SPRINGFIELD – On a warm, sunny afternoon the inaugural ValleyFest drew more than 1,500 beer drinkers and brewers to the center of Springfield to celebrate craft beer.
The event, hosted by Springfield’s White Lion Brewing Company, was the first of its kind at Court Square and went through approximately 1,380 souvenir tasting glasses with which fest-goers could sample the more than 50 local, regional, national and even international brands.
“This is tremendously exciting,” White Lion Master Brewer Mike Yates said. “We had a lot of presale tickets, so we knew it was going to be a good crowd, but the weather is perfect and it’s a big, big day for a lot of good brewers.”
As the craft beer industry continues to reach new heights in the Pioneer Valley, events like Valley Fest have proven critical for the many new breweries that have popped up and developed strong local followings, but wish to branch out further into Western Massachusetts.
“This is huge because there’s three times as many people down here as there are in Hampshire County, so getting into the population and turning them on to craft beer is totally important,” said Sam Dribble, master brewer of New City Brewery, which just recently opened its tap room in Easthampton. “There’s a lot of room to grow down here and a lot of thirsty people.”
For some, however, the day represented more than a chance to talk about and taste good beer; it symbolized an annual opportunity to bring positivity to the city of Springfield.
“It’s a sign of the city’s revitalization and craft beer is helping fuel that,” Yates said.
Michael Marcoux of Ludlow’s Iron Duke Brewing, a Springfield native, concurred.
“For me, born and raised in Springfield, to be able to come down here and do an event like this, and for us, who are just over the bridge in Ludlow, it’s just awesome,” he said.
Each brewer at the brew fest was asked to showcase two of their offerings. White Lion led the way with their popular Insane Mane red ale and the feroCITY session IPA.
“We were going to do the pale and the red, but the session has been such a big hit for us, we thought we’d round out the summer by pouring that,” Yates said.
Unlike other beers that are distributed in stores, feroCITY was only made available on draft this summer, but that didn’t deter its popularity. Rather, the success of the beer has spawned something larger.
“We had such success with the session we’re going to do an IPA series in which each quarter we’re going to release a different type,” Yates explained, adding a double IPA would be released this winter.
Iron Duke followed suit in bringing an old favorite and a popular new beer brewed at its facility in Stockhouse 122 at the Ludlow Mills. From the small space behind the massive building on State Street, the brewery’s popularity has grown exponentially.
“Every weekend it blows our mind. It really has exceeded expectations,” Marcoux said.
The flagship Baby Maker, a flavorful Irish porter, with a sweet malt profile and roasty finish, was “the one that put us on the map,” he noted.
“Dark beer is never something you think can be your flagship, but every week, it’s really the first thing everybody asks for,” he said.
Along with the Baby Maker, the Juneau, a unique pale ale brewed with local spruce tips picked at the end of winter. Marcoux called this year’s batch “one of our most special beers” because at after picking the spruce tips, it was discovered they would only be able to brew 300 gallons with the amount they gathered. After a public appeal on social media appeared to come up empty, the brewers found a surprise at their door.
“All of a sudden a lady walked in with four large Ziploc bags,” Marcous said. “She had brought us over 10 pounds of spruce tips.”
Since then the beer has been a best seller at the brewery and demand has only increased.
“We get phone calls all the time from stores saying, ‘I want to carry your beer and I want to carry Juneau,’” Marcoux said.
New City was another operation at the beer fest taking advantage of abandoned mill space is located north in the suddenly crowded Easthampton brewery scene.
“Easthampton had really amazing industrial space that needed to be occupied,” Dribble said. “It had been abandoned for a long time, so rents were really reasonable and the landlords were very excited to have something like a brewery come in that’s really productive.”
Dribble added Easthampton had recently won a gold medal for best tasting water – “the primary ingredient in our products” – and an extremely supportive and creative local population, which made it very appealing.
Separating it from other local breweries is the fact that it specializes in alcoholic ginger beer, which Dribble described as being like a hard ginger ale.
“It makes a great mixer, it’s great on its own, it’s refreshing in the summer, keeps you warm in the winter,” he said. “We’re one of five companies in the country that make them and we like to think ours is the best.”
Along with the ginger beer, the brewery’s new tap room offers six other beers available in flights, with the menu rotating regularly.
“I get bored if I brew the same thing all the time, so there’s usually something new,” Dibble said.
An old staple of Western Massachusetts craft beer, Amherst Brewing Company (ABC), was also sampling something new at Valley Fest with its Jess IPA, which features a strong mosaic hop profile and has been available for about five months.
While ABC has diversified its offerings with other styles, including its pumpkin ale, made with real pumpkin and also offered at Valley Fest, the IPA remains the most consistent crowd-pleaser, according to Assistant Brewer Shaun St. Clair.
“The IPA style for us is still the dominant style. We sell more of this than we do any of our other styles,” he said.
While well established in beer circles, ABC is undergoing some changes of its own. Owner John Korpita recently decided it was time to retire, at which point Harold Tramazzo of The Hangar and Wings Over fame, offered to purchase the company.
“Basically, there has been a merging of the two brands,” St. Clair said.
While The Hangar has taken over the dining room and bar area, ABC is still brewing beer on site.
“We’ll continue making beer there. We’re actually in the process of making a brewery where you can come into a tap room for tastings,” St. Clair said. “We’ll have a beer wall where you’ll be able to get your own beers and sample and mix and we’ll have fresh growler fills.”
The rapid expansion of craft beer in America hasn’t gone unnoticed in other parts of the world, as evidenced by the presence of Belgian Master Beer Sommelier Marc Stroobandt, representing Stella Artois.
He said the concept that the best beer in the world comes from Europe no longer applies.
“Actually, you guys are taking over,” he said. “It’s something phenomenal that’s happening. The European brewers inspired the craft beer movement over here. You guys took it on and are making better copies of classic styles, but because you’re entrepreneurs, you’re taking it a bit further and you’re now inspiring the European brewers.
“A change is happening over there,” he continued. “For example, hops are being used differently. We use hops in beer to balance it; you guys use hops to stand out, so what’s happening now is hops are being used now for flavor in Europe.”
At Valley Fest, Stroobandt performing what he called “a food and beer magic show,” illustrating how beer and types of food, ranging from cheese to chocolate to hot sauce pair together.
With craft brewers incorporating new ingredients into beer, it has “opened up a whole new category of possibilities” for pairing beer and food, he added.
“There’s so much more you can play with,” he said.