Category Archives: Opinion

Thoughts on the changes at Geary’s

Over the last few weeks there have been a number of articles chronicling the ongoing changes at Geary’s Brewing Company, the oldest brewery in Maine. First it was announced that founder David Geary was selling the brewery to Freeport businessman Alan Lapoint. Jason Notte noted that Geary’s had to lay off some long time employees as part of this transition, and that they would have gone bankrupt without the intervention. The new owner seems optimistic and has a plan to turn around the brewery, which has seen sales decline over the last few years.

Geary's HSAUnfortunately this news isn’t very surprising. When Geary’s launched in 1983 their classic takes on flavorful British ales stood out in a market dominated by light lagers. Their immediately recognizable lobster logo was great marketing in the tourist towns along the Maine coast. I grew up working in a family-run specialty grocery store and Geary’s beers flew off the shelves, especially in the summer months. In those days the number of Maine breweries were limited, and sales were good. In the last few years the Maine beer scene has exploded and competition for shelf space and sales dollars has become fierce.

While competition is a major factor in the decline in Geary’s sales there are also other factors. The biggest one was Geary’s stubborn resistance to change. While their new competitors were gaining accolades with hop-forward beers that showcased New World hop varieties, Geary’s kept brewing their same stable of classic English ales. While there is something to be said for sticking to your brand and not chasing every trend, not adapting at all to changing tastes can be disastrous for a brewery. They also took a long time to open a taproom even as it’s become clear that direct sales are extremely important for a profitable modern brewery.  It looks like new ownership is taking these challenges seriously. They have a taproom open and they are brewing many new beers, including some hoppy American ales. There are a number of recent examples of breweries successfully refreshing their brands, it will be interesting to see if Geary’s uses these success stories as a model.

Gearys London PorterI want Geary’s to succeed. Every beer geek has a few beers that helped lead them from macro lagers to better beer. They may not be your favorite beers anymore, but these beers were an important step in the transition from keg parties to beer appreciation. Geary’s Pale Ale was definitely one of these beers for me. I drank more than a few during my years at Bowdoin, and have enjoyed more since. I am still a big fan of HSA and London Porter. These two styles that aren’t in as high demand as IPAs, imperial stouts and sours, but they are well crafted and tasty. I think there can still be a market for some of these under-appreciated styles, but they can’t be all that you brew. Hopefully the new ownership finds a nice balance between tradition and innovation and we can all enjoy a new era of Geary’s beer.

Every Beek Geek Should Do Blind Tastings

On a Saturday afternoon in late March I gathered in the tasting room at Craft Beer Cellar in Belmont with a group of local beer enthusiasts to do a blind tasting of local stouts. This tasting was organized by the Mass Brew Brothers, and was the second in a series of tastings sampling a particular style of local beers. The first highlighted New England style IPAs and ended with some surprising results where some less heralded beers held there own against a few of the heavy weights of the local beer scene. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to attend that tasting, I was planning to and then I got sick, so I was excited to make up for it by tasting some stouts. I have been a big proponent of blind tasting, but haven’t participated in anything this organized and comprehensive before.

All of the beers we tasted were from Massachusetts, and they were all non-imperial (8% ABV or less) and non-barrel aged stouts. A few had adjunct ingredients, but the idea was to focus on standard dry, sweet and oatmeal stouts. You can read a full run down of the event and results on the Mass Brew Bros website HERE, but I thought I would pass along a few thoughts of my own. First and foremost, it was difficult to judge these beers. A couple had defined off flavors or quality control issues, but the rest were tasty and fit well into the flavor profile you would expect from a stout. None of the three rounds had a unanimous winner, and in the final all three beers had votes for best beer of the group. My personal favorite ended up being the Oatmeal Stout from Mayflower, it had great body and the rich roasted malt flavor I love from a quality stout. I thought Idle Hands Check Raise was in a virtual tie, and wasn’t surprised it won. The biggest disparity in opinions was around Bennington from Night Shift, which had the most obvious addition of adjunct ingredients. It was a great day tasting amazing beers and chatting with other enthusiasts and I can’t wait to do another blind tasting.

Mayflower Oatmeal stoutHere are a few reasons why I think everyone who is passionate about beer should try to do an occasional blind tasting:

  1. Tasting blind removes any preconceptions.  We all have breweries that we have enjoyed in the past and others that we tend to avoid. Sometimes a brewery that disappointed you before has made strides and you’ll find that you actually really enjoy one of their beers. On the other hand sometimes a brewery that people wait in line for has some beers that are no better than offerings you can find at any local bottle shop.
  2. It forces you to think about what you are drinking. It’s easy to crack a beer take a few swigs and decide that you enjoy it. Having to taste a series of similar beers makes you think about the characteristics that lead you to enjoy beers in that style. What makes one beer preferable to another? Even if you have no desire to drink that critically on a regular basis it’s interesting to go through the process on occasion.
  3. You might discover new beers or breweries. There were a number of beers in this panel that I’d never tasted before, including a few that I really enjoyed. I was reminded how much I like Mayflower Oatmeal Stout and I will definitely seek out Idle Hands Check Raise again. Another good beer that just missed the finals was Sam Adams Cream Stout, a quality offering from a brewery that takes a significant amount of flak from some beer geeks.
  4. It’s fun to chat about beer with others who are passionate about it. While the tasting was fun, it was even more interesting hearing what the other panelists thought about the beers, and chatting with them about everything that is happening in the local beer scene. We had tasters from very different backgrounds and it led to some diverse opinions.

You don’t need to go to great lengths to do a blind tasting, get a group of friends who like beer, a few bottles/cans of a selection of beers of a similar style, and put one person in charge of pouring and keeping track of which beers are in each round. I think everyone will learn a lot and have a good time (and feel free to invite your favorite local beer blogger too). If you do give blind tasting a try please let me know how it goes!

A beer to stock for everyone at your Super Bowl party, 2017 edition

My article today is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek rundown of the beers you should stock to please all of the characters at your Super Bowl party this weekend. I wrote a similar article two years ago, and then this happened:

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via GIPHY

I am not a superstitious person per se, but there was a 100% chance I would write an updated version of this article with the Patriots headed back to the Super Bowl. So without further ado, here are the beers you need to have on hand for your party this Sunday.

notch-infinite-jest

Notch Infinite Jest and Cerne Pivo: For the early arrivers and day drinkers. Kickoff isn’t until 6:30ish, it’s a long day and most of us need to get up for work on Monday, so pace is the key. Session beers are a huge help here, you can drink more than a couple without feeling too much of the effect.

Mayflower Porter

Mayflower Porter and Wormtown Be Hoppy: For game time. Two of my go-to house beers, one hoppy and one dark and malty. No beer fan will argue with having these on hand.

Boulevard Tank 7: To celebrate the fact that the Patriots are in their seventh Super Bowl in the Brady/Belichick Era. It’s hard to overstate how impossible a run like this seemed when I was growing up with the late 80’s/early 90’s Pats teams that routinely finished in the cellar.

Pretty Things Babayaga

Anything left in the your cellar from Pretty Things: For Gronk (not literally, I assume he will be in Houston). It is such an exciting time in local beer, there are more high quality options than ever, but I still miss the departed Pretty Things. Same idea with the game, you never complain about being in the Super Bowl, but it sucks that a generational player like Rob Gronkowski is sitting in the owners box.

Water: For anyone who defends the job Roger Goodell is doing as commissioner. They have clearly had too much to drink.

Goose Island Bourbon Country Brand Stout: For the elephant in the room for many Pats fans. I love BCBS and other Goose Island beers, but disagree with many of the business practices of their parent company AB InBev. Similarly, I’m a lifelong Patriots fan, but it’s a little disappointing seeing some of the political statements made by the owner and coach this year. A boozy beer like BCBS will help me forget and focus on the game.

Jack’s Abby Framinghammer: For the person who can’t stop talking about politics during the game (don’t tell them the ABV). Look, I get it, there is a lot going on right now and people have strong opinions. I do too. I just need a break from the constant political talk for a few hours so I can watch football. This beer is so easy to drink that the political commentator at your party probably won’t notice the booze and will be out cold before halftime.

A box of Franzia: For anyone who brings up deflated footballs or filming signals. Hand them a plastic cup fresh from the plastic bladder and then ask them if they would like some cheese with all that whine.

A bottle of whiskey: Regardless of your guests, you can bet that the network announcing team will repeatedly bring up deflated footballs. I’m sure they will also “forget” to mention the Falcons getting punished to pumping artificial crowd noise into the Georgia Dome. By the fourth quarter you might need something stronger than beer. Also handy in the unlikely event that a 2008 or 2012 type game happens.

allagash-hibernal-fluxus

Allagash Fluxus and Curieux: To celebrate a win. I wrote recently that Allagash makes some of the best special occasion beers, the Patriots winning the Super Bowl definitely counts as a special occasion worthy of a great beer!

Enjoy the game and GO PATS!

Best of Hoppy Boston 2016

Now that the calendar has turned to 2017 I thought it would be fun to do a recap of some of my favorite and/or most popular articles of the year, along with a rundown of some of the best beers I reviewed this year. It was a crazy year personally with buying a house, changing jobs and moving to the suburbs, I even needed to take a month-long hiatus from the blog, but I am still having a blast writing about local beer and chatting with other beer enthusiasts. Here are a few of the top posts from 2016:

The most read non-review article of 2016 was Hoppy Boston’s House Beers, a list of the beers I try to keep in my fridge at all times. I love this concept, it’s fun to try new things but I try to keep a seasonally relevant stash of staple beers on hand too.

A close runner up was my thoughts on the Craft Beer Cellar Blacklist. This was one of the biggest local beer stories this year, and more details continue to come out.

Close behind, and one of the most bittersweet articles I wrote, was my Definitive Ranking of Pretty Things Beers. I really miss this brewery and it was fun to do an overview of their beers, even though I wrote it knowing I wouldn’t enjoy many of them again.

Bog Iron Devil's FootprintThe most read beer review of the year was Bog Iron Devil’s Footprint, their braggot aged in Mezcal barrels. In addition to being a unique beer, this was the first beer that Bog Iron bottled, so there was clearly a lot of interest.

I drank and reviewed a number of amazing beers this year, but a few of my favorites (in no particular order include:

Trillium Melcher StMy two favorite beers from Trillium (at least of their hop forward releases) are Fort Point Pale Ale and Melcher Street IPA.

I don’t think I’ve ever had a beer from Notch Brewing that I didn’t like, but my new favorite is Infinite Jest, a sessionable hoppy wheat beer. If you haven’t visited the new taproom in Salem you really need to make the trip.

Brewmaster Jack Tennessee PrinseI love seeing more variety in barrel aged beers, beyond the ubiquitous bourbon-barrel aged imperial stouts. Two great examples are the Barrel Aged Farmhouse Pale Ale from Oxbow Brewing and Tennessee Prinse, a quadruple aged in Tennessee whiskey barrels from Brewmaster Jack.

medusa-black-ale-projectA few classic beers made the list, like Berkshire Brewing Oktoberfest and Maine Beer Company Mo. There were also a couple amazing new releases (both brewed to benefit charitable causes) that I hope aren’t one-off releases, like Medusa Brewing Black Ale Project and Ipswich Riverbend Pils.

I’m sure I missed a few, but these were all delicious beers that are highly recommended.

Looking ahead to 2017, I am planning to keep plugging away with a combination of beer reviews, news and opinion pieces on everything happening in local beer. I started writing a monthly random thoughts/links article in September that I will definitely keep up with, it’s fun to write and people seem to enjoy it (you can find them all HERE). You might have also noticed that my focus has moved almost entirely to New England beers, a trend that will continue. I realize that there are amazing beers brewed all over the country, and that local doesn’t mean great, but it is hard to keep pace with just the new breweries and beers being produced locally (and impossible nationally). My goal for this blog was to identify top notch local beers, especially one’s that are readily available, and that will continue to be my mission.

Thank you all for reading, Happy New Years, and feel free to provide any feedback/suggestions here or on social media. Just a quick reminder that you can follow Hoppy Boston on Twitter (@HoppyBoston), Facebook (facebook.com/hoppyboston) and now on Instagram (HoppyBoston). Cheers!

Random Beer Thoughts: December 2016

There have been a couple more important articles released since I published my thoughts on the Craft Beer Cellar Blacklist (if you are sick of talking/reading/thinking about this topic I understand, feel free to skip ahead, but there is clearly a lot of interest).

BostInno published an in depth and very well researched article with thoughts from the owners of CBC, the owners of some of the franchises who are unhappy with these new regulations, and the brewers affected the most by the leaked memo. Author Alex Weaver has told me that the information that has been released so far is just the tip of the iceberg.

Craft Beer Cellar published an update on the topic on their blog. This addresses some of the criticisms, and acknowledges the fact that some of their franchisees are unhappy with the changes. One thing they don’t address is who is involved in making these lists. I think that is the biggest issue, the franchise owners want a say in what beers they carry. I like that the list is constantly adapting, but I can’t imagine how any person can stay on top of every shift in the fluid local and national markets. It will be interesting to see how this all shakes out and how this effects their business going forward.

Julia Herz wrote a great column on Embracing Diversity in the Beer Biz, and Brain Roth did a follow-up interview for his blog. It is amazing how much sexism still exists in the industry and I think we can all play a roll in fighting it. First, don’t buy beer from breweries that have flagrantly sexist/misogynist beer names or label art. Second, if you see someone doing/saying something inappropriate then speak up. I believe these issues are due to a relatively small group of jackasses, but one sexist comment is one-too-many.

Norm “The Beer Nut” Miller handed out his year end awards, dubbed The Golden Nutties, which is always a must-read article. One point I especially agreed with was naming Mystic Brewery the most underrated local brewery. This led to an extensive discussion on twitter amongst people who love Mystic beer and don’t understand why it hasn’t developed the crazy followings that many other local breweries seem to recieve. It is unfortunate that a brewery needs to make hop-bombs in tallboy cans in order to generate local buzz.

I would love to see Mystic follow the Allagash model, start distributing a few of their flagships in 12 oz. 4-packs (the large format only brands are in for a tough ride), and then focus their efforts on special release Belgian/wild/barrel aged styles. The Mystic brewers are as good as anyone at coaxing amazing flavors out of expressive yeast strains and building delicious beers to complement these flavors, and I think demand for these types of beers is going to rise as people move past the all-hops-all-the-time mentality.

Links:

BostInno did an enlightening interview with Castle Island co-founder Adam Romanow discussing what it’s really like to run a small brewery.

The Mass Brew Bros did an extensive overview of the year in Massachusetts beer. It has been an exciting year in the state and it looks like more great things will come in 2017!

-Speaking of 2017, Brewstuds has an article looking forward to the upcoming year in Massachusetts beer.

-The crew behind Jack’s Abby has officially opened their Springdale Barrel Room, featuring a number of beers that fall outside the typical Jack’s Abby offerings (namely plenty of ales). This has immediately jumped to the top of my must-visit list.

-The Gardner Ale House will begin distributing it’s beer soon. My wife and I got married in Gardner and have great memories of this brewpub from the many trips to the area before the ceremony.

-Jeppe from Evil Twin did a series of memes poking fun at a beer reviewer on Untappd who trashed his beer for having diacetyl, but didn’t know how to spell “diacetyl”. Someone of twitter accused him of being a bully for this, but I think it is well within his right to poke fun at anyone who publically trashes his product online.

-Trillium has tentative plans to set up an estate brewery in North Stonington, CT.

-The Massachusetts senate has approved a bill that would allow farmer-brewers and distillers to sell their products at farmers markets.

The Craft Beer Cellar Blacklist

cbc

This last Friday and Saturday were an interesting time for people who follow the Boston area beer scene on Twitter. It started with a back-and-forth between Hopsters owner, Lee Cooper and Craft Beer Cellar owner, Suzanne Schalow. Lee made a number of accusations including trashing the CBC business model, and Suzanne responded by trashing Hopsters. It was pretty ugly, and as a few people said, it was totally inappropriate that the grievences were aired on social media to an audience of mostly customers at one or both businesses. Lee insisted that the reason for his anger was forthcoming (earning some well-deserved comparisons to a certain reality TV star turned political figure). Sure enough later that day Good Beer Hunting published this article, letting readers know that CBC is establishing a set of purchasing guidelines for their franchises, including breweries they are required to stock and others that are forbidden. Another article today from Brewbound does a good job of interviewing people with differing opinions related to this argument as well as pointing out some potential legal issues with the blacklist.

The blacklist revelation is creating the most buzz and strongest reactions. The idea that every CBC should carry brands like Sierra Nevada and Firestone Walker isn’t news to anyone, those breweries are in the sweet spot of wide distribution and high levels of respect. The idea that CBC will prevent it’s stores from selling beer from certain breweries is much more problematic, and seems to be the source of significant consternation in the local beer community. An added complication involved the memo sent to the stores, which was posted on Twitter and cites specific examples of breweries that are on this blacklist. I have a number of thoughts on this, best presented in bullet point form:

-I understand the stated motive here, you want a consumer to walk into any Craft Beer Cellar and know that any bottle they buy will be amongst the highest quality beers available in the area. The franchisees are paying to be part of the Craft Beer Cellar brand, and this brand can be tarnished if some stores are stocking a substantial number of subpar beers.

-The major problem is, who makes these decisions? We can all agree that national/international breweries like Boulevard or Orval make high quality beers. Anyone reading this will probably also agree that Milwaukee’s Best and King Cobra aren’t fit for consumption once you get past the college kegger phase of your life. The problem is that there is a huge grey area in between, and people will disagree on quality of specific beers/breweries that fall into this grey area.

-I am glad that none of the lists are set in stone. It seems that inconsistency is a big issue with some of the breweries cited, and that is much easier to correct than poorly conceived beers. I know a few highly regarded local breweries that had issues with inconsistent batch quality and QC problems in the early days or as they scaled up. Ideally this will act as a wake up call to some of the mediocre breweries and they use it as an opportunity to produce higher quality and more consistent beer.

-I would like to see an additional requirement that all beers carried in the stores have bottled on dates, it’s inexcusable how many still don’t and freshness is so important with many beer styles. They could also do a better job making sure the beers carried at each store were all fresh. They do better than most places, but I’ve seen old beer on the shelves at multiple CBC locations.

-Lee accused the CBC owners of being on the take, deriving some type of profit from the breweries on the must-carry list. I haven’t seen him present any evidence of this (further earning the comparison to said TV personality/political figure), and I don’t believe it to be true. The problem is that it opens the door for these accusations, especially if the lists were to become public.

-Is this policy only for Massachusetts/New England locations? I write a beer blog and still have a hard time keeping track of all of the local breweries, there are many that I’ve barely tried. Unless a brewery is a complete disaster you need to try multiple beers over multiple batches to even start to make a decision on quality. I can imagine that a few people have developed opinions on most of the breweries in MA, but CBC now has stores in 13 states. It would be nearly impossible to judge the quality of every brewery available in each of those locations.

-The leaked memo is problematic, it specifically calls out three breweries, all of which are local, small and relatively new. In fairness, it was an internal memo, and it was Lee Cooper, owner of one of the breweries on the blacklist, who posted it on Twitter. I won’t mention the breweries here, you can find the document easily enough if you’re curious, but I was surprised the names listed. I’ve had beers that I’ve really enjoyed from some of them. Now that everything is out in the open it really sucks for their businesses. With so much competition in the marketplace reputation is key, and bad PR like this can be a huge blow.

-And please stop reminding me that small and local doesn’t mean good. I realize that a beer being local doesn’t make it better, and being small doesn’t excuse producing a poor product. The point I was trying to make on twitter last night was that the negative publicity is a lot more damaging to a small business than it would be to a national brewery or a subsidiary of big beer.

-It is clear that some of the franchisees are unhappy about this new policy and/or the way this was all handled. One mentioned it to Brewbound on condition of anonymity. It was also clear that while this argument was going down on twitter, and the details of the memo were being released, a couple of the CBC franchises posted on social media that they had beers from the effected breweries in stock. One was even hosting a tasting from one of the blacklist breweries this weekend. This could have been a coincidence, but it seemed like a not-so-subtle dig at the new policy.

-I understand the frustration too, these franchisees are businesses that are trying to make money, they don’t want to be told to stock beers that won’t sell or told they can’t stock beers that sell well. I think they are also worried about potentially alienating customers who have relationships with effected brands. There is clearly also some disagreement about the quality of some of these breweries, and you have to wonder how much the owners of the franchisees were consulted before these lists were made.

-To wrap up (because this is already kind of long), I’ve always been a big fan of Craft Beer Cellar. I can safely say that the vast majority of beers reviewed on Hoppy Boston have been purchased at CBC stores, the flagship store in Belmont and the Newton store were near my old apartment, now I usually go to Framingham. This policy won’t effect my patronage of the stores, I am glad they are doing everything they can to be the premier craft beer store locally and nationally. I will be very interested to see how this all plays out though.

 

Random Beer Thoughts-October 2016

-When I visit a brewery that doesn’t can/bottle their beer yet I have found myself gravitating towards 32 oz. half-growlers instead of the full 64 oz. big-boys. I realize that this is typically less cost-effective, but would rather have 2 pints of 2 different beers than the 64 oz. commitment to a single style.

-On that topic, the Massachusetts law that breweries can only fill their own growlers is incredibly annoying. I only buy growlers if I have no other options and I still have way too many, I’m onto a second shelf in my basement just for empty growler storage. What is the point of this law exactly? Are they worried that someone will try to cheat the system and bring a 70 oz. container to get that extra beer? Couldn’t they just sell a standard growler that can be filled at any MA brewery that offers growler fills? Would anyone really object to that?

-I would love to buy more beer in crowlers (growler-like cans for the uninitiated), but there are very few local breweries that offer them right now.

-I recently heard a beer described as “it tastes like it was someone’s first attempt at a Mr. Beer kit.” Might be the best combination of clever and harsh that I’ve ever heard in a beer review.

-Revolution Brewing absolutely did the right thing recalling a huge amount of beer that had been contaminated with wild yeast. Too many breweries don’t take quality control as seriously as they should.

-In the last year I’ve notified three different breweries about quality issues. One was old beer on a store shelf, I should have checked before I bought it but the brewery still apologized. One was a bottle that was completely flat, the brewer offered a replacement. One was a clear example of oxidation, the brewery seemed to be aware of the problem but hadn’t taken any steps to remove the beers from the shelf (I tried two different styles that were both horribly oxidized).

-In the first two examples these were breweries I’ve enjoyed in the past and will give the benefit of the doubt, but anyone new to their product would probably be immediately turned off and they could lose a potential regular customer. The third example s a brewery I will avoid from here on out.

-As part of these random beer thoughts columns I am going to try and link to a few recent beer related articles that I’ve enjoyed over the last month, feel free to forward along anything that you think I should check out!

Links:

The Mass Brew Brothers ask “Will a Bay State Brewery Get Bought By Big Beer?” I don’t think it’s a question of “if”, it’s just a matter of time before it happens.

-Interesting news that Firestone Walker is discontinuing three year-round beers. I wouldn’t be surprised to see more breweries cut back their year round options and focus on rotating and special releases to try and appease the portion of beer drinkers that are always chasing new beers.

Jason Notte ruffled a lot of feathers with his comparison of New York City and Portland, Oregon as beer towns. I was actually much less impressed with the beer scene in NYC on my last visit, I was hanging out with people who aren’t beer snobs and I was surprised by how dull the taplists were at the bars that weren’t beer-centric (which was everywhere we went). Could have just beer poor bar choices I guess.

Congratulations to Brazo Fuerte and founder Bev Armstrong on winning the 2017 Sam Adams Brewing and Business Experienceship!