Tastings School - Beers from the Pioneer Valley

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Beers from the Pioneer Valley

George Lenker takes us on a beer tour of Western Massachusetts.

With prestigious colleges bearing names such as Amherst, Smith, Williams, Mount Holyoke and Hampshire, Western Massachusetts is truly a fermenting tank of higher education. But while many here are earning their Master of Fine Arts degrees, others eagerly pursue and a different kind of M.F.A.: Mouthfuls of Fine Ale.

In just a 40-mile radius, a destination known locally as the Pioneer Valley, Western Massachusetts contains no fewer than five brewpubs, three microbreweries, two superb beer bars and several restaurants and pubs that offer a plethora of great brews and food, not only paired with, but also employing these beers in their recipes.

NORTHAMPTON
The epicentre of the zymurgic eruption is Northampton, named after its British counterpart (which also has several brewpubs such as Frog Island and the Malt Shovel Tavern). Although the Northampton on the United States side of the Atlantic may not have as storied a past as its British namesake, it has the oldest continuously operating brewpub in New England, and possibly east of the Mississippi River. (One must remember, however, that brewpubs didn’t start popping up until after 1980 in the States, when the legalisation of homebrewing created a surge in the industry a few years later). Although home to the renowned Smith College, one of the last all-women schools, Northampton draws plenty of beer drinkers from both genders, and for good reason.

It all began when Northampton Brewery owner Janet Egelston and her brother Peter opened the brewpub in August, 1987. Although it has undergone numerous changes in its façade, one constant has been the quality of its beers.

Peter left to form the Portsmouth Brewery and Smuttynose Brewing in nearby New Hampshire, but Janet has stayed as the guiding hand of the long-standing venue.

Although the beers can only be purchased on tap at the pub itself (with a few available for take-away in growlers), the trip is always worth it. Twelve taps usually carry eight to 10 of the brewery’s own creations with the rest reserved for superb guest beers from across the globe.

With an arsenal of between 25 and 30 beers to choose from, the problem for Northampton’s head brewer Donald Pacher is never variety, but rather simply keeping up with demand.

During summer months, the Northampton Brewery doubles its seating capacity when it opens its beautiful outdoor beer garden. The warmer weather combined with twice as many customers can lead Pacher to spend a lot of extra hours knee-deep in the mash tun. But to Pacher, it’s all worth it.

“My basic philosophy is that you never cut corners and do your utmost to make the best beer you can all the time. That way you never wake up possibly questioning whether you could have done better,” says Pacher.

Just a few blocks (and a leisurely stroll) away in Northampton are thee more great beer destinations: The Dirty Truth, an amazing, 40-tap beer hall; Sierra Grille, a gastropub featuring 20 taps; and Paradise City Tavern, a relative newcomer with 12 taps, but which serves cask ale almost every day.

The Dirty Truth is owned by Daniel Lanigan, who also owns The Moan and Dove pub in nearby Amherst. The Truth, as it’s called locally, is a cavernous room with a 50-foot bar surrounding 40 tap handles.

This beer hall also carries 40 or more bottles from around the world at any given time, including many hard-to-get brews from arcane breweries in Belgium and elsewhere.

The walls are covered with stark, stunning paintings by regional artists and the giant clock runs counter-clockwise, so you really have to stay sober to know what time it is. The Dirty Truth also serves some great food, with daily specials scrawled on the chalkboard.

But if it’s a food and beer combination you want, it’s hard to beat The Sierra Grille. Housed in the bottom floor of the old Baystate Hotel building, The Sierra Grille draws people from all around both for its beer and its menu. Owner O’Brian Tomalin, who had worked in restaurants all his life and who helped open the Amherst Brewing Company (see below) wanted to create a true gastropub in the area where great beer complemented great food. He finally saw his dream become incarnate in 2006 when The Sierra Grille opened.

“Beer and food go hand in hand just like wine and food do,” says Tomalin. “In fact I think in some ways beer is more accessible and more easily consumed with food.” The Sierra Grille also uses beer whenever possible in its recipes, such as the steamed mussels in Allagash White Ale, or one of its specials: lamb ribs braised in beer.

Tomalin said the region does well with craft beers because people tend to be savvier in this area filled with higher education institutions.

“People who drink craft beers are usually knowledgeable and the Valley lends itself to that because of all the colleges we have,”says Tomalin.

Paradise City Tavern, opened in summer 2008, has fewer taps but its not-so-secret weapon is providing cask ale every day for beer fans. (The Dirty Truth also has two cask handles but doesn’t always have it available).

Other places in town that carry at least a few craft/microbrewed beers include Fitzwilly’s, Tully O’Reilly’s, Packards, The Iron Horse Music Hall (a well-known entertainment venue) and a place known as Ye Ol’ Watering Hole and Beer Can Museum. While this last pub only carries two or three craft beers, it also, as the name implies, houses a jaw-dropping collection of 4,000 cans, some dating back as far as the 1930s. It’s a must-see for any fan of beer history. Finally, the city also is home to one of the oldest homebrewing stores, Northampton Beer and Winemaking Supplies.

AMHERST
Just across the Connecticut River sits Amherst.

This otherwise bucolic New England burgh swells in population each year when thousands of students descend on the area to attend Amherst College, the University of Massachusetts and Hampshire College. Luckily, there is now plenty of great beer to go around ever since the Amherst Brewing Company (ABC) opened 11 years ago.

Under the guidance of owner John Korpita and head brewer Mike Yates, the ABC brews a dozen or so beers regularly – including cask ales – with plenty of seasonals always offered. The brewpub also features plenty of beer memorabilia, including a large neon sign from now-defunct Hampden Brewing Company, one of the area’s first breweries.

Hampden brewed beers in Chicopee (about 20 miles south of Amherst) for more than 100 years, starting way back in 1868.

Two miles south of ABC is the aforementioned Moan and Dove. The first real beer hall in the area, the pub draws people from all across the country, despite its somewhat out-of-the-way location.

SOUTHAMPTON AND WAMSBURG
Although these two towns lie at different ends of Northampton, they both are home to Opa-Opa Brewing. In Southampton, Opa-Opa Steakhouse and Brewery provides a cowboy-style atmosphere and a great bar where all of head brewer Dan Kramer’s creations can be sampled.

Up in Williamsburg, The Brewmaster’s Tavern sits in one of the area’s most revered old inns. An addition to the Williamsburg building also now serves as Opa-Opa’s main brewing and bottling facility, which serves several states and is expanding. The company just bought two venues in Northampton as well.

HOLYOKE and CHICOPEE
Heading south you hit Holyoke, home to Paper City Brewery and the newer High and Mighty Brewing (which brews at Paper City’s facility).

Housed in an old manufacturing building less than a mile across the river from where the old Hampden Brewing facility used to be, Paper City is a brewery not a brewpub. But it still offers popular public tastings on Thursday and Friday nights, often accompanied by entertainment. The 12-year-old brewery brews up to 20 different beers, all available in local stores and many regional pubs.

While Chicopee no longer has a brewery, it has a great spot for German beer aficionados. The Munich Haus features a handful of beers on tap, with brands such as Hoegaarden, Erdinger, Spaten, Hacker- Schorr and Dinkelacker. Several off-beat bottle choices are also usually on hand.

SOUTH DEERFIELD
Celebrating its 14th anniversary this year, The Berkshire Brewing Company is another brewery that has no pub, but does feature a small tasting room filled with beer signs from across the ages. Cofounder Gary Bogoff, who started the brewery with Chris Lalli in 1994, says their concept was to make a local beer.

“We adopted a European model of developing a local following and didn’t worry about trying to get too big. Initially we thought of doing it as a brewpub but then we realised we knew nothing about the restaurant business,” says Gary with a laugh.

It turned out to be a fine decision, as although Bogoff and Lalli have expanded over the years and now sell their beer in three other nearby states, it still remains a fairly local venture.

“Our beer never travels more than 200 miles, and 60 per cent of our sales is draught, so it’s fresh,” he says.

GREENFIELD
Last but certainly not least, is The People’s Pint, an unassuming and rustic brewpub in Greenfield. Started 11 years ago, The People’s Pint offers an array of delicious beers and equally tasty pub food. Traditionalists will love this place as there are not many eateries where you can get a ploughman’s lunch (a large wedge of extra-sharp Vermont cheddar, locally made pickles and bread, and whole grain mustard) with your pint of porter.

The Pioneer Valley certainly has its share of beer pioneers. As Pacher from the Northampton Brewery says: “People should feel very lucky that no matter where they are in the Valley, they’re probably not more than 15 minutes away from enjoying a great craft beer.”

Breweries
BERKSHIRE BREWING COMPANY
12 Railroad St
South Deerfield, Massachusetts 01373
Tel: +1 413 665 6600
www.berkshirebrewingcompany.com
Choice beer: Drayman’s Porter 6.2%
PAPER CITY BREWING
108 Cabot Street
Holyoke, Massachusetts, 01040
Tel: +1 413 535 1588
www.papercity.com
Choice beer: Riley’s Stout 5.5%
HIGH AND MIGHTY BREWING
108 Cabot Street
Holyoke, Massachusetts
Tel: +1 413 535 1588
www.highandmightybeer.com
Choice beer: Beer of the Gods 4.9%
Brewpubs
NORTHAMPTON BREWERY
11 Brewster Court
Northampton Massachusetts 01060
Tel: +1 413 584 9903
www.northamptonbrewery.com
Choice beer: Blue Boots IPA 6.9%
AMHERST BREWING COMPANY
24 North Pleasant Street
Amherst, Massachusetts 01002
Tel: +1 413 253 4400
www.amherstbrewing.com
Choice beer: Cask Extra Special Bitter 5.4%
THE PEOPLE’S PINT
24 Federal Street
Greenfield, Massachusetts
Tel: +1 413 773 0333
www.thepeoplespint.com
Choice beer: Farmer Brown Ale 5.4%
OPA OPA BREWING COMPANY
162 College Highway
Southampton, Massachusetts 01073
Tel: +1 413 527 8282
www.opaopabrewing.com
Choice beer: A-10 Warthog Double IPA 13%
THE BREWMASTER’S TAVERN
(OWNED BY OPA-OPA)
4 Main Street
Williamsburg, Massachusetts 01096
Tel: +1 413 268 7741
www.thebrewmasterstavern.com
Choice beer: A-10 Warthog Double IPA 13%
Beer bars & Gastropubs
SIERRA GRILLE
41 Strong Ave
Northampton, Massachusetts 01060
Tel: +1 413 584 1150
www.sierragrille.net
THE DIRTY TRUTH
29 Main Street
Northampton Massachusetts 01060
Tel: +1 413 585 5999
www.dirtytruthbeerhall.com
MOAN & DOVE
460 West St
Amherst, Massachusetts 01002
Tel: +1 413 256 1710
www.themoananddove.com
PARADISE CITY TAVERN
1 Bridge St
Northampton Massachusetts 01060
Tel: +1 413 586 2664
www.spoletorestaurants.com