BOSTON – For those looking for examples of the craft beer industry’s record growth, they need look no further than Western Massachusetts.
While the Pioneer Valley has long been filled with supporters of the trade, within the past few years, there has been an explosion of activity when it comes to production of craft beer, something that has brewers and drinkers alike excited.
“The craft beer culture has definitely been expanding,” said Josh Gravel, assistant brewer for Iron Duke Brewing Company, which opened in an old stockhouse at the Ludlow Mills on Thanksgiving eve 2014. “Especially in Western Massachusetts there have been a lot of breweries opening up in the past year, year and a half and a handful are still under construction, so it’s definitely a big boon for craft beer and a big boon for Western Massachusetts as well.”
Iron Duke was one of several fledgling breweries that established a strong foothold in Western Massachusetts and were looking to magnify their exposure at the American Craft Beer Fest, the East Coast’s largest such event, hosted by the Seaport World Trade Center May 29 and 30.
“We don’t have any real Eastern Massachusetts presence, so a thing like this is a great in helping us promote our products out here,” Matt Tarlecki, the owner and head brewer of Easthampton’s Abandoned Building Brewery, said, further explaining his products are currently available exclusively in the Pioneer Valley. “We’re expanding our bottling operation right now, so we may start going out to the Boston area or Cambridge or Worcester, but for now, it’s 100 percent in the Valley.”
Elbow to elbow with experienced and established breweries from throughout the East Coast, as well as Colorado, Utah and California, among others, local brewers relished the opportunity to reach a new audience, while also sharing new beers with those already familiar with some of their offerings.
“It’s really exciting to be here in Boston. I’m guessing most of the people here have never heard of us, so it’s kind of fun,” Mike Yates, brewmaster of Springfield’s White Lion Brewing Company. “I’m excited to start throwing it down.”
In addition to its three flagship beers – the Pale Ale, Twisted Tale Cream Ale, and Insane Mane Red Ale – White Lion introduced its summer session India pale ale, feroCITY, which was first tapped on May 21 at The Student Prince. FeroCITY is only available on tap.
“We just wanted to keep things fresh. We have three staples already and we just thought we’d throw something out there for the summer and a draft-only was a way to do that without a lot of capital expenditure,” Yates said. “It’s a beer I’ve wanted to make for a long time [and] it’s a beer I love to drink. It’s 4.7 percent, super dry, super crushable, really citrusy. I love the beer. It’s just a great, super light summer beer.”
Iron Duke also took the opportunity to roll out some of its newer products, including the Rusty Horseshoe Saison. Saisons, originally brewed in European farmhouses in the winter for drinking in summer months with a dry, spiced profile, have had a resurgence in popularity as the craft beer movement has evolved from its early days of obsession with heavily hopped ales.
“It’s somewhat spicy with spicy hops, so it really gives you that old school saison feel to it instead of being sort of a sweet saison,” Gravel said. “Three out of four people are ordering that rather than the [Dead Nuts] IPA, which is really good to see.”
While only open a few months, Iron Duke has had a steady stream of new beers, also pouring the brand new Wendy Peffercorn White Rye – named after the sultry lifeguard who was the object of Squints’ affections in the movie “The Sandlot” – at the beer fest.
Gravel explained the company has attempted to find something that will appeal to any beer drinker.
“It’s a little bit of a give and take in a way. You’ve got to have the crowd-pleasers. You’ve got to have something for everybody,” he said. “We have lower alcohol beers for those who want to have a session of beers, then we have the Truss, which is an 8.5 percent barley lager, which is for those who want to have a beer for an hour and sip on it.”
Abandoned Building has also been steadily increasing its offerings as a result of a strong response to its year and three month existence and now has developed a rotation that includes at least one seasonal beer, Tarlecki said. He added the company has found success in barrel aging many of its beers.
“We have a couple of bourbon-aged beers and have used rum or whiskey barrels to age a stout and this weekend in bottles we’re featuring our Beglian Quadrupel, which was aged in a Jim Beam whiskey barrel,” he said. “We really enjoy the experimentation with the barreling and people have really responded to that in a positive way.”
Meanwhile, the monks of St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, shedding their traditional robes for street clothes, continued their efforts to spread the word about the singular product from Spencer Brewery, the country’s first Trappist brewery, which was constructed to help the community sustain itself.
“We’ve really had a great response in Massachusetts,” Father Isaac, brewery director, said. “We’re really grateful to both our group of five distributers and especially to the people of Massachusetts who have really given it a warm welcome.”
For most of the breweries in the building, a strong web presence, social media and word of mouth are “the three biggest things that we do for advertising,” Tarlecki said. However, Father Isaac admitted there have been some unique challenges associated with being the first to offer an American-made Trappist product.
“We’ve learned the beer is newer than we think of it, so even our professional staff are adjusting to the qualities of the beer, so the educational piece has been significantly more challenging than we anticipated,” he said.
Father Isaac explained the media has been a major driver for the educational piece of its marketing, including a recent story and YouTube video produced by Catholic News Service. The brewery also plans to make changes to its label in order to be more informative.
“In addition to the story, we’re going to talk about the product, serving, storage, yeast, refermentation,” he said. “You’ll have a little seminar on our beer right on the back of the bottles.”
While Spencer Brewery has a brand new modern facility, Iron Duke and Abandoned Building represented a trend in Western Massachusetts of finding unique opportunities in former mill buildings.
“It’s a little bit of both. It’s sort of a disadvantage because it’s an old mill, it’s a little tricky to find us – we’re not right on the street – but there’s a big public works project underway that’s going to make it easier for us to be found,” Tarlecki said. “We’re right of the Manhan Rail Trail, so we get a lot of bikers that come in, so that’s a big plus for us.”
Iron Duke will eventually see similar foot traffic when the riverwalk project underway in Ludlow is completed.
White Lion, however, continues its brewing operations in Ispwich through a contract brewing agreement with Mercury Brewing Company where Ipswich Ale and Clown Shoes are also brewed.
“I couldn’t do it better myself. They’re doing great work for us,” Yates, who travels east to brew once a month, said.
The company does still plan to do it itself with a brick and mortar facility in the city.
“We’re just waiting for the right place. [White Lion President] Ray [Berry] is working with a couple different people to find the right location and the right package that fits us for the short term and the long term. We don’t want to jump into it. Everything is very planned. Ray is a very calculating and very dedicated partner. I’m a little more or a jump in guy, but he makes sure we’re going to do it right,” Yates said.
“The contract [with Mercury] allows us to sort of prime the pump to get to a certain level so that when we build a brewery, we don’t have to outgrow it and build another one,” he continued. “We can build a brewery that’s going to kick ass in downtown Springfield for a few years.”