by Kathryn Boughton
It started decades ago with the slow-food movement. That morphed into the Farm to Plate movement and admonitions to "eat locally." With that sensibility raised, the movement inched inexorably forward to include those things we drink, leading to an explosion in local craft breweries.
"The growth in local brewers is directly related to farm-to-table, back-to-local movement," said Bill Heaton, co-founder of Big Elm Brewing in Sheffield MA. "People are really concerned with where their food and drink come from. And people are also back to the concept of supporting your town."
He explained the phenomenon. "One hundred years ago, everything you purchased came from your town—then we had strip malls and everyone traveled somewhere else to do their shopping. We can clearly see those going away with Amazon consuming our country. But now you see more emphasis on supporting local communities. With food, you see more people involved in CSAs, looking for food that has only traveled 40 miles rather than 200. And people are doing the same with what they drink."
Tom Crowell, co-founder of Chatham Brewing Company in Chatham NY agreed. "The whole buy-local movement blows over into beverages," he said. "You see it not only in craft breweries, but in local distilleries and cideries."
The nature of the craft beer drinker has changed over the years, however. Heaton said that in the 1990s, craft breweries were a "novelty." "It was a matter of who had the biggest flavor or the most alcohol. People wanted the newest, craziest beer."
He is encountering a more informed consumer. "Now people know whether they like a hoppy beer or they don't. And people are still experimenting—a whole thing with sour beers is becoming popular. Ten years ago, there was a really small niche of beer drinkers that liked sour beers. If you were a beer geek, you would check it off your list, but not really like it. Now, there are breweries that only make sour beers."
Craft breweries, wineries and distilleries fit nicely into the tristate culinary vibe, where restaurants tout chefs who work only with the finest local produce, where trips to local farms for pick-your-own adventures constitute summer entertainment, and where summer visitors browse farm markets for the ripest tomato or the plumpest ear of corn. But Crowell wonders about the future of the burgeoning brewing business.
"We are kind of a veteran in the craft brewing business," he said. "We have been here for 11 years and we have seen some peaks and valleys in the business. When we started there were a couple of breweries in Albany and in Hudson Valley, now every other week there is another opening."
"There are a lot of new little breweries—what they call nano-breweries. We will have to wait and see what happens with them—where they will find a comfortable size and whether they can make a living at the size they are. Are there enough craft consumers to support all the new craft breweries? I think we will have to look locally for customers."
Some of that has to do with the strict rules states impose on how alcoholic beverages can be distributed. Massachusetts, for instance, says that any beer imported from out-of-state must be handled by a distributor. This cuts Chatham Brewery out of the nearby Berkshires market, a fact that worries Crowell not at all. "We are comfortable where we are now," Crowell said.
The oldest community in the Berkshires, Sheffield, has one of the newer breweries, Big Elm Brewing. Bill Heaton said the decision to locate there had to do with the town's reception of his business proposal. He and his partner, Christine Heaton, looked for locations from North Adams to Sheffield. "Most towns didn't want a brewery," he said. "Everyone thinks they are big, stinky factories—which is not the case. When we found this location, I ran to the Town Hall and it was our best experience in the Berkshires. The town is very embracing and we love it."
Christine Heaton is the brewmaster, one of the very few women brewmasters in the U.S. "She was a chemist before she got her diploma as a brewmaster," said Heaton. "She is very talented—science heavy and brewer savvy. She comes up with the recipes."
The brewery is now five years old and distributes its wares state wide, in Rhode Island and in western Connecticut all the way to Long Island Sound, as well as through its local taproom. "People can come and sample, buy a pint and hang out," Heaton said. "We offer tours and are family and dog friendly. We do not serve food—that is the next phase—but only for limited things. We did the brew pub thing before and we don't want to be a restaurant."
Meanwhile, down in New Hartford CT, Chris and Christine Sayers are struggling to keep ahead of the phenomenal growth of their Brewery Legitimus. When they opened in 2016, Sayers said the brewery had "a decent capacity to handle growth." They are now moving toward their second expansion. Last summer they established a patio for patrons and the current expansion will nearly double their taproom and production area.
Sayer discovered brewing while living and studying in Belgium. He prepared for years, working for beverage distributors and for Duvel Moortgat, a Flemish family-controlled brewery, learning how ale is made. Later he took an MBA program at the University of Hartford.
"I was razor-focused," he said in a previous interview. "I was the guy who wanted to start a brewery and I was really getting my business plan down."
His attention focused on Connecticut, a state that was playing catch-up with the brewery boom. It is only a few years since Connecticut passed legislation allowing people to buy beer at a brewery. The brew-pub model allows sales through multiple streams of revenue," he said.
Sayers and his wife started building toward their business in 2010, deciding on Litchfield County as the right location. Their business model allows visitors to buy growlers of beer to drink onsite or take home and to experience flights of beers onsite to sample the taste of each of the styles brewed. Visitors can also bring in their own food and eat and drink at four large farmhouse tables. Food trucks are regularly onsite.
Some breweries in the region are:
420 Stockbridge Road
Great Barrington MA
283 Main Street
New Hartford CT
Chatham Brewing Company
59 Main Street
Furnace Brook Winery
508 Canaan Road
Kent Falls Brewing
33 Camps Road