NoHo Ho and a Bottle of Allagash

The trip started with a quick pop into British Beer Company, a franchised operation with a dozen or so locations throughout Massachusetts and New Hampshire. It’s modeled off a “traditional” English pub (scare quotes because I’ve never actually step foot in an authentic English pub). Imagine lots of dark wood and brass with comically oversized tap handles. The food included some decent sandwiches and a pretzel so large it came with its own coat rack.

The real star of the show, however was a delightful something-or-other from Greene King on cask. They even went so far as to offer me an imperial pint in the name of monarchical authenticity. Cask beer is often such a rare delight that I don’t even care what the particular beer is on offer, which was just as well in this case since I cant seem to find much about this particular beer. I could have sworn it was called “Extra Special” or “ESB” but attempting to research the beer online afterwards returned nothing of note. Either the largest England-owned brewery is making special one-offs to ship to a mid-sized franchise operation half a world away in Westford, or the beer was simply mislabeled.

After an epic bathroom battle with Mini Mash Tun (and subsequent meltdown), we forged onward towards The Berkshires. Our ultimate destination was a rendezvous with an old college friend of ours in Northampton. As we were traveling with our entire brood, we stayed in an impressively large two-room suite at a budget motel just off I-91. Our friend (we’ll call her Barbara) came for a visit just as we got the kids to bed and we commenced with a mini bottle share.

Our flight included Allagash’s Little Sal, an AWA aged in red wine barrels with blueberries, our very own Nashira, an AWA fermented in oak with peaches, and rounded out the trio with last year’s Interlude. Nashira held up admirably with the heavy hitters from Allagash. It’s a rather delicate beer but the peaches add a beautiful accent to an otherwise solid and balanced wild ale. I find it incredible that this was produced in a single barrel whereas a blend of several barrels is often required to create something with this level of balance and complexity. Everyone really enjoyed Interlude because, well, it’s Interlude. This kind of beer is right in Mrs. Mash Tun’s wheelhouse, save for the 10.6% ABV (which I still believe is a misprint; there’s no way they cram that much alcohol in a beer this smooth). Barb comes from the land of Russian River, Almanac, and The Bruery. We agonized over what to bring that would exemplify the best beers being made in Portland while also appealing to her sophisticated preference for sour ales. Her reaction to our curated Portland beer selection was muted, but generally positive, which is sooo Barb.

The next day, Mini Mash Tun and I went to check out the pool. It was closed the day we checked in, which at the time sounded like an almost certain disaster given how much we had been talking it up in order to get her excited about spending four hours in the car. The official reason for closure was “damage” to the pool, which I think is code for, “poop”. The water looked murky when it was finally reopened and there was enough chlorine that my eyes stung just walking into the room. Nevertheless, a pool was promised and I refused to let a budget motel make a liar out of me. Mini had a blast while I did my best not to dry heave as I accrued quite a collection of hair floating around us like so much seaweed.

After some thorough showering, we met Mrs. Mash Tun for lunch at Northampton Brewery Bar + Grille. It’s a thoroughly modern-looking brewpub with a standard menu of burgers, pizza, and salads. They offer half-pours which is always appreciated. Between the two of us we had an ESB, an Old Brown Dog, and a Black Cat Stout. Each was serviceable and neither of us regretted our options.

For dinner, Mrs. Mash Tun, Micro Mash Tun, and Barb were out painting the town red while Mini and I were on our own. We stopped by a package store on our walk back from a pizza parlor and picked up some Kiwi Rising from Jack’s Abby (and a complimentary Dum-Dum for Mini). The beer is billed as a double IPL hopped with four pounds per barrel of exotic New Zealand tropicaliciousness. This beer is heavy-handed in every way possible, but it was exactly what I was looking for and I drank them with gusto.

Our intrepid trio made it home around 21:30 and picked up a six-pack of Jack’s Abby’s House Lager to finish the party. This allowed us the opportunity to compare Honeycrisp to Fuji, so to speak, as I had brought some Back Cove with me just in case drinking supplies ran short. While similar, the agreed opinion was that Back Cove had a more pronounced bitterness and was a bit rougher around the edges than the hellesbier we were comparing it to.

Not a beer can museum.

Our last morning in NoHo led us to a surprisingly awesome stop at the deceivingly bland-sounding Northampton Coffee. Great coffee, cold brew on nitro, crosswords on the table, and friendly patrons. It has the added benefit of being next to a beer can museum (pro!) which turns out to be just a bar (con!) but it IS a bar with plenty of old beer cans on display (pro!) I’m getting too old to handle these emotional swings.

We hung out on campus for the afternoon and had lunch at the Campus Center, which was looking a little worse for the wear considering it was brand new when we were students. We had lunch among a couple hundred students smack in the middle of Rally Day. Food was slightly elevated Cafeteria but I was more disappointed by the signage then the menu.

C’mon Smith, I expect better.

It was undeniably fun to be back in town after so many years but I couldn’t help but be reminded by how thoroughly I had squandered my own collegiate opportunities. Also, as I sat there with my family of four, and with a friend we’ve known for over fifteen years, surrounded by young adults who are closer in age to Mini Mash Tun than myself, I mostly just felt old.

We had plans to have dinner at yet another brewpub, but a freakishly warm and sunny day delayed our departure from Northampton to the point where a formal sit-down meal seemed like an impossibility. Instead we grabbed Five Guys in Leominster. Decent burgers. Great fries. No beer.

Things I Would Buy with My GOP Tax Break If I Were a Small Brewery Owner

  • New hoses for everybody!
  • Primo healthcare plans (at least until the tax break expires in 2020)
  • Cellometer, so no one will ever have to count yeast again
  • Scissor lift, because you don’t know you need one until it’s taken away from you (alternatively, I would accept a hop torpedo)
  • Raises. Obvs.
  • BARRELS!!!
  • Company trip to the brewing centers of Europe; I’m thinking England, Belgium, and Germany.
  • Different glassware for every beer (which promptly causes the entire tasting  room staff to quit on the spot)
  • Tile. Everywhere.
  • One word: SABCO

The Belly of the Beast

For the past forty years the refrain from the craft brewing industry has been a shouted and defiant chorus of “Us vs. Them”. Assuming the traditional underdog role and running with it as long as it will hold, the “little guys” (yes, even you Mr. Adams) have effectively sold beer by demonizing the bastardized version of bohemian lager made globally  famous. As the elevator pitch goes, big, industrial breweries make bland and inoffensive beer most palatable to the unwashed masses and craft is the shining knight here to offer something new, something different, something authentic.

It’s a story that’s done its job well, but as with all good stories it shades out some of the nuances that would otherwise complicate a good yarn. As a shift brewer I am just as interested in how things get done as I am about any particular flavor profile or recipe execution. Contrary to popular belief, I do not spend my days dreaming up new recipes and exciting flavor combos (if only!) Instead I try to finish the day’s tasks in the safest way possible, at the highest level of quality I can muster, and as efficiently as I can manage (in that order).

to that end, I was super stoked to have a chance to tour the Anheuser-Busch InBev SA/NV facility in Merrimack as part of the winter session meeting of the New England chapter of the MBAA. I’ve only been a member of the MBAA for about six months now, but it sounds like ABI-Merrimack has been significantly involved for a while now and I applaud them for embracing a community that at times seems openly antagonistic to them.

Like a celebrity with only one name.

Despite being the baby of the Bud plants (at a scant 2.8 million BBL/year), this place is still enormous. Our first stop was the new “craft” wing where they ferment the various acquired brands. They procured six 1200 BBL cylindroconical fermenters solely for this purpose. Apparently all of their other fermenters are horizontal cylinders which are not exactly amenable to things like dry hopping. So this is all uncharted territory for the Merrimack crew. Our tour guide was himself rather new to this section of the cellar and got lost a couple of times trying to show us stuff.

Manway of one of the new “craft” fermenters–five floors up.

At one point we stumbled into a room with several of these tanks and I finally started to see something vaguely recognizable from my day-to-day operations. I thought, “Ah, here must be some kind of pilot system. Just look at these (admittedly oddly non-jacketed) 60 BBL unitanks!” Then I got a closer look.

For comparison, a yeast brink at my job is made out of a converted 1/2 BBL keg. From the yeast prop cellar, we meandered our way closer to the start of the process in the brewhouse command center. We passed an entire train depot which I thought strange for a brewery until I realized this was how grain was delivered. Several train cars can be emptied in a day with small fork truck-looking things pushing the cars to and fro. Each car holds enough grain for Rising Tide to brew for two years—or something like two days here at AB.

Twenty-foot long heat exchanger.

Here we walked past the heat exchanger, which is kind of just sitting in some random hallway off to the side like some old-timey steam radiator. After the inevitable jokes among brewers about never wanting to take it apart (easily one of the more reviled tasks in craft production) our guide said he’s worked there over 20 years and only seen it taken apart once. Granted, it’s probably pretty clean given that they’re not typically whirpooling with over a pound of hops per barrel.

The final stop of the tour is where the whole brewing process starts. There is a 620 BBL kettle, two mash tuns, and a cooker (presumably for gelatinizing corn). Everything is fully automated and the brewers hang out in a darkened control room with roughly a dozen computer screens monitoring production from dough-in to packaging. Think less Office Space and more Pushing Tin.

The Merrimack plant is a cool place, both from a technical standpoint and because they have a new biergarten replete with Clydesdales. And while it’s easy to peg AB-I SA/NV as a faceless global beverage factory (that name, though!) attempting to be the sole purveyor of mildly alcoholic beverages for the entire planet, it’s just as easy to forget that it’s also composed of typical manufacturing plants employed by regular people who have probably forgotten more about the science and engineering of making beer than I will learn in a lifetime.

On our way out a friend of mine asked if I had tried any of the local products offered during lunch. I told him I had a Budweiser (in an aluminum bottle, no less) and that it tasted as I remembered. He remarked that the Michelob ULTRAs were fresh off the line from the day before. I started to laugh assuming he was just taking the piss but his face remained stone sober. “Say what you want, but that beer was actually one of the best beers I’ve had in a long time.” And this, coming from a man who does beer quality control for a living and has one of the better palates I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting.

If nothing else, they know what they’re doing.