Singin’ the Brews

Composing a Craft Beer

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The Big Elm Family: Bill, Tobi, Agnes and Christine

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The Wandering Stars: Andrew, Shannon, Alex and Chris

For Christine and Bill Heaton, their 413 Farmhouse Ale—its namesake a nod to Berkshire County’s area code—embodies the philosophy of their Sheffield brewery, Big Elm Brewing: carving a foothold as a small, local business. It’s flavored with honey from Bear Meadow Apiary in Ashfield; pink peppercorns, imported from Brazil and procured at HimalaSalt in Sheffield; chamomile from a neighbor in Sheffield; and lemon peel from Atlantic Spice on the Cape. In the fall, they will use locally grown hops, and they are working on procuring local malt from Valley Malt in Hadley.

Meanwhile, Big Elm beers’ main ingredient—water—is, of course, local and responsible for the dominant flavor profile; rich in minerals and slightly hard, Sheffield’s water accentuates the hops character of the beer.

Big Elm’s commitment to localism goes beyond its ingredients. The brewery’s byproducts go to local farms for compost or feed and its distribution is concentrated in package shops from Sheffield to Williamstown. “Beer should be consumed fresh,” says Bill Heaton. “It’s not meant to travel far.”

There are also the local partnerships. For example, Big Elm partnered with Route 7 Grill in Great Barrington to create Route 7 Rauchbier; Route 7 smoked Big Elm’s barley in its hickory smoker and then Big Elm added local maple syrup and hops. Lion’s Ale, an English-style amber pub ale, was brewed for the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge.

The Heatons are part of a nationwide upsurge in craft brewers, many of whom draw their inspiration from local fare. The Berkshires are benefiting from this trend, with Big Elm and others leading the charge. For an area so steeped in art and cultural offerings and food, “adding beer is just another way to make the Berkshires more attractive,” says Colleen Nixon, who along with friend Lynn Wallace is co-founder of Berkshire Brewing Heritage, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the craft of brewing and good beer. Four years ago, BBH took over Berktoberfest from the Heatons when they sold Pittsfield Brew Works. This October they will host the sixth annual event in downtown Pittsfield, featuring close to two dozen New England breweries.

Berkshire Brewing Company CEO and president Gary Bogoff, who sits on the board of directors of the Massachusetts Brewers Guild, has witnessed firsthand the transformation of the brewing industry over his nearly two decades in business. In 1994, there were fewer than a dozen of breweries and brewpubs in the state and now there are close to 50, with more slated to open. Nationwide, there were 700, compared to close to 2,500.

“Quite a brewing revolution has been taking place over last 20-some-odd years,” he says. Craft beer, in particular, has become more popular, with the first generation of beer drinkers coming of age whose parents had craft beer in their refrigerators.

Between 1990 and 1995, there was a big growth spurt in breweries nationwide, Bogoff notes, followed by a decline from 1996 to 2000. Now, things are on the upswing again.

“In the ’90s, there was an assumption that anything that was a craft beer was a good beer and that was not necessarily true so there was a big falling out as people started to realize not all craft beer is good beer,” says Bogoff. “As time has gone by, the art of brewing has improved. There are a lot more knowledgeable people making better beer.”

Bill Heaton of Big Elm would agree. The difference this time around, he says, is that “everyone coming to the table is making good beer” instead of viewing brewing solely as a moneymaking enterprise.

Heaton was involved in the craft industry in the mid-’90s and then watched it go bust in the late-’90s. He’s also been squarely placed at the center of its resurgence. He met his wife, Christine, at Victory Brewing Company in Pennsylvania, where they had both landed jobs in their beer career trajectories. In 2005, they opened Pittsfield Brew Works, a brewpub and restaurant, but found they didn’t have enough time to devote to their primary passion: making beer. So they sold the business and pursued a brewery of their own.

Big Elm opened for business in October 2012 and has stayed on the cutting edge, not only in brewing but packaging: They recently introduced cans as part of their packaging, a testament to retro packaging comeback of sorts.

Indeed, for many like the Heatons, brewing is a second career— Bill has a background in photography and Christine in chemistry and humanitarian work—that often marks the formalizing of an interest that had been in the making for many years.

“Now people are taking the chance because it’s a growing industry. In the last 15 to 20 years, craft beer has just exploded. It’s one of the few industries that keeps growing,” says BBH’s Wallace.

Chris Post, owner and brewer at Wandering Star Craft Brewery in Pittsfield, left a career as an investment banker to brew beer. The journey began one day on the Wall Street trading floor in 2004. Jaded by his job, Post surfed eBay looking for home brewing equipment and found the contents of a Michigan brewpub that had gone belly up being sold for an astonishingly low price.

“Suddenly, I had a brewery. It had only been brewed on 17 times. I honestly had no concrete plans for what I was going to do with this stuff,” says Post, whose brewery sells kegs and growlers. Seven years, a brewing school course and a brewery internship and job later, Post opened Wandering Star with Chris Cuzme and Alex Hall; all three met through New York City’s craft beer scene.

“I just love working with real quality ingredients and making the best beer we possibly can,” says Post. “It’s an incredibly old and historied craft we practice. There’s such a wealth of knowledge and tradition. We’re trying to make our own spin on classic beer.”

There’s Horatio, an American IPA, made with UK Maris Otter malt and New Zealand Nelson Sauvin hops, and brewed with added minerals to accentuate the roundness and minerality. Then there’s a local Berkshire Hills 01201, a Belgian Saison featuring pilsner and wheat malts from Hadley’s Valley Malts and local unmalted wheat and spelt. This harvest beer is brewed once a year, at the end of the summer.

Post was making Berkshire brewing connections even before he set up shop here. While he ran a home brewers competition in New York, Bert Holdredge, a bartender at Moe’s Tavern in Lee, won the 2011 brewers choice award for his stout recipe. Wandering Star slightly modified Holdredge’s original recipe and coined it Bert’s Disqualified Imperial Stout (the brew was disqualified from the New York competition because he forgot to remove a label from a bottle), an ink-black, strong beer with hints of smokiness.

Andrew Mankin, who started off as a home brewer in college, began dreaming of opening a brewpub following an apprenticeship at Vaux Brewery in England in 1989. But the timing wasn’t right until he met Gary Happ, who was selling his half of 20 Railroad in Great Barrington. The two got together and opened Barrington Brewery and Restaurant in 1995, planting one of the Berkshires’ first stakes in the craft brew industry.

“Since the beginning, we’ve only sold beer we make here,” says Mankin.

And since the beginning, Barrington Brewery has been growing hops outside the pub, enough to make two to three batches of beer a year (accounting for less than 5% of the yearly yield). The other hops used in Barrington’s beers are also sourced locally: from Pittsfield and Connecticut.

In the nearly 20 years since the brewery opened its doors, there’s been a palate shift on the part of consumers.

“Beer tastes have changed since we opened,” Mankin observes. “They’ve gotten more sophisticated. Darker beers are selling a lot quicker than they used to …. It used to take a long time to sell a batch of porter. Now it goes really fast.”

As the craft brew industry evolves in the Berkshires, the local brewers seem pleased for the company. For Mankin, a little competition can be a good thing, especially for the effect it will have on exposing consumers to craft beer.

“The more good beer that’s out there, the better it’s going to be for everyone in the industry,” he says. “I think it will only help make people more aware of local beer.”

Wandering Star’s Post is pleased to be situated in what he calls a “great brewing community,” ranging from home and commercial brewers to bar owners who take beer seriously. Still, he says there’s plenty of room for growth.

“The Berkshires are remarkably underdeveloped in terms of the craft beer population,” he says, noting he doesn’t think it will be long before that landscape changes.

To Heaton, the influx has bred a nice camaraderie.

“Craft beer is just an amazing industry in the Berkshires,” says Heaton. “You can call someone down the road about a piece of equipment. When you’re trying to tweak a recipe, you can call or email around the county. It’s a good, close-knit environment and everyone wants to help everyone out. There is competition but friendly competition. That’s just the way it is. At the end of the day, we all sit around and drink beer.”

Lesley Mahoney is a Boston-based editor and writer whose nonfiction has appeared in various local publications including Edible Boston, South Shore Living, Cape Cod Magazine, and Jamaica Plain Patch. She works in higher education, following a 10-year run in the newspaper business.

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