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

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