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Worcester Magazine

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Cheers! Craft beer is here to stay

Beer. It’s an evocative four-letter word. In recent years, its association has transformed from lawnmower 30-packs and raging collegiate keggers into a narrative of complexity, region and passion.

People do not necessarily think of Milwaukee or an ice-cold longneck anymore when they hear the b- word, instead, the brewpub down the street or the amiable brewer who fills your growler at the source might come to mind. Craft beer is no longer the realm of hobbyists and geeks, it is an integral element of American drinking culture and its popularity has exploded in the past several years.

It seems new breweries are popping up every day and brewers all over the country are getting increasingly creative in search of their own niche in the market. And while Central Massachusetts might not have the legendary beer-mecca status of Colorado or San Diego, the 2010s have been kind to craft beer lovers in the area thus far. It’s easy to get the feeling that it’s only the beginning.

PART OF THE COMMUNITY

Alec Lopez, owner of Worcester’s Dive Bar and Armsby Abbey, says that a decade ago, access to craft beer in Worcester was nonexistent, though the movement was beginning to sweep the country.

“At the beginning times that we were doing this, craft beer was trending up anyway. We just happened to sneak in right ahead of the curve, so we had all the momentum in the world around us and in the marketplace, so it wasn’t such a foreign object. It was kind of being pushed nationally and worldwide at that point, so it was almost like riding a wave.”

Both the Dive Bar and Armsby Abbey serve as galleries for rare and high-quality brews and Lopez brought it all to Worcester after traveling to beer festivals in Europe and developing relationships with brewers and distributors. Making a unique drinking experience available to people in the area is the foundation of what both places do, and Lopez credits his success to a no-compromise approach to selling the world’s greatest beers. After the success of the Dive Bar, Lopez took things one step further. “Armsby was born out of the need to put what we had created at the Dive into a better surrounding and have food and just push it further,” he says. Armsby Abbey now features a brand new kitchen and an expanded dining room, as of the first week of December. “We’re growing like crazy right now,” says Lopez.

Lopez isn’t the only one in town experiencing the need to grow. Ben Roesch, founder and master brewer of Wormtown Brewery, has been brewing professionally since 2001 and opened Wormtown in 2010. The demand for his beer was immediate. “We would have built it bigger if we had seen it coming, but it really outstripped our wildest imaginations of what we could do,” he says. The brewery is about to relocate to a much bigger space at 72 Shrewsbury St., in the old Buick building that houses Volturno, Sweet, The Hidden Jewel and Worcester Magazine. “We needed a bigger spot in order to make more beer, is really the short of it,” says Roesch. The move will allow the brewery to offer tours and a tasting room.

Beer tourism is something that Roesch would like to bring to Central Massachusetts. He notes that with the economy still creating problems for many, people are not as willing to drop their savings on a week in the Caribbean, but a day trip to the local brewery might be an affordable and enlightening adventure. “Going to the brewery is a cool way to get out for the day or the afternoon and check out something different, see how something is made locally,” he says, adding that before he was a professional brewer, he would always seek out local breweries while on vacation. “Beer is an affordable luxury,” he says.

A tasting room on the premises allows drinkers to experience beer right at the source, but it can also give the brewers an easy test audience. Cedric Daniel, co-owner of Rapscallion Brewery in Fiskdale, says tastings are a great addition to the brewery experience.

Located at Hyland Orchard, Rapscallion offers tours and tastings every weekend and also operates the tap room on weekday evenings Tuesday through Friday. “We are able to ‘test’ beers out in the tap room before we decide to make them public,” says Daniel. “We are also able to be more creative and free with our brewing, with very small batches for the tap room – as we know our regulars and visitors are more apt to try different recipes right from the sources, versus at restaurants and bars out and about.”

This accessibility is huge. Like most craftspeople, brewers are always eager to talk about their work and for the curious and adventurous drinker, it’s easy to get your questions answered. “I think that’s definitely been one of the keys to us growing so quickly,” says Roesch. “I mean, you call, you get me on the phone. I’m answering the phone. You walk in the door and want to talk to me, there’s not like eight people you have to go through, half the time it’s me there. I don’t see that changing too much and I think that’s a real positive thing. I think it kind of resonates with people, especially when we’re talking about being part of the community.

A THIRST FOR FREEDOM

One attraction to craft beer and its consumption and production is that it lends itself to independence. There’s a certain amount of freedom to be had with a variety of choices, and certainly a bit of adventure to be found in the abundant selections available to consumers. Jonathan Cook, author of “Beer Terrain,” a new book that details the use of locally-sourced ingredients in Massachusetts brewing, places a lot of weight on personal choice. “It’s people doing what they want to do,” he says, speaking of hop farmers and breweries like Wormtown. “The way they do things is their own. They’re their own bosses and they do it according to their own conscience.”

Cook, a longtime brewer and beer aficionado, is driven by a desire for discovery. “I’m just naturally curious, and being a homebrewer I’m very curious about what’s in beer,” he says. “Brewpubs and tasting rooms in breweries… those are my favorite places in the world because they know so much about it and you can see how it’s made.”

And when it comes to how it’s made, there are the basics and then there are the flourishes, which can be unexpected and sometimes downright surprising. Water and malt form the backbone of any beer, and hops are important to the flavor, smell and level of bitterness, but many people are not content to stop there. It is this intrinsic curiosity and need for adventure that lures people to craft beer and keeps them drinking it. Brewers are no different. For Roesch, one such impromptu detour began when he saw a bizarre fruit in his mother-in-law’s house.

“She had a Buddha’s hand in her fruit basket, it’s a lemony-looking fruit in the citrus family with little fingers on it. I was asking about it – I’d never seen one before – and she was telling me about how there’s no fruit in there, it’s just all pit and zest and you cut it up and use it in a salad or steep it in hot water in tea, and I was just thinking, ‘man, that would go great in so many different beers that I already make. A citrus would complement something that already had citrus flavors from American hops.’” Last year the brewery produced two batches of Buddha’s Juice, a double IPA brewed with Buddha’s hand and grapefruit peel, and they plan to do it again this year.

Rail Trail Flatbread Company Bar Manager Rui Silva agrees with the need for adventure, and accordingly, rotates the taps at the Hudson restaurant and bar as often as possible, sometimes daily. He says it’s all about trying something new and he strives to make this part of the experience. “When someone comes in here and they say, ‘I’ve never seen any of these beers before,’ it’s the best. That’s what we’re going for,” Silva says. “We get really excited because now we can introduce you to something new. We like being that place where it kind of challenges and introduces new flavors at the same time.”

Cook, a dedicated homebrewer, credits happenstance and experimentation with broadening his palate, and for him, this is part of the attraction to drinking beer. “I drink beer because I love the flavor, but my taste buds change, so I tend to do a little bit of experimenting sometimes with brewing. For example, I made a beer with lavender because I had extra lavender that year. This late summer I harvested a huge crop of hops, so I brewed with heavy doses of hops. Prior to that, I’d never been a giant IPA fan, I’d enjoyed maltier beers. But as a homebrewer, it really got me acclimated to that huge flavor and lately, I’ve been buying nothing but IPAs.”

DO IT YOURSELF

It is this desire for experimentation and adventure that is bringing more and more people to the world of homebrewing. For many, homebrewing is the logical next step in their own explorations of beer, and for aspiring beer wizards in Worcester County, there’s no need to travel far.

The West Boylston Homebrew Emporium carries everything one needs to brew beer and a wide range of ingredients to make the possibilities seem literally endless. In business since 1999, the Homebrew Emporium caters to brewers old and new. “We have a diverse group of people that shop here,” says Manager Patrick Gouin. “There’s still the ‘old-school’ brewers that have been doing this for decades now and who helped pave the way, but there’s plenty of young people deeply interested in the hobby, myself included.”

M4: Mid-Mass Malt Masters is a homebrew club that the store started in March of this year. Open to anyone, the club meets monthly and has grown from three founding members to about 20 core members in just nine months, with a dozen more drifting in and out periodically.

“People get into homebrewing for a plethora of reasons,” says Gouin. “A lot of people just love craft beer and say ‘I can do that!’ Some treat it as a hobby, while others might be aspiring to start their own breweries someday. I think it’s safe to say that all of us enjoy doing it and sharing what we’ve made with others.”

Gouin sees a bright future for craft beer in Central Massachusetts. With so many breweries and beer bars appearing in the area over the last several years, he has seen a large departure from the macro lager beers that have dominated the landscape for so long. “There’s still plenty of room for growth in our area and I definitely see it coming,” he adds.

Gouin and the folks at the Emporium, like many others involved in the local beer industry, make an effort to give back to their community and to make beer a communal staple. The store raises money for the Worcester County Food Bank at least twice a year by holding brewing events. “For the American Homebrewers Association’s National Homebrew Day and Learn to Brew Day, we invite local brewers to set up in our parking lot and brew batches of beer,” he says. They provide batches of ingredients in exchange for a small cash or food donation.

Homebrewed beer and the people who make it can do a whole lot to form the beer landscape; it’s how many professional brewers get their start. Jim Koch, the founder of Sam Adams, and Sam Calagione, founder of Dogfish Head Brewing, are both titans in the American beer industry. Both started in their own kitchens, brewing five gallons at a time on the stovetop and fermenting in buckets.

In his seminal homebrewing book “The Joy of Homebrewing,” brew guru Charlie Papazian says, “Traditional beer styles go in and out of favor with consumers. When they are rediscovered, homebrewers tend to be their champions.” Gouin agrees with Papazian. “For example, a style such as Gose, which is an old German style of wheat beer with light spices and salt added, has been making a resurgence,” he says. “Most of the credit there is due to homebrewers.”

A PIECE OF MASS

In the past several years, the popularity of local foods, local ingredients and farm-to-table restaurants has exploded. The “buy local” sentiment is beyond trendy at this point and has become a commonplace mantra for small businesses and the people who support them. For some involved in the Central Massachusetts craft beer industry, it’s a no brainer and something of a mission statement, but for others, it isn’t so simple.

“You know, local doesn’t mean good, and I try to get people to understand that all the time,” says Lopez. “We have a lot of breweries in Massachusetts, but we have very few producing good beer, so if there is a local beer and it happens to be really good then yes, that’s as good as it gets for us. That’s what we really try to celebrate.”

Silva acknowledges the desire to support local breweries, citing both Jack’s Abbey in Framingham and Wormtown in Worcester as breweries they feature semi-regularly, but says limiting beer options to locally-produced suds can be detrimental. “At the end of the day, we just want really good beer,” he says. “I feel like sometimes having that pressure to be a place where you only carry local beers, while it’s great, sometimes it can hinder the experience. I think, why not put on a great beer, like a Firestone Union Jack from California? Why shouldn’t I be able to do that? I think that being tied down to just local beers does a disservice to the customer.”

Roesch, as a brewery owner, doesn’t have to decide whose beers to serve – they’re all his. And when there is access to locally-produced ingredients, he doesn’t think twice. In 2010, Valley Malt began malting barley grown in Western Mass., becoming the first malthouse east of the Mississippi. Roesch bought their entire first batch. “We opened up in early 2010, and all you could do at that point was use what I call typical, not-that-hard-to-get brewing ingredients that are local: pumpkin, blueberries, maple syrup, honey,” Roesch says. “It was a lot harder to get the more traditional brewing ingredients, barley, wheat, hops. The real component that was missing was the malting.”

In late 2010, Wormtown brewed their first batch of MassWhole Ale with grains and hops exclusively from within the state. “Once we were able to do that, we committed to putting one Mass.-grown ingredient in every beer we make,” says Roesch. Thus, Wormtown’s tagline, “A Piece of Mass in Every Glass.”

Roesch, echoing Silva’s sentiment, admits that the most important thing for consumers is, above all else, the quality of the beer. “You’re always going to have people that are concerned with supporting local businesses, especially other people that are involved in local businesses,” he says. “I think it’s a bonus for people who just like good beer, but it’s something that is important to me and Wormtown Brewery and I think the freshness of local ingredients adds to the quality of Wormtown Brewery beer.”

Daniel agrees that keeping the brewery sustainable and local is important to Rapscallion’s mission. The brewery even sources their tap handles from a Rhode Island company that makes them by hand, and further, gets the honey for their flagship ale, Honey, from a local honey farmer. “We are also draft-only and anticipate to can a few of our products, both vessels being as sustainable for the environment and community as possible,” Daniel adds.

TRADITIONS OLD AND NEW

Cook has lived and brewed in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, but asserts that Massachusetts stands out in its own way. He says that while many of the breweries in other parts of New England still adhere to an English style of brewing, brewers in Massachusetts are forging their own ground. “In Massachusetts, I think there’s been a little more creativity,” he says. “There’s this definitive Mass. sort of style; it’s very broad but it’s not pure English. It touches on a lot of things, and a lot of it is original to the brewers.”

Rapscallion, on the other hand, offers Harvard Lager, a beer that relies on a recipe from another time. The brewery acquired the Harvard Brewing brands, originally from Lowell and started in 1898, in a 2008 ownership transition. “We chose to brew some of their recipes to honor the tradition of brewing in the state,” says Daniel. “The lager is also a great tasting session beer (in layman’s terms: a beer you can drink a whole bunch of without getting completely sloshed) so we wanted to make this history in brewing available for craft drinkers.” At this point, Harvard Lager has been brewed and consumed at various times in three consecutive centuries.

The brewery’s flagship ale, Honey, is an extra pale ale made with local honey and Daniel semi-jokingly refers to it as their “transition beer.” “We bring it to family gatherings and convert our uncles who drink macros,” he laughs. Having something for everyone is important to the brewers at Rapscallion and though their line includes a very robust porter and a dark and bitter black IPA, they are not afraid to include lighter, more accessible beers. Daniel notes that simplicity can go a long way, as can a lack of pretension. “We’re all in this together,” he adds.

Jennifer Wright, general manager of Brew City in Worcester, has seen the range of people seeking craft brews explode firsthand and agrees that the importance of catering to everyone is paramount for a beer bar. “We have a huge client base, from students to people that have known this family for decades,” Wright says.

While noting that some of her regulars will never stray far from what they know and love, Wright says occasionally a hardcore macro drinker will give a microbrew a whirl. The two are not mutually exclusive, after all, and a wider variety of drinkers are warming the barstools these days. “We have a lot of regular loyal customers and some of them, all they want to drink is Coors Light,” she says. “That’s fine. We have that for you. But more and more, as craft beer gets bigger, there’s another huge market and generation that’s coming into beer. So many more women are drinking craft beer. Why not have something for everybody?”

As for craft beer’s popularity, Roesch attributes it to the way the current generation of drinkers has been raised, as well as the human tendency to identify with brands and regions.

“If you like West Coast beer, maybe you’re from the West Coast and you’re holding that torch while you’re out on the East Coast and vice versa,” Roesch says. “I think it has a lot to do with identity and I think also the generations of people that are coming up now that are starting to drink beer are exposed to their parents being craft beer drinkers. So now the kids that are younger than me, I’m 35, their parents were drinking Sam Adams, Sierra Nevada. It’s already part of their life, whereas that was a slow thing that was happening through the ’80s and ’90s, transitioning from imports to microbrews.”

BRINGING IT HOME

The variety and quality of craft beer is as variable as the day is long, and with the flavor of a new beer being as unpredictable as the availability of a rare one, the way people drink is evolving. “The mass market drinker will put down four to six factory beers in a pretty short amount of time and in our world, people are having two, maybe three in a very long, relaxed period of time,” says Lopez. “It feels like a higher level of socializing. [The beer] is such a huge conversation piece, especially when you’re dealing with such rarities that we are where they have tremendous backstories. It’s the experience of getting your hands on it, or how the beer was made.”

When planning Rail Trail Flatbread Co., the owners looked to the town’s history. According to Silva, the local library and town hall were as important as the tasting sessions in the research phase of the project. The restaurant is named for the rail line that was once an integral part of the town’s economy. “They picked that name to kind of symbolize what they were trying to do, which is bring something new into the town and to revitalize it a little bit and to get everybody on board,” he says. “We love to be able to support the town.”

“I grew up in and around Worcester, and it was a dream of mine to open up a brewery in Worcester,” says Roesch. When he started brewing professionally 12 years ago, he says he could already see the potential in the region, but Central Massachusetts had a giant hole in it. A few smaller breweries, including Main Street Brewing Company downtown, have come and gone in recent years, while a few breweries outside of Worcester, like Berkshire Brewing Company and Wachusett, have managed to carry the torch. As the second largest city in New England, Roesch says Worcester “deserves four or five breweries at a minimum. Look at Portland, Oregon. Look at some areas in New Hampshire or Vermont. I’m still waiting for the next two or three to open up along with us and really make Worcester a destination for some of that beer tourism, more than just us.”

On a recent Saturday afternoon in early December, in the 1940s-era farmhouse cellar at Hyland Orchard, Daniel pulls a sample of a new experiment straight from the fermenter. “It needs something,” he says with a grin. “We’re just not sure what.” On the other side of the Rapscallion cellar, small amounts of it sit in airlocked growlers, steeping in oak chips and other undisclosed elements. After several years of tenant and contract brewing, Rapscallion has found a home in the former digs of Pioneer Brewing, and Pioneer owner and brewer Todd Sullivan now shares space with Daniel and his crew, having switched to tenant brewer.

Through a swinging door, the taproom slowly fills with frozen disc golfers. Sullivan pulls himself a pint and ribs his buddies for their poor performance on the course. The bartender gives a little girl a juice box from the kids’ cooler, and a couple of dogs wander through the crowd. Glasses filled from the array of 14 taps, eight Rapscallion and six Pioneer quickly begin to cover the handful of wooden tables and Jon Short sets up in the corner and begins his familiar pick-and-stomp. It’s a down-home afternoon, and Daniel likes it that way. A test kitchen should be comfortable, after all, and he has a room full of willing subjects here. With everything from a tried-and-true (and evidently quite popular) Honey Ale to a porter that’s less than a month out of the gate, it’s almost hard to decide where to start.

“We don’t rely on this 100 percent, but it’s a nice plus,” says Daniel of the tap room, before leading a small group of people through the swinging door on an impromptu tour. Huge steins from the 150-member-strong mug club begin vacating the shelf in increasing numbers. Daniel returns, surveying the room with beer in hand. Rapscallion’s “transition beer” is going down surprisingly pleasantly, lacking the syrupy sweetness one might expect from a honey ale, instead offering a thorough afternoon crispness. According to Daniel, it’s all about getting people in the door and giving them something exciting to drink. And from the looks of the room, it’s working.