Exploring our local beer and hard-cider breweries

A version of this article was published in Berkshire Magazine, Issue 12, October 2013

Illustration by John S. Dykes

Illustration by John S. Dykes

The beer brewing process can be summed up in three basic steps: a starch source, such as malted barley, is first steeped in water and then fermented with yeast, and a flavoring, often hops, is added. This process has been practiced for centuries, but over the past twenty years or so adventurous craft brewers have elevated it to new levels, using innovative techniques and interesting ingredients. Their efforts have not gone unnoticed: Mid-year data released by the Brewers Association shows that over 2,500 breweries operate in the U.S.—more than at any time since the 1870s. Demand for independent, locally produced beer has never been higher, and the Berkshires is no exception.

One of the first craft brewers to meet that demand was Berkshire Brewing Company. Located in South Deerfield, BBC may not be in Berkshire County, but that did not stop its residents from eagerly drinking up their flavorful concoctions.

“When we started in 1994, we wanted to be the local beer of Western Massachusetts,” says Gary Bogoff, who co-founded the brewery with Chris Lalli. “In the beginning, we knew all of the people who were drinking our beer, because they were all our friends.”

Today, BBC distributes to five states and just released their flagship brew, Steel Rail Extra Pale Ale, in 12oz. cans. While their name has become synonymous with Western Massachusetts craft brewing, they are no longer the sole local beer.

Barrington Brewery, a brewpub on Stockbridge Road in Great Barrington, opened just one year after BBC. Brewmeister and co-owner (with Gary Happ) Andrew Mankin says that as consumers have become more knowledgeable about beer, their tastes have changed as well. “People are drinking more interesting beers, their palettes have changed and they’re a little more educated about different styles of beer. When we first opened up we sold a lot of blonde ale…and it would take a long time to sell a batch of Scottish ale. But now [the Scottish ale] goes like that, really quick.”

In 2007, Barrington became the first brewery on the East coast to use a solar energy hot water system. Pub-goers can get a front-row seat to the brewing action while enjoying beer-infused menu items like the baked-daily ale bread and decadent chocolate stout cake.

Pittsfield-based Wandering Star Craft Brewery’s popularity has been more like a shooting star since opening up shop in 2011, with its beers swiftly appearing on taps up and down the county and as far as Manhattan. Currently only draft is available, so you’ll have to stop by on a Saturday afternoon for a growler fill to bring your favorite bew home. Patrons don’t seem to mind, however, often sticking around to chat with owners Chris and Shannon Post while their blonde-haired boys whiz by on scooters and play with the resident cat, Fuggle, who just so happens to be the inspiration behind their new Catnip IPA, a very pale but deceptively strong ale with a refreshingly tart finish.

Having just opened their doors last fall, Big Elm Brewing in Sheffield may be the new kid on the block, but they’re no strangers to the Berkshire brewing scene. Bill and Christine Heaton owned and operated Pittsfield Brew Works for five years before deciding to leave the restaurant business behind in 2010. Unlike other local breweries, Big Elm distributes almost exclusively in cans, although seasonal brews are available in 22oz. bottles. Visit the brewery to witness the Rube Goldberg-like canning machine in action and meet Gerry, the namesake behind their rich and satisfying Gerry Dog Stout. Big Elm is also collaborating with the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge on the production of the Lion’s Ale, a traditional English pub ale available on draught exclusively at the Lion’s Den Pub. The Inn is even hosting a special “Berkshire Brew” package through the end of October to celebrate their partnership with Big Elm, which includes one night accommodations, a tour of Barrington Brewery, multiple local beer tastings, and a bottle of Lion’s Ale to take home.

The other Berkshire autumn beverage of choice, hard cider, has also been on the rise in the past few decades. Unlike larger producers, the local varieties of cider you’ll find in the Berkshires are all natural—picked, pressed and fermented right on site.

“We press our apples as soon as they’re harvested,” says David Martell, orchard manager at Hilltop Orchards in Richmond, which has been producing Johnny Mash hard cider since 1994. “Most of these other companies are using concentrates…but with us, no extra stuff is added, that’s what makes the difference.”

Owned and operated by the Vittori family for 25 years, a visit to Hilltop Orchards truly is a family affair, with apple picking, hayrides, weekly live music, cider tastings—even private tours upon request.

Keep heading north, across the Berkshire border and just east of Savoy to the tiny town of Hawley. There you can find Headwater Cider, a one-man operation run by Peter Mitchell. An aquatic ecologist by day, Mitchell just began distribution this year and his cider is currently available in local fine liquor and beer stores such as Nejaime’s in Lenox and Trader Moe’s in Lee.  It’s only a matter of time before Headwater’s two varieties—New England Dry and Ashton Blend, both at a serious 8% ABV—become Berkshire favorites.

You can get your cider fix at your local farmers market, too. Hilltop Orchards gives out tastings of Johnny Mash cider at the Downtown Pittsfield Farmers Market every Saturday through October. And at markets in Lenox and Great Barrington, you can find Carr’s Ciderhouse, out of North Hadley, which has up to five varieties of cider, depending on the season. Their dry, cold-fermented ciders have already developed a regular following, so arrive early to claim your bottle.

For beer and cider lovers alike, there’s Berktoberfest, celebrating its sixth anniversary on Saturday, October 5th in Pittsfield. Featuring independently produced beers and ciders from around New England, this day-long event has become a central part of the Berkshires’ fall calendar. Come for the brews, stay for the great local food, music, and beer-themed games.