We recently made the trek out to BBC, but first made the obligatory stop at Yankee Candle. The store is a time warp with no shortage of Christmas decorations. As I walked through themed rooms, such as the Bavarian Christmas village complete with blowing snow, I no longer knew what year it was.

After exceeding my nose’s threshold of sniffing 748 different candle scents in thirty minutes, and bumping into too many people who adore gingerbread houses, it was time to leave. Things were, as BBC likes to say, "looking up".

BBC's brewery really is just a homerun’s distance from Yankee Candle. Weekly tours at the brewery are scarce. You get your choice of one. It’s Saturday at 1pm.  

Many people showed up for the tour and we all waited outside. There was no sign of anyone working at the brewery. No lights were on. But at exactly 1:00pm, the door slowly opened and we were let in like kids waiting to enter Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.

As soon as we walked in, we were directed straight to the bar to get a 5-6 ounce pour of whatever we desired. Good way to start. Just about all of BBC’s offerings were on tap, excluding  off-season seasonals. I eagerly ordered the Russian Imperial Stout, as I hadn’t had it before, and enjoyed it greatly. My better half got their “coffee nitro” and I liked that even more. It was velvety with a delicious coffee character, and a hint of oatmeal. Absolutely divine. I suspect it’s their Coffeehouse Porter recipe placed on nitro.

Once everyone had beer in their hand, the tour began and lasted for about a full hour. Brewery tours are often cookie-cutter. But this tour, while basic at first, became geekier as it progressed. Questions from the group came from people who obviously homebrew often. Without flinching, our tour guide, Don, answered all questions knowledgably and was never stumped. At times I felt I was in a chemistry class as chemical compounds were discussed in greater detail than I’ve ever experienced on a brewery tour. Though I could not follow all of it (Science wasn’t my strength in school), it was still entertaining.

We learned that BBC only uses whole cone hops when brewing, and never hop pellets. Don preached this practice leaves extra/unnecessary bitterness out of beer. Suddenly, something then clicked in my head. I realized that BBC’s beers always lean to the sweet side (not a bad thing at all). This practice of only using whole cone hops apparently explains why. Or, partly explains it, at least. I’m sure the amount of hops used has something to do with it.

The more I thought about BBC’s tendency to stay malty rather than hoppy in almost everything they do, the more impressed I was. If you glance down their list of beers, just about everything is malt-forward mainly because of the styles they choose to approach. Even their take on a pale ale, a style that can be either hoppy or malty, ends up malty in BBC’s hands (and delicious). They only have one IPA in regular rotation – “Lost Sailor IPA”. It’s nice. But it’s an English style IPA. Classic English IPAs by nature serve a more subdued hop profile, and are more balanced than their American brethren. Subdued hops don’t often impress American beer geeks, who are often hop fanatical and lust over big, citrusy, piney, bitter hop profiles. Give a geek a double IPA and watch their eyes light up.

It’s admirable that BBC focuses on malty beers and succeeds. Plenty of people enjoy malty beers, but I can’t help but think that it must be more difficult for a brewery that doesn’t produce hop bombs to be sensationalized and hyped in the beer community. BBC knows exactly who they are and sticks to their plan. I want to high-five them for that.

The lengthy tour ended in the bottling room where Don was peppered with even more difficult questions. He answered them all unfazed and then brought us back to the tasting room to sample another beer before heading out.

I sampled the “Shabadoo Black & Tan” ale. I’ve seen this one on store shelves many times but never tried it. To me, a black-and-tan is for indecisive bar patrons who can’t decide if they want a Bass or a Guinness. When ordered at a bar, a black-and-tan is supposed to look separated; the pale beer in the bottom of the glass, the dark beer sitting on top. A bottled black-and-tan can’t achieve this. Shabadoo, pre-blended with BBC’s “Berkshire Ale” and “Drayman’s Porter”, is dark brown through and through. There’s no visual separation of course, but that doesn't affect my enjoyment of it. Shabadoo was delicious. Sweet (surpise, surprise), with a fairly fruity nose, and a flavor profile showcasing notes of chocolate, caramel, and faint fruit.

BBC donates 10% of Shabadoo’s gross sales to the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, so I encourage you to at least try a bottle.

My wife tried the Cabin Fever Ale, which is BBC’s winter seasonal released in November. Amber in color, it has lovely spice notes with bready, nutty malts and clean hops.  

Though BBC doesn’t offer a multitude of tour times to choose from, I encourage you to show up on Saturday at 1PM. What’s great about this area of Massachusetts is the large handful of breweries all within easy driving distance from each other. You can piece together one hell of a beer tour in this neck of the woods. Be sure you include BBC on that tour to experience how a well-crafted, malty brew is made.

Berkshire Brewing Company
12 Railroad Street
South Deerfield, MA 01373
Phone: 413-665-6600
Free Tours: Saturdays, 1:00PM

Monday, October 24, 2011

Using the Other Autumn Fruit in Beer – Autumn Ale from the Woodstock Inn

When we think of fruit-oriented beers released in autumn, we naturally think of pumpkin. It’s the most commonly used fruit in beer released during this time of year. However, the Woodstock Inn and Brewery does something a little different, and to great effect.

Located in North Woodstock, New Hampshire, the Woodstock Inn Brewery’s generically named “Autumn Ale Brew” is brewed with apple flavor. Although aromatic esters of apple are not uncommon in beer – especially in Belgian styles – I can’t recall another beer I‘ve had with apple infused into it. As unique as this beer may be, I also can’t help but think it shouldn’t be unique. Aren’t apples just as much of a staple fruit in October as pumpkins are? Why don’t brewers use apple more often?

Heck, why not use both apple and pumpkin? It tastes like that’s what Woodstock is doing here. In fact, if you look closely on the bottle’s label art, you’ll see what looks at first to be three ghoulish figures whose heads are carved pumpkins. Look closer and you’ll notice that those heads are actually apples carved like jack-o-lanterns. Clever.

This is a good-looking beer. It’s dark amber in color, a bit hazy, and is capped with an off-white head. Despite apple owning Autumn Ale's character, its aroma still offers pumpkin pie in addition to apple cider and cinnamon.

The taste hits you up front with pumpkin, then cinnamon spiciness in the middle. It finishes with big notes of apple that linger strongly on the finish and help form a crisp mouthfeel.

I really enjoyed this beer. The apple-cider character added another layer to an otherwise familiar seasonal brew. It was all in balance, and not too sweet. Look out for this one in the store soon before it’s gone for the season. Or, if you happen to be near Woodstock New Hampshire, stop in the brewery.

The Woodstock Inn Brewery is a convivial brewpub for families and ski bums equally. I’ve only been there during winter months, but I remember its various rooms serve different purposes. Families dining with kids stick to their own two rooms, while two bar areas are typically where skiers from Loon Mountain join at the end of a ski day.
Grade: A-

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Brewery Tour Stop #8 and #9: Newport Storm and Coddington Brewing

Beer lovers would enjoy a road called “Coddington Highway” in Newport Rhode Island. It isn’t much of a highway. Just a little single-lane road, less than two miles long, connecting one town road to another. But on that road, within 0.8 miles of each other, are two small breweries quietly going about their business. Not bad for a little town that is known purely for beaches, boating, and mansions.

My wife and I found ourselves in Newport RI this past weekend and decided to knock those two breweries off of our to-do list. One is Coastal Extreme (aka Newport Storm), and the other is Coddington Brewing.

We hit Coastal Extreme first. To be honest, I’ve never given Newport Storm the time of day. I naturally group the brand with Rhode Island’s other primary  brewery – Narragansett – and subconsciously consider them both to kitschy Rhode Island fare alongside Del’s Lemonade. It was nice to get a closer look at something I never took quite seriously.

Finished in the spring of 2011, a new facility houses the Newport Storm brewery, distillery (they also make rum), and visitor’s center. I got the sense the new facility was built to encourage visitation and to use tours/tastings as an additional source of income. $7 gets you a tour, a souvenir tasting glass, and four beer samples. You also get a card describing the four beers you will taste. If you pay a couple dollars more, you can taste the rum. I didn’t, however. Somebody has to drive.

I will say, the souvenir glass is the best one I’ve ever received from a brewery tour. It’s a tulip glass; my favorite, go-to beer vessel. What I love more about it is its size. My wife and I often split 22-ounce bottled beers at home and when we use regular tulips, or other glasses, they’re either too small or too large. These two Newport Storm glasses are the perfect size to split bombers. I’m sure I’ll use them often.

Newport Storm’s facility was hopping with activity. The tour group was large, and it was given by an enthusiastic man in his thirties. Before the tour started, the guide ensured that everyone had beer in their glass. So we went ahead and got our first sample – the “Rhode Island Blueberry Beer”. I didn’t, and never do, have high expectations for a blueberry beer. But I say with all honesty, that I think it may be the best blueberry beer I’ve ever had. I don’t try many, and avoid most. But I’ve had a few in my time. Unlike what you see at a place like Beer Works, this version does not have blueberries floating in it (thank god). It’s a Kolsch ale made with juice from hand-pressed, local Rhode Island blueberries. The authenticity is noticeable. It tastes like the skin of the berry, without extra sugar or flavoring added. It’s earthy and pleasantly bittersweet.

As the tour began, everyone climbed up to a wooden balcony about fifteen feet off the ground that looked down onto the brewery floor. Our tour guide stood on the floor and bellowed his spiel up to us like Romeo wooing Juliet. He knew his stuff, cracked jokes, and spoke for twenty minutes without taking a single breath. Impressive. Back to the tasting room…

Sample # 2 of 4 was Newport Storm’s flagship. The Hurricane Amber Ale. Neither my wife or I were impressed. I was fairly certain I had it before and now I knew why I couldn’t quite remember much of it. It’s not exactly memorable. The caramel malt profile is weak for the style, and the spicey hop character it claims to have must be on hiatus. It’s dry, and a bit too watery.

Next was the Regenschauer Oktoberfest. This is the brewery’s only lager, and is supposed to be brewed true to Marzen style.  After tasting this, I thought the brewery should create a different fall seasonal beer next year, or just avoid lagers altogether. A Marzen shouldn’t smell and taste like eggs. It was unpleasant and disappointing. I choked it down just to get to my final tasting.

The last beer was a pale ale made with rye, and is part of the brewery’s limited-release “Cyclone” series of bigger beers. This particular beer was called “Ryan”. I was eager to try it because I have a soft spot for beers brewed with rye grain. Thankfully, Ryan catapulted me out from the horrible depths of the Oktoberfest and dropped me in an oasis of beer deliciousness. Tons of earthy rye malt and Amarillo hops danced on my tongue. Big, balanced, and delicious. At 8.0% it had a little punch and was easily the highpoint of my tasting.

In the end, I found it funny that my second favorite beer of the visit was the blueberry ale. I didn’t see that coming.

Although Newport Storm didn’t impress me with A+ beers across the board, I did find the visit fun and worthwhile for any beer fan in the area.

Coddington Brewing Company
That night, my wife and I had dinner at the Coddington Brewing Company. Picture an Applebee’s that happens to make their own beer. That’s what this place is like.

It was busy there, and I didn’t get the chance to chat with the bartender about the beers. I started with their pumpkin ale and found it a bit thin. The typical fall spices I expect in a pumpkin beer were extremely faint in this one. Its description claimed that vanilla beans were added to the kettle. I tried, but couldn’t find any trace of them. It is session brew at 4.5%.

Next I had an “oatmeal porter” which was utilitarian. Roasty grain, faint bakers chocolate, and oatmeal were all noticeable, yet faint. The oatmeal did not have the same effect on its mouthfeel as it typically does with an oatmeal stout. Unfortunately, its carbonation was a bit too absent for a beer that didn’t pour from a cask.

My wife found her Oktoberfest flat in character, thin, and uninspiring. Not offensive, but not spectacular by any means.

I did get a small taste of their “Irish Stout” which, at just 3.8%, was delicious. Its frothy head gave off a big coffee aroma which carried through on its flavor profile. Bittersweet chocolate was also noticeable. I could have drank a lot of this one. But it was a long day of beer tasting, and I had to draw the line somewhere.

Do I recommend a visit to Coddington? If you’re visiting Newport Storm and have another twenty minutes to kill, the Irish Stout alone is worth your time. Otherwise, keep driving down to the beach. 

Coastal Extreme Brewing (aka “Newport Storm”)

293 JT Connel Rd
Newport Rhode Island

Coddington Brewing Company
210 Coddington highway
Middletown, Rhode Island

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Pumpkin Beer Installment #3: Cambridge Brewing’s Great Pumpkin Ale

Remember the Seinfeld episode where Kramer meets Bette Midler? The girly, high-pitched shriek Kramer lets loose upon meeting Bette is similar to the sound Boston beer fans made some months ago once learning that Cambridge Brewing Company (CBC) would bottle and sell their beer in stores.

CBC is a well-loved brewpub in the Kendall Square neighborhood of Cambridge. Until recently, the only place to get their beer was at the brewery (or occasionally on tap at a few select bars).

Not all CBC beers will be bottled and sold in stores. It seems just a few will. But CBC picked a great one to start with – the Great Pumpkin Ale. It’s widely considered to be the original pumpkin ale as CBC first brewed it twenty two years ago, before any other New England brewery tried brewing pumpkin beers. Easily one of the most exciting local beer releases this season, 22-oz bottles of the Great Pumpkin Ale can now be enjoyed in the comfort of our homes.

CBC makes this beer with local, organic sugar pumpkins and organic malt from Massachusetts.

Pouring from a bottle noted as “batch 1”, I saw a hazy orange brew. I could barely see my finger’s shadow through the glass. It’s fizzy off-white head isn’t substantial and quickly fades to a cap.

The aroma was mild but not boring; notes of pumpkin pie and raw pumpkin were present. Its flavor offered more pumpkin pie, but not as sweet as other pumpkin ales do. The separate layers of earthy pumpkin, fall spices, bready malt, and elegant hops are all in harmony.  A creamy mouthfeel brought to mind the dollop of whip cream one would place on top of their slice of pie.

I loved this beer. I loved that its alcohol level, despite its full flavor, is amazingly just 4.2%. The more I drank it, the more I realized how I preferred the earthy pumpkin flavor in this beer over the candied-pumpkin character in some other pumpkin beers.  

You can still find this in stores. But probably not for much longer. If you don’t see it on shelves, get it on tap at CBC until Thanksgiving. There’s actually no better time to do that than on Saturday, October 29, when CBC puts on the Great Pumpkin Festival. On tap, from 1:00 PM – 12:30 AM, will be over thirty different pumpkin ales from across the country. Dust off that dracula costume and get down there.

Grade: A

1 Kendall Square, Bldg 100
Cambridge, MA 02139

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Brewery Tour Stop #7: Redhook Brewery

Our New England brewery tour spotlight now shines on Redhook.  

To be blunt, I never had a very fond admiration for Redhook. I remember first tasting their ESB in college and thinking it was quite bitter. Ironically, an ESB (Extra Special Bitter) isn’t actually supposed to be all that bitter. A good one is well balanced. Granted, my palate back in college was not as experienced as it is now, but I wasn’t a complete novice at the time. Whether I’d still find their ESB too bitter these days, I’ll never know. Because I never had it again, and didn’t plan to.

Over the years a couple different Redhook brews made their way into my hands at restaurants or at a beer fest; LongHammer IPA and Copperhook, for example. They made sufficient accompaniments to my meals if only for the simple facts that they were inoffensive and wet. On their own, they didn’t make a big impression on me, and I remember a corn flavor in Copperhook that I didn’t love.

My friend who lives in southern NH will debate with me about this brewery. He swears that super-fresh Redhook beer is good. I assume at least one or two of the Redhook beers I’ve had over the years were fresh. After all, the brewery isn’t far away from anywhere in New England. But I’m willing to forget the past and start “fresh”. It can’t get any fresher than what I’ll find at the brewery, so here’s my chance.

Located in Portsmouth NH, Redhook is tucked away among business parks and apartment housing. There is plenty of lush lawn surrounding the brewery, and a large outdoor patio hosted a wedding reception during our visit.  

The building itself resembles a modern-day ski lodge. I like it. Lots of wood beams give a rustic feel along with modern steel touches. And it looks new. 

You immediately walk into a restaurant/pub atmosphere. A handful of tables had diners, while all seats in the bar area were occupied.

Tours seem popular on Saturdays, as they run every hour on the hour between 12PM – 6PM. They cost just $1.

Our tour group, of roughly twelve people, was taken upstairs to a designated tour area that overlooked the production floor. A young high school science teacher who gives tours on weekends was our guide. He ran through the brewing process, pointing at the respective kettle or area in the facility relevant to milling, boiling, mashing, bottling, etc. He was keen on mentioning more than twice that Redhook does not pasteurize their beer. Otherwise, if you’ve heard the general brewing process before, you’ve heard this one. 

I will say, though, it was amazing to see that Redhook has managed to fit such an abundance of equipment into a fairly large facility. The tour area is a wide open space, but the area we gazed down upon seemed so efficiently planned to accommodate the maximum possible amount of equipment, that I wonder how workers don't trip on hoses or bump their head on beams. 

After approximately twenty minutes, we were shuffled over to a small bar to taste a few beers.

Our first tasting greeted me with an old acquaintance, if not foe. The ESB. After a few gulps I admitted it wasn’t bad. Some hop assertiveness was present, but it was balanced with an earthy malt flavor. No unruly bitterness found. I was pleasantly surprised but it didn’t exactly make me a new convert to their flagship brew.

Next was the LongHammer IPA. This one paired decently with a pub dinner I had a while back. But a recent tasting of it at the American Craft Beer Festival had me wondering if I confused it with another beer. This tasting wasn’t terrible. In fact some floral, grassy hops made this pleasant enough. To me, LongHammer is a utility IPA. Maybe a step above Harpoon. It’s hard to be a stellar IPA in the craft beer world as the best IPAs are tremendous and in a class of their own. People are picky about their IPAs, and will easily kick aside any that are not worthy of a spot in their go-to rotation. Me included. This tasting won’t trigger me to run out and buy a 12-pack of LongHammer, but I won’t turn down a bottle if the right situation presents itself.

Moving along, the tasting pours became more generous. We got a significant helping of the Late Harvest Ale. This was a favorite. Yes, my wife and I are suckers for fall seasonal beers, but this one had an enjoyable hop spiciness alongside a gritty caramel malt profile. It was the best Redhook I had tasted. 

Lastly, we tasted a beer who’s name I sadly forget. Sad, because I enjoyed it. It was essentially a porter and I remember enjoying a second helping of it. Keep in mind this is another style of beer in which I’m easy to please. I recall a nice smokey note and an almost meaty malt backbone.

After approximately 50 minutes, the tour and tasting ends. At this point, you can easily go to the bar and order a full serving of whichever beer you enjoyed most at the tasting. Or, spend feverishly in their gift shop that’s full of the usual swag and useless trinkets. 

Although Redhook has a full restaurant, and a nice facility, a destination brewery it is not. However, I do recommend a stop by Redhook if you’re in the area. It makes a great stop in combination with another on the same day (hint: the Portsmouth Brewery).

Before I forget, Redhook’s sporty new bottle design deserves some attention. They almost look like plastic soda bottles, but I think they actually look pretty cool. Two thumbs up on package design.

Redhook Brewery
1 Redhook Way
Pease International Tradeport
Portsmouth, NH 03801
Phone: 603.430.8600

Public Brewery Tours:

Mon: 3:00, 4:00, 5:00pm
Tue:12:00, 1:00, 2:00pm                                           
Wed & Thu: 1:00, 3:00, 5:00pm
Fri & Sat: 12:00-6:00pm, every hour on the hour
Sun: 1:00pm – 5:00pm on the hour

Monday, October 3, 2011

Beer Fest Revelation – The Little Guy Wins

To most Americans, more is more. “Go big or go home!” might as well be our country’s motto. When it comes to beer festivals, the same typically applies to the interests of beer geeks. We want many brewers pouring many different beers. After all, this is why many beer fans (including myself) go to BeerAdvocate’s ACBF in Boston every June, and other large beer fests around the country.

A big draw at the ACBF is the handful of rare/great beers that I’d otherwise be hard pressed to get my hands on (i.e. beers from Lawson’s, Surly, Duck Rabbit, just to name a few). However, as much fun as the ACBF and other large beer fests can be, I sometimes walk away a little disappointed. It’s nice to have fun with my wife/friends, but I always wish that I was able to taste all of the specific beers I planned to. And I wish I didn’t waste so much time standing in line to get beer samples, to use the restroom, or to get bad, cold, expensive food. I find myself thinking that it was all a little too much. Too many options, too many people, too much money, too much wasted time.

The producers from BeerAdvocate commendably encourage attendees to not overdo it at the ACBF. They preach that one should decide which brewers they want to visit, and not feel that they have to visit every one – which is virtually impossible, anyway. But even after picking a small handful of beers I really want to try, I sometimes can’t get to them. The lines at those booths are insanely long, and the brewers annoyingly don’t have the beer you want on tap at all times. I invariably end up visiting other booths and tasting beers I’ve had before, just so I get SOMETHING for the money I spent on the ticket.
Fast forward – I recently went to a small Oktoberfest that arguably destroyed the ACBF and other big festivals. I may be exaggerating, but hear me out. This Oktoberfest was in a parking lot at the British Beer Company (BBC) in Walpole. It was under a small tent, with maybe twenty brewers. Doesn’t sound impressive, right? After all, I get access to maybe 150 brewers at the ACBF. 

Here’s a side-by-side comparison:

Quality of selection: The ACBF does offer many fantastic beers; so many it’s overwhelming and hard to focus. But there are also beers there I have no interest in.

At the BBC, I was interested in almost all of the beers offered. If they can make a beer geek like myself feel that way, they did something right. I wasn’t overwhelmed with choices, but I saw plenty to excite me. Granted, some of the beers there weren’t new to me, but enough were. And out of the ones I’ve had before, I was at least interested in having a few of them again because I couldn’t remember if I liked them or not.

Sample size:  The sample size at large fests is often 2 ounce pours. At the BBC fest, I got 5 or 6 ounces.

Lines/Crowd: Lines at large fests are often very long. Lines at BBC? None.

Food: The food at the ACBF costs money. It’s of low quality. And you have to wait in line a good while to get it. The food at the BBC is free and delicious. Bratwursts with sauerkraut, cheeses with crackers, fruit, and more. Topping that off, I didn’t have to wait in line to get it.

Pricing structure: The ACBF costs approximately $50 for about a 3-hour session. I like to get my money’s worth in life, so at the ACBF I’m looking to either sample a lot, or sample really special brews. At the BBC, it’s pay-as-you sample. $2 per 6 ounces. Not cheap, but not expensive, and it worked out great for me because I simply wanted to try a few, and leave after an hour. At the ACBF, it’s a 3-hour commitment, get-as-much-as-you-can-for-your-$50 kind of affair that owns most of your day (factor in travel to downtown Boston, parking, etc.)

To me, it’s a clear winner. BBC was arguable far more enjoyable in its own way. Maybe it’s the old-man in me, but I’ll run out of patience for larger beer fests before I grow tired of casually popping into a nice little fest just like the BBC put on. It's easy, manageable, with quality brews and food. I'm sold.

To keep tabs on smaller beer festivals in your area, easily find one – coincidentally – on BeerAdvocate’s calendar page. There are many to choose from in Autumn, because, just as my wife says, “it’s the most wonderful time of the beer.”