Buying craft beer isn't nearly as difficult as it used to be. There are plenty of stores out there that sell craft beer, but how many are dedicated to it? There's only a few, and one of the more well known chains is Craft Beer Cellar. The Brewers Association defines craft brewers as small, independent, and traditional. It is their beers that Kate Baker and Suzanne Schalow, the co-founders of the original Craft Beer Cellar in Belmont, stock in their stores and promote with a passion. I had a chance to chat with Suzanne about how Craft Beer Cellar was founded, the people that work there, and the customer experience.
The Craft Beer Cellar location in Newton, Massachusetts, opened October 30, 2013.
Suzanne just finished taking the rigorous two-day exam to become a Master Cicerone® in Chicago. She's still waiting for her results, but she told me that she is better for having done it. She's had many supporters that have helped her prepare for the exam, including those from Cambridge Brewing Company and Valley Malt. When I spoke with her, she and Kate had traveled to Missouri to help with the opening of the most recent Craft Beer Cellar location in Clayton.
Suzanne believes location isn't the only thing that is important when establishing a Craft Beer Cellar. "More than anything else, we're picking people." The owners of Craft Beer Cellar Clayton are an example of the kind of people they're looking for. Brandon and Ryan Nickelson are brothers with a love for all things craft beer. They traveled to Boston to meet with Kate and Suzanne, who showed them around the stores. Now they're more than excited to bring the one-of-a-kind Craft Beer Cellar to the St. Louis area.
Kate and Suzanne founded the original Craft Beer Cellar (also known as The Mothership) in Belmont, Massachusetts back in 2010 with a focus on quality brews from across the country and a special place in their hearts for those brewed locally. The name Craft Beer Cellar (a play on the word "seller") was chosen to conjure up images of the age-old practice of cellaring beer and to emphasize their mission to put craft beer first. Since then it's become a franchise, with locations throughout New England as well as Florida and Missouri. Suzanne said that a store in Nashua, New Hampshire is in the works and that there are many more to come.
The chalkboard at Craft Beer Cellar Newton, featuring a schedule of upcoming tastings.
To get a better look at the Craft Beer Cellar business model in action, I traveled out to the store in Newton, Massachusetts to do a bit of shopping. Before even walking in the door there is a sign with information on beer classes and other products (such as wine, sake, mead, and kombucha) that the store stocks. Though craft beer is their focus, that's definitely not all they sell. There are brownies and cheeses available to purchase for pairing with your beer. On top of that, brewers from all over New England and beyond come to Craft Beer Cellar to host tastings on a regular basis.
A few years ago, in 2012, Drink Craft Beer highlighted several Saisons in a piece called "For the Love of Saison." Back then, American craft brewers making Saison was a somewhat new phenomenon. Today there are breweries throughout America that are trying their hands at brewing a Saison, each with a unique take on the classic Belgian style. I took the time to collect and sample some Saisons from across New England, and I am happy to report that the style is still going strong. (Editor's Note: Everything seen here is available in Massachusetts, and several of them are available throughought New England.)
The first Saison I sampled is also one of the latest entries into the style. Allagash Brewing out of Portland, Maine recently released its own Saison as their first new year-round beer in seven years. It pours a nice straw color, with a fruity aroma that is immediately noticeable. The yeast and spice profile in this one really stand out, resulting in a flavorful beer that is very drinkable at 6.1%. It's a great Saison in many ways!
Two Roads Worker's Comp Saison
The next brew I tasted is also fairly new, at least when it comes to the Massachusetts craft beer scene. Two Roads Brewing Company of Stratford, Connecticut just recently expanded its distribution to Massachusetts, and I am certainly glad they did. Their Saison is crisp and refreshing with a farmhouse flavor that is nicely complemented by notes of wheat and rye. At only 4.8%, this one is also easy to drink. My tastebuds certainly feel compensated!
Spring is a wonderful time of year for fans of craft beer. It's the time when we start to transition from the heavy beers of fall to the lighter beers of summer. It's also the beginning of the hop growing season. In an effort to celebrate spring and all of the wonderful brews it brings, the minds behind Drink Craft Beer organize a beer festival called Springfest. Known as "A Celebration of Hops," Springfest is held once a year to remind us of the many wonderful things that hops can do.
My first experience at one of Drink Craft Beer's fests was as a volunteer at Springfest 2013. Everyone who attends the fest will tell you that, without the volunteers, Springfest would not be nearly as successful as it has been. Volunteers help the brewers in many ways, whether they need more ice for their kegs, their dump buckets emptied out, or one of many other things. The volunteers make sure that things run smoothly (and cleanly) so that the fest attendees have a great experience.
The key to the success of Springfest has really been the efforts of those who put it together. Drink Craft Beer co-founders Devon and Jeff, along with head of volunteers Sarah (shown above assigning the volunteers their duties), make sure that everything is organized, the brewers are happy, and that everyone is having a good time. It is their hard work and dedication that really makes all of the Drink Craft Beer fests some of the best fests of all.
This year I attended Springfest's Friday night VIP "Hoppy Hour" session, not as a volunteer but to write about the event for Drink Craft Beer. Attendees were given their fest guides and sample cups upon entering, along with a gold coin in each cup. These coins were for each person to vote for who they thought the best brewery at the "Hoppy Hour" session was. At the end of the night, whichever brewery collected the most gold coins was to be crowned the Champion of Hops.
It wasn't just the awesome belt that made the VIP session special, though. All 25 breweries featured a VIP-only brew, each very unique in terms of flavor. One of the best parts about attending the VIP session was being able to try something entirely new or more familiar brews with a twist to them.
First of all, we know...this is a little late. You’d expect a “Best of 2013” list to come out right after 2013 ends, right? Not in late February. That was our bad. We got caught up putting together our Craft Beer & Chocolate for Charity Event with Taza Chocolate (where we raised over $10,000 for Greater Boston Food Bank) as well as our upcoming Drink Craft Beer Springfest: A Celebration of Hops, scheduled for April 11 & 12. But, as they say, better late than never! If 2011 was about new brewers opening up and 2012 was about established brewers putting out some great new beers, then 2013 is about innovation...and we’re not talking about “extreme” brewing. That’s not innovation anymore. What we’re talking about is flying in the face of current trends and putting out some great beer. In some cases, this meant back to basics. In some cases, it meant putting out three single hop beers because, as the founder of that company might say, “Why the fuck not?” In all cases, though, it meant delicious craft beer.
So, with that said, let's get on to the Drink Craft Beer Top 13 New Craft Beers of 2013...then, afterwards, let us know what new brews you really enjoyed in 2013 on Twitter (hashtag #CraftBeer2013), on Facebook or in the comments below! (Note: This is not a rank-ordered list.)
Rising Tide Spinnaker Hefeweizen
Speaking of back to basics, we actually had two beers from Rising Tide in the running this year. The crew from Portland came to 2013’s Springfest with the big guns, Calcutta Cutter dIPA, a new beer at the time. It was delicious! We love this beer. We bought it when it hit bottles. And we were stoked. But, come summer, they dropped a little, tiny, baby blue bottled bomb...Spinnaker Hefeweizen. This is one of those styles that has been overlooked in the extreme beer hype and hop frenzy of the past years. But there are few things quite as enjoyable as sipping on a big, tall glass of well done hefeweizen. Dry, clove and banana from the yeast, with a minerality from the wheat. This is a style that will carry craft beer into it’s next level of growth, and Spinnaker is a great example of this.
Backlash Beer Catalyst/Outbreak/Riot Double IPAs
Three beers. Count them, three. Why combine them? Especially when Riot didn’t even drop until 2014? Because this idea is awesome. We’ve seen brewpubs do single hop series. Even Danish gypsy brewery Mikkeller has released bottles of a single hop series. But this is among the first single hop series we’ve seen that isn’t relegated to a single brewpub and isn’t by a brand that only the most devoted of beer enthusiasts will pick up. Backlash is focusing on growing the craft beer market into a new territory of people and they’re pushing education at the same time with beers like these. Oh, yeah...plus these brews were delicious! Helder and team, please bring them back!
Bantam Cider Rojo
Last year, we thought we’d catch some blowback for putting a cider on this list. This year, it seems like a no-brainer. And Bantam Cider was front and center in our minds. Their Rojo is a tart, cherry-laced treat that we drank way too much of during the summer. That said, it holds up just as well in the winter. If you haven’t checked out what craft cider is doing lately, you’re missing out. This stuff is blowing up big time. And a good place to start will be Bantam’s new tap room, opening in Union Square in Somerville, MA in March of 2014. We’ll be regulars...will you?
Cambridge Brewing Company CBC2 Hoppy Hefeweizen
Speaking of hefeweizens, this collaboration between both of the Boston-area CBC’s (Cambridge Brewing Company brewpub and Craft Beer Cellar store chain) took the traditional style and added delicious hops. In typical CBC fashion (the brewpub) it was done in a way that still showed off the great yeast characteristics of the Hefeweizen yeast, while allowing some earthy, hoppy goodness to come through. Both flavors greatly complimented each other. While we love some people getting back to basics, sometimes it’s nice to throw some hops in there.
Trillium Brewing Farmhouse Ale
What’s the most unlikely place for a farmhouse brewery? How about in downtown Boston’s Fort Point, one of the neighborhoods leading the charge right now in urban gentrification. After two years of building, renovating, permitting, and negotiating the morass of city and state licensing, the team at Trillium was finally able to get off the ground, and they’ve taken off like a rocket! While they’ve dropped more than their fair share of killer beers in 2013, we’ve got to give a nod to the flagship saison. It’s peppery, easy to drink and tastes like you’re stepping back into Belgium. The fact that you can only get it by the growler (or few select tap locations) is great, because it means you need to share with a friend. Look for them to keep expanding in 2014.
Otter Creek Brewing Kind Ryed Rye IPA
Honestly, the early favorite from Otter Creek this year was the collaboration with Lawson’s Finest Liquids, Double Dose IPA. What’s not to like? Otter Creek took one of the most hyped (and rightly so) brewers in the country and distributed a beer he worked on to WAY MORE people than normally get a chance to try it. But then Otter Creek put out Kind Ryed Rye IPA. It’s drinkable, it’s got an amazing rye flavor and the hops are killer. Don’t get us wrong, we loved Double Dose. But, when we looked at what we’d probably drink more often, it was Kind Ryed. Lucky for us, because Kind Ryed is coming back and Double Dose isn’t. Otter Creek is in the midst of a rebrand it seems, putting out a lot of new beers and making brewer Mike Gerhart front and center. If this is the result, we’re all for it!
Notch Brewing The Mule Corn Lager
As my Dad is sometimes fond of saying, “sometimes you just want a beer that tastes like beer.” He, of course, is talking about the only beer you could get several decades ago when “craft beer” was still just something that a few whack jobs were brewing in their garages. This is that, and so much more. The point of The Mule was to show that the much maligned corn lager isn’t necessarily bad. Brewed with heirloom corn sourced from Valley Malt in in Hadley, MA, this beer was a labor of love for brewer Chris Lohring as he even burned himself during the requisite-for-corn cereal mash. The beer did it’s job, though, showcasing what a fine, light-bodied lager can taste like when done right. If this was what beer tasted like back in the day, craft beer may have never have happened...nothing to improve on here, haha.
Victory Brewing Oak Horizontal
There’s nothing really innovative about this brew. Take barleywine and put it in an whiskey barrel. It’s been done before, right? The difference is that Victory has been a super influential brewery for us over the years and was there when we started our craft beer journey. For a while, we even had an annual pilgrimage where we’d go to the brewery and enjoy their mostly-German style brews. For years they just kept churning out quality beer but, in 2013, they suddenly let out some news...three beers, three types of barrels, all awesome. Chardonnay barrel aged Golden Monkey was a close contender, as the Monkey was one of the first craft brews we were into and continues to be a favorite. But, in the end, there’s something that’s just right about a malty, English-style barleywine in whiskey barrels.
Lost Nation Brewing Gose
There aren’t many styles that are more traditional and less adored than the Gose. A spiced wheat beer with coriander and salt, it sounds strange but it tastes delicious. Dry, slightly tart sometimes, with that wheat chalkiness, this is a brew that will change the way you look at beer...again. Still, few are making this style. But, one of the best (and we expect this to continue even as more people make this style) is Lost Nation’s. New to the Massachusetts market in 2013, we’re looking for them to blow up. They were probably the most talked about brewery at our Craft Beer & Chocolate for Charity event in February, and for damn good reason. Mark our words, 2014 will be the year of the Gose.
Mystic Brewing Table Beer
When Mystic first opened, we noticed that all their brews were right around the 7% abv mark. Delicious, but it’s tough to drink a 750ml of one of those by yourself and, sometimes, you’re craving a saison but don’t have a friend nearby. When we talked to owner Bryan Greenhagen, he discussed that he had the same problem. He’d get home after a long day, want a beer, but find himself dragging after a big bottle of 7% saison. And, thus, the Mystic Table Beer was born. Much like what you may have found on dinner tables of yore, the point of this beer is to quench as much as inebriate. It’s light, prickly and has enough flavor to take on brews twice its size.
Idle Hands Craft Ales First Pitch Rye Pale Ale
Normally we try not to put beers on this list that you could only get at the brewery. But, we’ll make an exception for a beer made to watch baseball with...which we drank while watching the Red Sox win the World Series at home! It’s a great beer for watching sports, low enough abv to drink all game, while the hops and rye were flavorful but not fatiguing. A great beer all around.
Slumbrew Yankee Swap
At Drink Craft Beer Fall to Winter Fest this past year, Slumbrew dropped two bombs. One was a super limited version of their Happy Sol aged in rum barrels from Massachusetts’ Turkey Shore Distillers. But their big hit of the night was Yankee Swap, a malty strong ale aged in these same rum barrels...and that beer later went on to hit stores in bottles. It’s big, it’s bold, but yet it was still smooth and drinkable. Dangerously so. Coming in around 12% abv, this was a beer that would mess you up. But it was so good, that it was worth it. I’ve still got a bottle hidden away and every once in a while I think, maybe tonight's the night I open it up to enjoy the sweet, malty, vanilla flavors. But then I think, no...I’d like to function tomorrow. But the night it gets opened will be worth it.
Stone Brewing Espresso Imperial Russian Stout
Stone Brewing’s Imperial Russian Stout was, perhaps, the first “rare” beer we really worked to find. Back in the day (2006), this was a prize to find. It was truly limited and would come and go from your local store quicker than newcomers to craft beer would believe. It’s continued to be a favorite, even as newer, more hyped alternatives came to market. Then, in 2013, Stone did something incredible: they added espresso. To Jeff, who is a coffee fiend, this was magical. Upon tasting, you’ll find that some coffee doesn’t taste as much like coffee as this beer does! We can only hope they bring it back again.
Now that we've told you our favorites of 2013, what were yours? Craft beer is just a matter of taste and taste is hugely personal, so we want to know what new brews you liked last year! With so many new beers coming out all the time, did we miss anything? Let us know what you really enjoyed in 2013 on Twitter (hashtag #CraftBeer2013), on Facebook or in the comments below!