Monday, January 24, 2011

Small is brew-tiful

At the risk of blowing your minds with this late-breaking news, this whole craft beer thing seems like it's not going away anytime soon. You might think the market would have reverted to the mediocre mean by now, but sales from indie craft brewers have increased overall once again, climbing 9 percent by volume in the US in the first half of 2010. Who knew so many beer guzzlers care about quality? I may have vastly underrated the taste of the American consumer. Wait, what's the opposite of schadenfreude? 

Part of the increase has to do with the explosion of new breweries. About 100 new breweries opened in the States between July 2009 and July 2010, pushing the total up to well over 1,600; the vast majority of them are categorized as craft breweries. Not all of them are going to make it, of course: just because something is produced on the micro level doesn't automatically make it good. But if there's one outfit I wouldn't mind seeing stick around for a while, it's Haverhill Brewery ( in (surprise, surprise) Haverhill, Massachusetts. At first, it only supplied its adjacent brewpub, The Tap, but now the brewery's 50-plus styles of beer have started popping up on menus at bars around town, like The Publick House (1648 Beacon Street, Brookline, 617.277.2880), Joshua Tree (256 Elm Street, Somerville, 617.623.9910), and Ledge Kitchen & Drinks (2261 Dorchester Avenue, Dorchester, 617.698.2261). Since the folks behind Haverhill have doubled their outside-the-pub sales in the past year and a half, it seems like they might be on to something. 

The pub itself opened in 2003, but they didn't begin bottling and self-distributing around Massachusetts in earnest until about three and a half years ago. Brewing up 50-odd styles of beer in such a short time is no small feat, and that number can be a little daunting to consumers wondering which ones to try. Don't worry: we've done the editing for you. 

"That's a hell of a lot," says head brewer Jon Curtis. "Very few brew pubs do that many. We just love being able to brew some of these styles that you can't find fresh in bottles coming from England and Germany." Take the HaverAle Cream Ale, their first experiment in brewing. A lightly buttery, gently malty ale-and-lager hybrid, it's now one of the most popular and widely available styles, and a great introduction to Haverhill's brews. For your second bottle, try the Leatherlips IPA, an extraordinarily hoppy pale ale unlike the IPAs most people are accustomed to, or the German-altbier-style GestAlt. "It's an ale that's trying to be a lager," Curtis says. Malty like a brown ale, hoppy like a pale, and crisp like a lager, it just won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Fest in September. 

Curtis and company wouldn't be able to experiment with styles like those if it weren't for their small size and ability to adapt on the fly. "We have plenty of tanks to do all the crazy or experiential beers we want," he says. "Working at production facilities, oftentimes you're brewing the same beer over and over again. I brew a beer I've never worked with before about 10 times a year." He's biased of course, but many of these experiments turn out well - in part, Curtis says, thanks to their in-house quality-control biologist. And they only have to pay him in beer (which reminds me of some of the places I write for). 

But how big can it get? The market still isn't too crowded for a brewery like Haverhill, which has increased production to about 1400 barrels for outside sales this year - still small even by craft beer standards. "People are a lot more open to the idea now," Curtis says. "When we started, even seven years ago, the average chain restaurant wasn't interested. Nowadays most places are, and they'll have at least one or two local brews. Even small little mom-and-pop places are starting to use craft beers." Someone ought to tell their quality-control guy that he's due for a raise sometime soon.

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