Monday, November 4, 2013

Brewery Tour #23 – Barrington Brewery & Restaurant

One of the best ways to spend a summer weekend in Massachusetts is to visit the area of Lenox and attend a concert at Tanglewood. It may be a pain in the neck for most MA residents to trek to, but the concerts (primarily performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra) and other activities in the area easily make it worthwhile. Norman Rockwell’s museum is close by, as are lovely hiking trails and enjoyable restaurants. One restaurant that may be of interest to beer fans is the Barrington Brewery. While technically in the town of Great Barrington, it’s an easy eleven-mile drive from Lenox. DBNE stopped in during a late summer visit to the area.

I wish all our reviews could be positive. But unfortunately, the Barrington Brewery reminded us that not every establishment can impress. In fact, some can be downright unfortunate.

Fitting for the country setting and the style of food offered, the restaurant reminds you of an old barn or come-as-you-are country steakhouse. Unsurprisingly, the interior is kitschy. It appears rundown and not in a cute, rustic, or other intentional way. The place needs a makeover, badly.The layout is simply weird. An unwelcoming entrance practically puts you right into the server’s station. And from watching many episodes of the TV show Restaurant Impossible, we began to easily point out everything that should be fixed or redone.  It begs for attention as it has a world of potential that appears neglected. But if they’re making money, who are we to advocate for change.

Quick, attentive service is normally a positive. But our service here was so much so that we quickly felt an enjoyable leisurely dinner was not in the cards. Our server was so attentive we felt rushed.

The BBQ food defined mediocrity. Nothing was wrong, but nothing warrants a return visit in the slightest. Throw in the fact that fries cost extra (at a pub?!) and you’re not winning us over anytime soon.

Unfortunately, the beer was no better. We tried their brown ale, pale ale, and a stout. All three had a noticeably slick and thin mouthfeel we found deterring. As for flavor, the brown ale and pale ale both tasted fine – albeit the kind of fine you say with a shrug of the shoulders while cocking your head to the side. The stout actually smelled quite nice but then let us down immensely on flavor (in addition to its poor texture).

The four major areas to judge here – food, beer, venue, service – all receive negative marks from DBNE. It’s unfortunate that the one area in which they excel (speedy service), they do too well thereby causing a negative, rushed experience. Shame.

You may notice the word “unfortunate” appears more than a couple times in this review. That’s no accident. That word sums up our visit. I wish I could recommend the Barrington Brewery to anyone who is at least driving right by its parking lot, but I can’t – at least not for dinner. If you’re looking for a quick, no-fuss lunch of a simple hot dog, burger, or sandwich along with a simple beer, the restaurant may serve you fine. Give it a shot and see if you concur. Otherwise, although restaurants may not be abundant in the area, you’re still better off elsewhere for dinner. Might we suggest a place in downtown Lenox called Brava? It’s no brewpub, but it offers a concisely well-curated beer (and wine) menu, a more refined and warm interior, and a thoughtfully modern food menu focusing on tapas. Brava is a must visit and will please any beer fan who opts to accelerate past the Barrington Brewery.  

Barrington Brewery and Restaurant
420 Stockbridge Road
Great Barrington MA 01230

27 Housatonic St
LenoxMA 01240
(413) 637-9171

Monday, October 14, 2013

Brewery Tour #22 - Blue Lobster Brewing

The Hampton beach area in south eastern New Hampshire isn’t normally a spot one associates with quality beer. Upon mention of that area, you might first envision honkey-tonk teenage hangouts, or maybe video game arcades, mini skirts with tramp stamps, cigarette-butt littered beach sand, or tricked-out cars blaring beats with their windows down. Or, all the above.
For the past year, beer geeks have found refuge from Hampton Beach’s charades four miles up the road on route 1. It’s a safe haven tucked away in the corner of a cookie cutter strip mall plaza, and it’s where Blue Lobster Brewing calls home. Yes, a strip mall, but it’s an upgrade from the type of digs many small breweries inhabit; often shabby, bare-boned warehouses. (Heck some of those warehouses seem no different than a stage set from a mafia flick where “stuff” goes down.)

Michael Benoit, a home brewer for thirty years, opened Blue Lobster Brewing on November 8, 2012. To help him, he recruited a young man by the name of David Sakolosky who apprenticed at Hill Farmstead for a year, and previously helped White Birch get off the ground in Hooksett NH.

Michael and David aim to provide their local area primarily with fresh draft beer, as opposed to bottles. They fear their beer will be left uncared for in stores and go stale. Outside a few kegs sent to local establishments (i.e. the pizza restaurant next door), you must visit Blue Lobster to purchase their beer. Given that the duo prefers brewing hoppy beer, it’s arguably a good thing one must visit them to purchase the beers that – compared to other styles – can lose their character more quickly when sitting on room-temperature store shelves for extended periods of time.

The Blue Lobster tasting room is nicer than most. There’s a small bar with a handful of seats and five or six high top tables. The lobster-themed décor is thoughtful while not overdone.

The common thing to order is a tasting flight. For $5 you get five beer samples at three or four ounces each. We sampled a pale ale named “Gold Claw,” a wheat IPA called “Stalkholm Syndrome,” a black IPA named “Red Door(Paint It Black),” a double IPA called “Excess is Not Rebellion,” and their rye porter named “Ragged Neck Rye.”

Gold Claw is generally considered the brewery’s flagship beer. Scoring highly on beer rating websites, we expected great things. It smelled very nice and floral, but the flavor was thin, lifeless, and otherwise disappeared in your mouth without hinting at much character. Other beer geeks defend this, saying “yes but for 4.5% abv it’s a great session beer.” I disagree. Don’t make excuses for beers lower in alcohol. It’s been proven enough times that producing low-alcohol ale full of flavor is entirely doable. We look forward to trying another batch in the future, but today, thumbs down for Gold Claw.

Equally excited for Excess is Not Rebellion, we dove into that next. This beer is tricky. The brewer changes its recipe drastically. Certain batches use entirely different hops from other batches. The version we tasted was brewed entirely with Columbus – a hop varietal we have a love/hate relationship with. At times, Columbus tastes a bit like onion (hate). Other times it’s more grassy (love). In this beer, I sensed both grass and onion; the former on the nose, the latter in the flavor.  Additionally, it was overly bitter – not good. Other versions sound more promising; a previous batch was made with Galaxy/Centennial/Citra, and another batch sported 100% Galaxy. I have to think those versions taste far better.

“Red Door(Paint It Black),” their black IPA, is noted by the brewer to pay homage to the original Vermont take on the style. Exactly which brewer that refers to we’re not sure. Regardless, this beer lacks the hop punch we love in beers like Stone’s Sublimely Self Righteous, and Firestone Walker’s Wookey Jack. We continuously use those two beers as benchmarks for the black IPA style, and Blue Lobster’s take didn’t cut it. However, if one considers Blue Lobster’s version as a slightly more bitter porter, it can come across as successful and perhaps enjoyable enough.

Up next – “Ragged Neck Rye” porter. If I had this blind, I would declare it a Scotch ale. It offers a profound sense of peat often found in American takes on Scotch ales. While notes of rye were noticeable they played second fiddle to the presence of peat. The beer could’ve used more body and depth, but was not necessarily a disappointment. Overall, it was tasty enough. But worthy of a growler fill? Not exactly.

Feeling slightly disappointed in our tasting thus far, we worried we’d walk away with no interest in a growler of anything offered. The last beer, however, redeemed our experience. “Stalkholm Syndrome,” a wheat IPA, is beautiful. A gorgeous, citrusy hop presence blends like butter with a soft wheat malt bill. Without question, this beer is Blue Lobster’s highlight. Why we've heard more acclaim for Gold Claw is beyond us. Stalkholm easily deserves to be in the discussion for New England’s best IPAs. We found our growler beer.

Despite being let down up to the end of our tasting, it’s worth stressing that we went into this visit with high expectations. It’s entirely possible, if not likely, this affected our reaction to Blue Lobster’s offerings. None of the beers were bad, and I can easily see people finding any one of the beers to their liking.

Note: Since the initial visit to the Blue Lobster tasting room, I had the chance to taste two additional beers of theirs at a festival. One being a new DIPA called “A Town Called Earth: Exeter Edition,” and the other a bottle-conditioned farmhouse ale – the latter being the result of a collaboration with Prairie Artisan Ales from Oklahoma. The new DIPA was far better than the one we tried back at the tasting room. It served up a smooth tropical hop profile of melon, papaya and the like. The farmhouse ale was tart and a bit funky, with very mild carbonation. It tasted promising, but I immediately thought it needed more time in the bottle to develop into something grand.

The tasting room is a comfortable spot, definitely worth a visit. Many people find something to love in their arsenal of beers, so it’s likely you will too.  Although it’s strictly a tasting room with no food, there’s a pizza restaurant right next door (called the Community Oven) that many people like, and you’ll find Blue Lobster on tap there.

Worth noting for your visit - Blue Lobster will fill other brewery’s growlers as long as they’re brown glass. They hesitantly fill screw cap growlers because they feel more comfortable seeing their beer walk out the door in s
wingtop bottles, which seal better than caps. 1/6th kegs are also for sale if you’d rather party at home instead of with Tammy, Trent, and the other IROC jockeys at Hampton Beach. 

Blue Lobster Brewing
845 Lafayette Road
Hampton, New Hampshire 03842

Tasting Room Hours:
Thu: 2:00 pm - 6:00 pm
Fri: 2:00 pm - 7:00 pm
Sat: 2:00 pm - 6:00 pm
Sun: 12:00 pm - 4:00 pm

Monday, August 19, 2013

Brewery Tour #21 - Foolproof Brewing Company

On a 98 degree day, with a real feel of approximately 163 degrees, we made the questionable decision to forgo the beach (or any other sensible activity to stay cool) and instead visit a hot brewery with no AC. Coincidentally, the name of that brewery is “Foolproof”.

Or is that ironic?

Actually, it’s both.

Based in Pawtucket Rhode Island, Foolproof Brewing began business in 2010. They believe in “experienced-based brewing”. Their three primary beers are intended to pay tribute to three different sacred beer drinking experiences. They claim these three experiences are, 1 – “watching baseball” (agreed), 2 – “relaxing indoors on a rainy day” (sounds nice, but a sacred beer drinking experience it is not), or 3 – shooting the breeze at your local watering hole (inarguable).

Foolproof’s name up until their official opening was High Jinx Brewing. A bit late in the game they discovered that name was already under copyright by a winery. Humorously, Foolproof already had pint glasses produced with “High Jinx Brewing” printed on them. At the time of our visit, they were selling off the stockpile High Jinx pint glasses at a discount.

When you visit the brewery you pay $10. That money gets you three tasting tokens, a tour, and either one Foolproof pint glass or two High Jinx pint glasses to walk away with. Otherwise, pay and extra $2 and you may take home a beautiful Foolproof-branded tulip glass (I’m a sucker for tulip glasses so guess which option I took).

Your three tasting tokens can be used towards any of their three flagship beers, or a specialty beer they happen to have recently bottled. During our visit, the specialty beers were a farmhouse saison, and a Russian imperial stout. If you go with someone, play it smart and use your tokens so that both you and your friend/spouse can try all the beers available and share each other’s samples. Don’t worry, samples sizes at Foolproof are generous and easy to share.

The flagship beers that match the previously mentioned life experiences are “Backyahd” (IPA), “Raincloud” (porter), and “Barstool” (golden/blonde ale). Use your marbles to figure out which beer serves which experience.
The Backyard IPA (no typo – I refuse to use the idiotic accent-based spelling going forward) will not wow you. It’s another run-of-the-mill east coast style IPA with prominent bitterness, earthy hop aggression, mild citrus hop notes, and heavy carbonation. It's satisfactory, but doesn't fit our tastes for an IPA to seek out. 
Barstool is a 4.5% ABV session ale with no errors that’s easy to throw back. Its flavor won’t turn heads. Mild on all fronts, it fits warm weather well and can easily satisfy the general public. 

I had high hopes for the Raincloud porter because I read a handful of positive remarks from fellow beer geeks. It draws good ratings among beer fans, so if you like porters, stouts, and other malt-heavy styles, give it a shot. I found it a bit thin, soapy, and lacking that comfort that a good porter provide. But I’ve learned to never write off a beer until I've had it twice, for multiple reasons. So I still look forward to trying Raincloud again.

The saison/farmhouse ale we tasted is called La Ferme Urbaine (meaning “the urban farm”). If you shy away from French pronunciations (me too), you can simply ask for “the saison” and avoid embarrassment. This beer was the highlight of our tasting. Although it uses mainly German hops and grains, the flavor matches the Belgian saison style well. It’s hazy, with notes of banana, pepper, lemon, and it finishes very dry (as a saison should).

Our last pour was “Reverie,” a Russian imperial stout. We thought it was decent, yet not as assertive as we like our RIS’s. It was oddly non-filling and easier to drink than a typical RIS. Theoretically, a beer’s drinkability score should never be dinged for being too easy to drink. But as many fans of Russian imperial stouts will say, the style is most fun when big, bold, and complex. Reverie tasted neither big or bold, and its flavor depth was a touch shallow. With that said, it was well balanced, tasty enough, and nicely approachable for the style. If Reverie was available at an economical cost in 6 packs, I’d say it’s an excellent weeknight RIS, but as it’s only available in uneconomical 22oz. bottles, its competition on the shelf is far stronger and I would be hard pressed to reach for this one over other 22 oz. options.

The tour itself is not a quick pass through the brewing area. It’s one hour long. Your tour guide explains the brand’s story, the history for each style they brew, and every step of the brewing process. But it’s not a tedious hour, the guides show clear passion for what they do and are genuinely excited to inform you.

Their flagship beers are packaged in cans and available in six-packs. I quite like their designs, frankly. Your tour guide will go into detail as to why they favor cans over bottles. As you may or may not already know, cans are great for blocking beer’s enemies (sunlight and oxygen), and obviously don’t break like glass when dropped.

Despite our belief that Foolproof’s beers generally won’t wow people, they’re all agreeable and have their place. I would never turn one down if offered by a friend, even if because I unabashedly love the can artwork.

A visit is recommended if you have time to kill in Pawtucket. The tasting room is modern and friendly. Parking is easy. And despite having to pay $10, your money goes a long way at Foolproof. Just be smarter than we were, visit when it’s not so hot out that you could sauté quahogs on your car’s hood. 

Foolproof Brewing Company
241 Grotto Ave
Pawtucket, RI, 02860
(401) 721-5970


Saturdays at 1:00, 2:00, 3:00, and 4:00 p.m. (with the exception of major holiday weekends and severe weather). Tours are limited to the first 25 people.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Brewery Tour #20 - Mystic Brewery

Our last trip brought us to the bowels of Everett MA, visiting the creative suds from Night Shift Brewing, and the Belgian-inspired offerings from Idle Hands Craft Ales. If you’re apprehensive to visit that creepy area, there’s now another reason to go. Just 5 minutes away, in Chelsea, Mystic Brewing opened their doors to the public this past winter. Suddenly, within a 5 mile radius, you now have a mini beer tour at your fingertips.

Despite only recently opening their brewery’s doors to the public, Mystic has been selling beer close to two years now. Well, “brewery” isn’t the best word. Because there isn’t one on site. What they have is best referred to as a fermentorium. They brew wort (the first stage of brewing) offsite at another location, then truck it back to their abode in Chelsea to ferment, blend, and so on.

Centuries ago, brewers fermented beer by letting liquid from strained grains sit in barrels and open vats because there was a “mystical” ingredient, invisible to the naked eye, which magically brought the liquid to life. Commonly known today as yeast, it is this mystical ingredient – not the nearby river – that drives the meaning behind Mystic Brewery’s name. And yeast is also what makes the brewers at Mystic giddy.

You see, owners Bryan Greenhagen and his wife, Emily are both MIT-trained fermentation scientists. Isolating, cultivating, propagating, and otherwise toying with yeast strains is their passion. They’ll isolate a yeast strain from local plums, cranberries, blueberries from Maine, or from the surrounding air and land.

How’s it working for them? After tasting our fair share of their concoctions at the brewery, I’d say swimmingly. And “swimming” is also the appropriate word to describe how we felt as we left the brewery. The samples they provide are some of the most generous we’ve come across. Many seem well over the usual two ounces. And at our time of visit, they had approximately nine beers for sampling, most of which hover at or above 7% ABV. Be sure you have some food in your belly before you go. We didn’t, and it made the situation a bit funny.

As for the beers, Mysitc primarily makes saisons. And you’ll notice an assuring level of consistency across all of them. At the time of our visit, four out of the nine beers were saisons. A fifth saison was listed but had recently run dry. Two of the nine beers are “brewery-only” and not sold in stores. Those two available to us were both low-ABV session beers; one a “table” saison, and the other a “half IPA”. Both competed for top highlights of our visit.

The other beers consisted of “Three Cranes”, a cranberry saison; “An Dreoilin”, a winter saison; “Vinland One”, a tart wild ale using native yeast; “Saison Renaud”, their flagship pilsner-based saison; “Descendant”, a Belgian-style porter with molasses; “Lord Falconer”, an oatmeal stout; and “Day of Doom,” a 12% Belgian quad. 

The only misstep for my tastes was Day of Doom, as it lacked the necessary complexity expected in authentic Belgian quads. However, given that only one of the nine beers disappointed me is a testament to the consistent quality Mystic offers.

A tasting flight here is free. But, on Saturday at 1:00pm, pay just $6 and get: 1) a beautiful Mystic-branded goblet to take home, 2) a tour of the facility 3) a guided tour of the beers on tap and, 4) a contribution to local charities.

Mystic’s tasting room is one of the coolest tasting rooms around. It’s large and simple, but with a beautiful rustic look. Many elements are made of repurposed wood from a nearby scrap yard. The old world abbey-like wall tapestries, and the doors that look as if they came off the set of Lord of the Rings all add to the room’s coolness factor. Top it off with ample parking right on site and a vibe that practically invites you to hang out. Mystic Brewery is a must visit.

Mystic Brewery
174 Williams St.
Chelsea, Massachusetts, 02150
phone: (617) 800-9023

Tasting Room hours with free tasting flights:
Thursday 3:00 - 7:00 PM
Fridays 3:00 PM - 7:00 PM
Saturdays 12:00 PM - 4:00 PM