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A Year for Local Craft Beer

Area Man Drinks Beer reviews highlights from New England craft beer in 2012 and looks forward to trends for 2013.

By Mike Loconto
Area Man Drinks Beer blog
Twitter: @Neighbeers

Area Man Drinks Beer has been on a hiatus over the last month, with holiday cheer, family fun and travels taking up most of my time. Christmas brought the AMDB family to my hometown and the craft beer desert that is South Florida, and a New Year’s weekend wedding brought me to Seattle.

I have spent time in Chicago and New York during the past year too, and looking back in something of a review, I feel comfortably confident in declaring that there is no better place for a craft beer fan right now than New England.

Frequent readers will know that this blog focuses on local craft beer, with several the 44 current Massachusetts brewers featured (with more to come in the New Year) and scores more from Maine, Vermont, Connecticut and New Hampshire (Rhode Island – let’s pick it up in 2013, yes?).  While my travels have brought me to places with venerable brewers in their own right - the Brooklyn Brewery and the king of tallboys, Sixpoint, in New York; the India Pale Ale masters of the Pacific Northwest; and the burgeoning scene in the Midwest - the creativity and diversity in New England’s craft beer industry points to another year of superior achievement.

Let’s take a look at what stood out in local styles and ingredients over the past year, and what would be great to see more of in the year ahead.

Massachusetts is the Commonwealth of Saison

2012 was the year of the saison, particularly in Massachusetts. The saison, profiled in this December Area Man Drinks Beer article, is a farmhouse-style ale that originated in the French-speaking fields of Belgium. Typically a dry, floral blonde beer with hints of bitterness, saison is eminently hackable: and that is its appeal.

Virtually every local brewer seems to have a riff on the style, with some standout standard bearers in the Pretty Things Beer & Ale Project’s flagship Jack d’Or and the Notch Brewing Saison, and some nice nods to tradition in the High & Mighty Beer Pas de Dieux and Slumbrew Flower Envy. Chelsea’s Mystic Brewery has created several unique saisons in its first year, including the Vinland One using indigenous yeast harvested from a Massachusetts plum and the Three Cranes saison, brewed over local cranberries. And of course, 2012 saw the debut of the ONCEMADE series with two saisons from Night Shift Brewing and Backlash Beer: each brewed over raspberries and oak aged in red wine and brandy barrels.

Expect more riffs on the style this year, with hybrid styles leading the way: like Lowell’s Enlightenment Ales Illumination, a mash-up of IPA-level hopping on saison yeast. Enlightenment, helmed by former Cambridge Brewing Company employee Ben Howe, is one of Beer Advocate magazine’s brewers to watch this year for reasons like Illumination and the only domestically-produced Biere de Champagne.

Peppercorn: an uncommon condiment

The humble peppercorn. Utilitarian inhabitant of pepper mills across the land, an unlikely superstar in local brewing. As I began to think about some of my favorite beers from the last year, I tried to think about the binding themes (if any). Focusing on ingredients, three of the most unique beers I tasted in 2012 included the peppercorn, with three very different results. Hayride Autumn Ale from Baxter Brewing Company in Lewiston, Maine was the beer I had more often than any other last year. A rye ale, the spiciness that comes from rye malts was only amplified by peppercorn and subtle additions of ginger and orange peel. Rye malts are certainly on the rise throughout craft beer, but peppercorn put this brew over the top.

A totally different take, Cambridge Brewing Company’s Sgt. Pepper is a saison brewed on peppercorns. The result was a bitingly spiced brew that reminded me of the rind on a tuna tartare, making Sgt. Pepper an outstanding pairing for sushi or perhaps a grilled pork loin. Another saison, Rose from Night Shift Brewing, is brewed with rosemary, rosehips and honey and is finished on crushed pink peppercorns for some refined heat on the sweet, floral base created by the other ingredients. Peppercorn was a Massachusetts craft beer all-star in 2012.

Ich Bin Ein Berliner Weisse, or something

Craft beer has wrestled with the concept of “extreme” for several years now. Over the better part of the last decade, this concept has often led to higher and higher levels of alcohol content in the range of a port or sherry. Recently, however, the expansion of lower alcohol “sessionable” beers is evidence that many brewers’ concept of “extreme” is slowly shifting back toward the other end of the spectrum.

Further evidence of this shift is domestic brewers’ increasing experimentation with older, primarily European styles that evoke a range of flavor but at lower levels of alcohol content. Some very extreme examples include the Notch Brewing Tafelbier, a Belgian table beer at 2.8%, and the Pretty Things Beer & Ale Project’s Once Upon a Time Series 22nd February, 1945, an English Mild (“X Ale”) also at 2.8% ABV.

My favorite European style currently enjoying a renaissance is the Berliner Weisse, a German wheat beer that goes through a souring process during fermentation. The result is a crisp, light and refreshing beer that has traditionally hovered around 3% ABV. Locally, White Birch Brewing from Hooksett, New Hampshire has an excellent Berliner Weisse, albeit amped up at 6% ABV.

For a more creative take on the style, no one has been working harder to redefine Berliners than the crew at Night Shift Brewing in Everett. Named to evoke local influences, takes include the flagship Somer Weisse, a tart and refreshing beer with hints of ginger. Throughout their inaugural year they have continued to experiment with the style. Ever Weisse was brewed in the fall with strawberries, kiwis and hibiscus, and Night Shift recently aged their Mainer Weisse on blueberries and cinnamon sticks.

Sour beers are not for everyone, but you heard it here first: 2013 is the year of the Berliner.

Buckwheat Will Save Us All

Many self-professed craft beer fans will unashamedly proclaim themselves a hop head (Neighbeers’ taster-in-chief, my wife, included) – in search of the next great IPA. My favorite styles tend toward the dark and malty, and frequently include brown ales and the Scotch ale, or “Wee Heavy.” So whenever I come across an exceptional malt bomb, I take note.

Somerville’s Slumbrew is one of my favorite local brewers, and their toasted brown ale, a Fall release called Attic & Eaves, is an outstanding take on the style. The secret, according to head brewer Jeff Leiter, is the toasted buckwheat used in the brewing process. The buckwheat creates a smooth, nutty and creamy finish that supports the caramel, chocolate, toffee and coffee tones typical of a brown.

Norman Miller, the Real Beer Nut of the MetroWest Daily News, recently reminded me (through the awesome power of Twitter, mind you) that Worcester’s Wormtown Brewery used buckwheat in its Anniversary IPA last year. Given the little-known fact that it is a fruit seed rather than a grain, buckwheat is a nice substitute for the gluten-sensitive. With its unique flavor and full body, more buckwheat in craft beer will be a something to seek out this year.

A Word from the @Neighbeers Calendar

My favorite local pub and a hidden gem on Boston’s craft beer landscape, West Roxbury’s Porter Café is starting a brewers’ series in January. The first night is Tuesday, January 15 with Jack’s Abby Brewing from Framingham, an all-lager brewery featuring the outstanding India Pale Lager Hoponius Union and the Great American Beer Festival bronze medal-winning smoked beer Smoke & Dagger. January 22 features Harpoon Brewery of Boston, and January 29 will feature the Pretty Things Beer & Ale Project of Somerville. Join Dermot, Paul, Cormac and the rest of the crew from 5-7 pm for tastings with the featured brewers and some outstanding gastropub fare (PRO TIP: order the fried Brussels sprouts leaves with chili lime aioli – do it).

In Boston, Stoddard’s Pub on Temple Place in Downtown Crossing is hosting two standout events this week. Join the editor of Brewbound for a tap takeover this Thursday, January 17 at 7 pm. Several New England brewers, including Baxter Brewing Co., Notch Brewing and Jack’s Abby Brewing, will be featured on tap, and Brewbound’s Chris Furnari will host a discussion on best practices for supporting local brewers in bars and restaurants. On Saturday, January 19 at 9 pm (following the Boston Beer Summit Winter Jubilee), meet Southern California extreme brewer Greg Koch from Stone Brewing Co., with draft specials including the Stone 12.12.12 Vertical Epic Ale.

What’s Ahead

Finally, here are three venue openings to look for in 2013:

And be sure to look for articles in the next few weeks on winter seasonals and New England’s best single and double India Pale Ales. Cheers!

We have a rich craft beer constituency in Boston, and I want to provide it with a voice and a forum through this blog.  Send me your thoughts, event postings and ideas for future stories or reviews at neighbeers at gmail dot com or through twitter @Neighbeers. You can find the archive at neighbeers.blogspot.com.  And comments below, good or bad, are always appreciated.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Michael Loconto January 15, 2013 at 04:32 PM
Via Dermot at Porter Cafe, a quick addendum regarding the brewers nights on Tuesdays this February (5 planned, with a homebrew competition to cap it off - visit their Facebook page for more info at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Porter-Cafe/146441248758571?ref=ts&fref=ts): We are having a home brew event at The Porter Feb. 16th 1 to 4 pm. We have some local home brewers bringing there brews along to taste and share. There will be a brewer from Slumbrew to answer questions and give advice etc. We are hoping to brew a keg of the most popular beer to serve on draft at The Porter!! There is a new home brewing supply store opening in JP near Forest Hill T Stop [ed. note: Boston Homebrew Supply], we are hoping to have the owner there to let people know about the store. If you would like to take part let me know, or you could just join us for a beer. There will be food. There will be a small $5/10 cover charge to cover food. No charge for any home brewer sharing there beer they can also bring a friend free. Let me know what you think.
boston beer lover January 15, 2013 at 04:35 PM
Where's the Idle Hands love? You mentioned every other local brewery to Boston. I think they're making some outstanding beers that totally fly under the radar. Have you had their new Belgian Stout, Absence of Light I think it's called. Loads of bittersweet chocolate and coffee flavors w/o relying upon using those ingredients in the brewing process. Now that's talent!
Michael Loconto January 15, 2013 at 04:49 PM
Ha, no disrespect to Chris & Idle Hands. I really like Cognition and the sweet potato beer Fall Study #1, and Dubbel Dimples is a great new release. I have a Charlton Rouge bottle waiting to be opened as well, and Absence is on my want list. Now if only they will jump on my Berliner Weisse & buckwheat bandwagon for 2013! Cheers - thanks for your comment.

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