Let me tell you a story of a very different time. It's not long ago, nor is it far away. Boston, MA 2006. In this world, beers like Stone Imperial Russian Stout and Smuttynose Big A Double IPA last less than a day on shelves, and are released only once per year. These are the best that you can get (just like now, they were fantastic then). Portsmouth Brewery's relatively unknown Kate the Great Imperial Stout goes on tap without fanfare and lasts for weeks, if not months. Founders Brewing only sends a few beers to our state. Sixpoint is a rare draft-only treat that motivates those "in the know" people out to the bar for rare tappings that seem to come in waves and then disappear. It's a different world, with a lot less great beer.
The concept of local beer is something that almost nobody thinks of. Not because local isn't important (which to most it isn't), but because we have few notable local brewers. Notch, Backlash, Pretty Things, Night Shift, Idle Hands, Maine Beer Co., Trillium, Mystic Brewery, Mayflower, Blatant, High Horse, Rising Tide, Clown Shoes, Enlightenment Ales, Jack's Abby, and Wormtown, among many others, aren't even a glimmer in their founders' eyes yet. Allagash, Wachusett, Berkshire Brewing, and Harpoon are a fraction of their current sizes. Publick House and Sunset Grill are the only places to get "one of those fancy beers" that most people know about...even craft beer lovers. And they serve mostly beers from the West Coast or a few from the MidWest.
Why do I tell this story? Well, sometimes it's easy to forget how far we've come and how quickly it's happened. World class beer used to be something hard to get. You had to make friends with "the beer guy" at your local store to get most anything of note, and then come in on delivery day. You heard stories of far flung places, like Indiana, where you could go to wait in line for some Imperial Stout...but to most they were just stories.
The world has changed, and I'm loving 2014. You can still wait in line and put holds with the local beer store to get world class beer, if that's your thing. But you don't have to. I can go to many "average liquor stores" and find a better selection of beer than I used to get at my go-to craft beer store. You can easily select several beers that years ago, based on quality, would have sold through their allotment in a day and been nationally renowned. And that's any day of the year, more options than you could possibly purchase in one go. Beers like Stone IRS and Smuttynose Big A are easy to get seasonals. Here at Drink Craft Beer we run three beer fests per year featuring only New England breweries, and we have a wait list to pour at every fest. In 2014 there is more world class beer being made in New England alone than used to get shipped here from all over the world in 2006.
And it's not that all the older, now easier to get beers have gotten worse. Far from it. The quality of craft beer we all have access to has just gotten SO. MUCH. BETTER. It's just caused many to go blind to the huge number of amazing beers staring them in the face that are just quietly world class. The number of new breweries that have opened, and old ones that have stepped up their games, is staggering.
It used to be getting world class beer required a hunt...now it just takes a trip to the store. So, next time you're at the bar or the beer store, stop and just look for a moment. Think about just how much awesome beer there is there and how easy it is to get it. We've come a long way, and there's still a lot of work to be done. But I might just pause and enjoy a local beer because world class beer just isn't that hard to get anymore, and I'm loving it.
Want a chance to try much of the world class beer being made in New England? Join us on March 11 & 12, 2016 for Boston Beer & Cheese Fest. Featuring 25 New England craft brewers and cider makers with 90+ beers and ciders and 10 New England creameries featuring dozens of cheeses! Each brewer will have a beer/cider paired with a cheese. VIP Session on Friday Night. Check. It. Out.
Pumpkins are not harvested until September and October...with maybe a few early ones harvested in late August. So why are pumpkin beers being released in early August and even July?
In 2011 I wrote "Why Seasonal Craft Beer Comes Out So Early: The Campaign for Seasonal Beer." This article covered what is known as "seasonal creep," and why it's happening. Pumpkin beer has lately been the most egregious violator of the beer seasons, and it's only getting worse. When I wrote the article back in 2011, you'd maybe see a few pumpkin beers in August. Now they're everywhere, even some in July like I mentioned, and it seems pumpkin beer season begins before September. What makes this particularly disconcerting is the fact that pumpkins in July may be the most seasonally discordant combination of all of the seasonal creeping beer styles.
So why is this happening?! Well...it turns out the answers is us. We, the craft beer drinkers, are to blame. The brewers are merely responding to consumer demand.
To get better insight into what's going on I used Google Trends, a tool that allows you to see relative search volume (meaning max search volume over the chosen time period is marked as 100) over time. My thought is that this is a good gauge for consumer interest, as it marks when people are organically searching for pumpkin beer on the internet. I looked at 2008 to present, August 2014. What I found was pretty interesting.
It turns out that interest in pumpkin beer by drinkers has moved significantly earlier over the past few years. Up through 2011, relative interest in pumpkin beer in August (17) was much less than in November (25). In 2012, though, pumpkin beer searches in August doubled (yes, doubled!) to 33 while November stayed fairly stead at 27. This is very much in line with what retailers have been saying, that once you start to really get into November, pumpkin beer season is on the wane drastically and you've got to get rid of remaining inventory. So pumpkin beer is showing up more and more in August because that's when we want it.
Beyond that, since 2010, interest in pumpkin beer has exploded during the months of September and October, seemingly prime pumpkin beer drinking time. With this in mind, brewers need to start preparing for the season by getting beer onto shelves in anticipation of demand, and to be the brand that drinkers look to when they're ready to sip on that pumpkiny, spicey goodness. If interest spikes in September, that's another reason to be on shelves for August.
Finally, if you look at October versus November, you'll see a massive drop. In 2013 in went from 100 to 30...that's a 70% drop in interest in one month. Then December is almost off the map, with a 9 in 2013 (a 91% drop in two months). Breweries are a business...a very expensive business with high overhead and low margins. Pumpkin beer can be a great way to help pay for your investment. But, if you want to hit the market at prime, that means you pretty much have to be done with pumpkin beers before November rolls around, or you're late to the game and yesterday's news.
Looking at it a different way, I also normalized the traffic to "Drink Craft Beer's Great Pumpkin Beer Taste Off."
I normalized this data for each year, so the peak of each year is 100. As you can see, it always happens in September or October, with an even harsher drop in to November and December.
So, when you wonder why pumpkin beer is coming out earlier and earlier, there are two reasons and they seem complementary:
- Probably the biggest, is that more people want to drink it earlier and earlier. If more of us are demanding pumpkin beer in August, brewers are going to comply.
- Pumpkin beer is a huge money maker for brewers, and they'd like to extend the season. If interest drops off in November, that's not where they can extend...going earlier allows brewers to get more time in market for pumpkin beers, often their best seasonal sellers.
Note: If you want to try a variety of pumpkin beers, as well as other beers and ciders from 25 New England brewers and cider makers, then you'll want to join us for Drink Craft Beer Fall to Winter Fest 2014 in Boston, MA on November 14 & 15!
Last year, Otter Creek in Vermont changed direction and started featuring their brewer, Mime Gerhart. At that same time, they started on a tear, rebranding the company and turning out great beer after great beer. Overgrown Pale Ale is their latest seasonal offering.
Ready to pop the top, I'm greeted by the image of Brewmaster Mike hanging in his van, dog at his side, something green wafting from his hand...Moving on to the beer, it's a hazy orange while it flows into my glass, crowned by a 1/2 inch of pale head. Enticing!
As I'm pouring, I can't help but notice a citrusy sweet blast, like overripe orange...it's sweet, but not cloying malt...just sweet and a bit oily, like an orange when you tear the peel. Stick your nose in and the experience is finished with clean malt and citrusy, dank hops.
Finally, the first sip reveals this beer to be delicious! A mild bitterness sticks in the mouth for a quite a while, even after you swallow. More noticeable, though, is the flavor: a dominating hoppy tangerine. This is a great, drinkable, citrusy, and hoppy pale ale that I'll definitely have a couple of. At 5.5% abv it's definitely meant to be consumed a couple at a time.
If you live in Massachusetts, chances are you've heard of Night Shift Brewing. You've also probably heard about how it was started by three friends who worked during the day and would brew beer at home on the "night shift." Over time Night Shift Brewing has gone from a locally-known brewery to one that is recognized and talked about in New England and beyond. They've left the space they started in and have moved into a much larger one to meet the demand for their beer. Rest assured, this small brewery from Everett, Massachusetts has big plans for the future.
I had been out to Night Shift's old brewery and taproom on 3 Charlton Street in Everett, as have many of their fans. It was a small space with limited facilities, but they made it work. People continued to visit them to sample their brews and take some beer home. The more people came, the more the founders (Michael Oxton, Mike O'Mara, and Rob Burns) of Night Shift realized that they needed more room.
The entrance to Night Shift Brewing, located at 87 Santilli Highway in Everett, Massachusetts.
(All photos courtesy of Night Shift Brewing)
So, Night Shift moved and expanded its operations. After hearing so much about the move, I had to travel out to Night Shift's new space at 87 Santilli Highway in Everett. The first thing I noticed was that it is much bigger. There is more room for equipment, storage, and seating. The bathrooms are nice and spacious. The bar has plentiful draft lines and seats for guests. The barrel room is a quiet place to sit and enjoy a good beer. That's where I sat down to talk about everything that was going on at Night Shift with one of its founders, Michael Oxton.
The entrance to the barrel room at Night Shift's new brewery and taproom.
Sitting together at one of the wooden tables in the barrel room with glasses of beer in our hands, Oxton and I first discussed what prompted the move from the old space to the new one. "There were a lot of different reasons," Oxton said. "I would say the two biggest reasons were production limitations and taproom limitations." Oxton told me that their old space had a 90-square-foot taproom and that they maxed out their capacity pretty quickly every time they were open, especially Fridays and Saturdays. "It was really limited and it was not a great customer experience."
The new taproom is 2500 square feet in size. Night Shift has added a ton of their own parking spaces outside of the building, and there's also a lot of street parking. Whereas they could fit about 15 people comfortably in the old taproom, the new one can fit around 160 people.
On the production side of things, the old space kept them from brewing on the equipment they wanted to brew on. They couldn't fit the fermenters that they wanted. It was hard to keep up with demand. "We have a pretty long waiting list of accounts that have reached out to us. We also have our own list of accounts that we want to reach out to. We haven't done so because we know that we can't supply them beer until we have it," Oxton said. They had hit capacity at the old space, and there was more demand for their beer than they could supply.
The barrel room where guests can sit and drink next to beers that are being aged.
It was a great problem to have, but it was still a problem. So, to fix it, they found a new space that allows them to have more fermenters, fit in a bigger brewing system, and gives them the capacity to grow. "Our brewers are happier than they've ever been," Oxton said. I then asked him what the transition was like. "It wasn't fun, but it wasn't as bad as I thought it was going to be," Oxton told me. "I think the biggest shock was that we didn't really stop production at all. It was a nice surprise."
Next we talked about how things have been going at the new space since the move. "It's been awesome. We're coming close to hitting capacity with our fermenters faster than we thought, and we haven't even moved on to the new brewing system yet," Oxton said. "So, we're filling all our tanks. It's a beautiful space to work in. The taproom's been super successful. People really dig the space."
Oxton told me that their biggest goal is making both their employees and their customers happy. "Our brewers are really happy, our bartenders are happy, people that are drinking here are happy, and I'm happy." Oxton said. Distribution-wise, Oxton was excited to say that Night Shift is starting to increase what they can send out. They've already opened up some new accounts, and plan to continue getting on draft and into bottle shops wherever they can.
Speaking of distribution, I had to ask Oxton whether he was surprised about the demand for their beer from people outside of the state of Massachusetts. "I'm always shocked," Oxton said. "It always surprises me that anyone out-of-state who has never tried our beer would be dying to have some. Word-of-mouth does a lot for us, and that's been really exciting to see." He then talked about how Night Shift is trying to continue to grow organically. "We really want to continue working within the local market for as long as we can. There's no rush for us to expand into other states until we've established a good presence in Massachusetts."
We then started to discuss the events that have been happening at the new space. "With more staff and more space, we're realizing the number of different ways we can improve what we were doing before," Oxton said. He told me that it's much easier to serve from a cask in the new space, and they have more space to store aged beer. So, they've started doing Cask Wednesdays, where they bring out a different freshly tapped cask every week, and Throwback Thursdays, where they bring out special brews that have been aging for a while.
The taproom, with plenty of tables and chairs along with merchandise and a roll-up door for food trucks.
In addition to those events, there are local food trucks at the new space all the time. There was really no way to do it at the old space, but in the new one they can pull up to the roll-up door and easily serve customers in the taproom. "We're looking at other ways to use this space interestingly," Oxton said. "A few ideas we have are hosting corporate events, birthday parties, bachelor parties. It's a great space for that. We've also had some nonprofits reach out. We invite them here and they can utilize our space and our staff to do some sort of fundraiser."
Then I asked Oxton about the relationships they've been developing. "The more we can feature local businesses and collaborate on projects, the more everyone benefits." When he mentioned collaborating, I immediately thought of Night Shift's latest wild ale, a collaboration with NoDa Brewing Company out of Charlotte, North Carolina called Stop, Collaborate, and Glisten. I asked Oxton how that came about. "That was a really long-term project. We met NoDa back in 2012 at the American Craft Beer Fest. One of our employees actually visited NoDa that summer and mentioned the idea of a collaboration. E-mails started happening. We formulated an idea, then they came up and brewed with us a day before the ACBF in 2013. We brewed the beer, we barreled it, and released it at the ACBF this year." A high-gravity golden ale made using wine barrels, it's definitely one that is work seeking out.
Night Shift is known for many things, including their sour beers. Perhaps most of all, their beers are known for being unlike any others that are out there. I asked Oxton what he thought the key was to producing such unique brews. "Controlled experimentation allows us to innovate in interesting and successful ways," Oxton said. "What we're going for isn't just to be unique or experimental for the sake of being that way, but really to make a good, balanced, complex, and memorable beer."
A glass of Viva Habanera sitting on the bar at Night Shift's taproom.
The Viva Habanera is a good example. "We're not just going for something crazy spicy and outrageous," Oxton said. "We really wanted it to be an enjoyable, spicy, habanero rye ale. The habanero blends with the rye malts. It's not overdone. It's not underdone. You can taste the pepper, you can get some spice, you can pair it with a meal, but nothing is out of balance. So, ideally, people receive it that way."
That's what Night Shift is trying to do with all of their beers. "You look at it almost like a chef would look at making a recipe," Oxton said. "You want to achieve balance, make it enjoyable, make it interesting. Don't let one flavor dominate." The founders aren't the only chefs in the kitchen, though. "We've been really fortunate to get creative, interesting ideas from our brewers. Now that we have all this space, we can give our brewers creative freedom to come up with their own recipes and brew them pretty much exclusively for the taproom." Depending on how successful these beers are, they could even make it into bigger production.
According to Oxton, a big part of what Night Shift does is about having fun brewing and coming up with something people will find interesting. Their "Art" series of beers are experimental brews that are numbered one after the other. Some might be one-off batches, others may not be. "A lot of times we brew something that is an Art beer, but we may incorporate one aspect of that beer into a bigger batch, even if it's not the same beer," Oxton said. "You learn something every time."
There are many Night Shift beers that are exclusive, including those that are only available to those who are part of the Night Shift Barrel Society. I asked Oxton what prompted them to create the Barrel Society. "It was based on a few other breweries that were doing it before us. The Bruery was one of our biggest influences," Oxton said. "Ours allows people to sign up for seven different barrel-aged beers over the course of the year." You can also choose your membership tier and decide how many bottles of each of the seven beers you can get. "We wanted to offer our fans and supporters really complex beers that are often expensive to make and we can't produce in high volumes. They would have a really high demand, but they can secure them ahead of time." You don't necessarily know what beer you're going to get, but Oxton said people have no problem with that. "Fortunately, are fans have enough faith in us to produce good stuff. It also creates a really fun, intimate relationship with your supporters." Members of the Barrel Society get special t-shirts, glassware, and access to the exclusive Barrel Society draft line at the taproom. Oxton let me have a small glass of Art #21: Farmhouse Bramble, a dark saison fermented in bourbon barrels with blackberries, which was for Barrel Society members only. It had a nice funkiness and a flavor that was sweet yet smooth. I might have to become a member!
The bar, where people can purchase bottles, fill growlers, and enjoy a flight or a full pour of Night Shift beers.
We then discussed Night Shift's plans for the future. One of their newest series features "Presidential" Double IPAs. Fans of Night Shift might remember their "Nation of Hops" series that included Belgian-style Double IPAs that each featured a single type of hops. The brews in the Presidential series will be American Double IPAs, and each one will have a different yeast strain that gives it a unique profile. There will be multiple hops, but it will be all American yeast strains. Not to mention, each one will be named after a U.S. President!
Night Shift will also be canning more beer. The first beer they put into cans was an amber session ale called Marblehead. Whirlpool, their American Pale Ale loaded with Mosaic hops, will be canned on August 19th. At the same time, they will can the first batch of Night Shift’s new Rotating IPA Series: Morph. “Experimenting with different combinations of hops and malts each batch, the Morph series showcases our brewery's variety of always morphing India Pale Ales. This allows us to use the best hops accessible to create the freshest canned IPA possible.” The first Morph IPA to be canned will be a re-brew of Night Shift’s Constable IPA. I CANnot wait!
I asked about what was on the horizon for Night Shift. "One cool thing we've started doing is our Fun Runs. Every Wednesday night we do a run that starts and ends at the brewery. We do all the Cambridge 5k races as well. Those are awesome races organized by really great people.” Having recently run Vert’s Sasquatch and Cambridge 5ks in the past, I would have to agree.
Finally, I asked Oxton why people should come out to the new taproom. "More than anything, you get the beer fresher than you'll probably get it anywhere else," Oxton said. "You also get the full experience of our brewery. You get to meet some of the people behind the beer. You get to see where it's made. One of the coolest things about the barrel room is that you get to overlook the whole production area. You see brewing and bottling happening." Night Shift is one of the breweries in the area where everything is done in-house. Not every brewery does that. "From start to finish, everything stays within this building," Oxton told me. "One of the biggest things is that you can get beers here that you can't get anywhere else."
If you haven't been to Night Shift's new taproom yet and you can make it there, I would recommend you do so. It's a great space filled with great people and great beer. Thankfully, Night Shift is now open 7 days a week: 3-9pm on weekdays, 12-8pm on Saturdays, and 12-5pm on Sundays. Go out there and share the night!
This is one of those spur of the moment stories. This summer Notch Brewing has launched the Notch Patio Liter Mug Tour, a great series of events that are exactly what they sound like: people drinking session beer from Notch branded liter mugs on bar patios all around the city. Last night (Thursday, July 24, 2014), the Notch crew was to take over Firebrand Saints in Cambridge, MA...until a called from the Massachusetts Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission (ABCC), saying that liter mugs violated the Happy Hour Regulations, ABCC would be monitoring the event, and that the use of liter mugs would not be allowed. It seems that the glasses violated the rules around only serving a patron two drinks at a time.
In typical Notch fashion, they found a way to have a successful event anyway and, today, much venting online began, including this story on the episode by The Boston Herald. But the story is closed, no liter mugs allowed, too bad. Right? Well, it seems not so...
This morning (Friday, July 25, 2014), I decided to shoot an email to the ABCC to get some clarification on, 1) what constitutes a single serving; 2) why are 32 oz half yards allowed, but not ~34 oz liter mugs; and 3) why would 16 oz servings of high alcohol beer be allowed, but not ~34 oz servings of lower alcohol beer when the former has more alcohol in it?
Within a couple of hours I got a phone call (shortly after Gary Strack, owner of Firebrand Saints received a similar one) from Ralph Sacramone, Executive Director of MA ABCC, about this. He said that the call to Firebrand Saints the night before was a hoax, and that his office made no such call. He went on to say that the event at Firebrand Saints' was within Happy Hour Regulations and that they have no problem with liter mugs.
To be fair, there are some who are saying that this may just be the ABCC back pedaling on the issue after having their hand exposed more than usual on a regulatory interpretation. Who knows, but I don't find that too likely. It was a few beer and drinks industry folks unhappy about a ruling. If the ABCC back pedaled every time that happened, we'd have very different alcohol rules in Massachusetts. What do they care about a few of us being unhappy with a ruling? So, until someone shows me any evidence to prove otherwise, I'm sticking with my story: The call to Firebrand Saints was a hoax, and liter mugs are allowed in Massachusetts.
Now, let's all go down a liter of Notch Brewing Pils to celebrate!