The other day, when confronted with an overwhelming array of craft beers at a local bar, a long-time colleague of mine smiled meekly as the server asked her what she wanted.
"I'm a Miller Lite kind of girl," she explained.
Having worked closely with her for years, I knew this to be far from the truth.
Unlike Miller Lite, my co-worker is not bland, pumped with chemical preservatives and mass-produced by a multinational conglomerate. Instead, she's got a dark, cutting wit and a joyful disposition and is truly unique in her aptitude for defending the Advocate's staff from those who would divert our attention from the job at hand. Moreover, I know her to be proud of her home town and dedicated to promoting all that is local.
Still, in this age of faceless large-scale production and relentless branding, it's not unusual for people to identify themselves with a certain product—even if it's made thousands of miles away by people they'll never know. American culture seems to demand that our preferences remain stagnant. Instead of embracing variety and trying new things, the makers of the mass-produced trash we consume often prefer to cultivate brand loyalty through competitive marketing tactics, pitting slogans and logos against one another, rather than taking pride in the quality of what they make.
Under such circumstances, it's not surprising that some in the Valley still don't understand what a blossoming renaissance is stirring all around them. No longer an imported product produced by a behemoth industry, beer has been growing into a serious art form, and a beautiful one at that.
When Donald Pacher, the Northampton Brewery's head brewer, talks about what he does for a living, his excitement is palpable.
He doesn't boast about past successes or even what's currently on tap. Instead of spending any time resting on his laurels, he's more excited about ideas for tweaking recipes or new directions he's yet to pursue. He's as proud of the work of other local brewers as he is of anything he's produced. Listing the names of the colleagues in the Valley that he admires, he begins to sound a bit like an Academy Award winner frantically trying to acknowledge all those who have helped and inspired him before the orchestra drowns him out.
Throughout a recent interview with the Advocate, he frequently interjected yet another name that he'd forgotten to add to his long list of local, influential brewers.
"To me, developing a taste for beer is a lot like discovering new music," he said. "Maybe you hear some mainstream musician you like first, and then you go looking for others who play in a similar style." Eventually, he explained, you start learning about the original artist's own inspirations and begin digging even deeper and refining your musical palate.
For Pacher, settling on a particular favorite beer is stultifying and antithetical to what he finds so exciting and fulfilling about what he does.
Unlike those in most bars, the taps at the Northampton Brewery aren't topped with handles sporting colorful logos. To find out what's being served any particular day, patrons check the chalk board hanging over the bar. It's rare that the selection stays the same from one day to another, and it's not uncommon to find that a favorite beer has been replaced with something you've never heard of.
"The beauty of a brew pub is that we brew in small batches," Pacher said. "Only twenty kegs, and we get almost complete autonomy in what we brew. We don't have to have a certain beer in constant rotation; sometimes we choose to, other times we don't. We're always refining recipes. Even [for] Blue Boots IPA, which is our most popular beer, we're still trying to get that perfect recipe, and when we hit it, we'll stay there, whereas a large-scale production brewery has to stay on point. They have to make their numbers, and they can't substitute, say, hops unless they know the replacement will taste the same. We can substitute ingredients and just change the name of the beer."
While not being able to enjoy a favorite brew can be disconcerting, Pacher said this slight sense of discomfort is part of the chemistry that makes brew pubs exciting.
"Me and my assistant, Steve Bilodeau, don't ever like to feel we're working completely in our comfort zone back here in the brewery," he said. "That's when things get boring. And we don't want our customers to settle into just one kind of beer." Changing the beer list around forces patrons to sample other varieties and ask questions: "It's that dialog that we find so important to what we do."
Turning 25 this year, the Northampton Brewery claims to be the oldest brew pub in the Northeast.
It was started in 1987 by Janet Egelston and her brother Peter, who were inspired after visiting a microbrewery on the West Coast. At the time, the Commonwealth Brewery in Boston was the only other similar establishment in this corner of the country (it closed in 2002). Now Janet estimates that there are roughly 2,000 brew pubs. Along with the quality of the locally brewed, fresh beer, she credits Northampton Brewery's success to the camaraderie between its employees.
"We don't get a lot of turnover," she said in a recent interview. "We have a strong sense of community, and if people fit in, they tend to stay for a while."
Egelston also goes to unusual lengths to take care of her staff, Pacher pointed out.
"We're treated really well," he said. "We have the ability to get benefits and a 401k. Paid vacation time. It's not the kind of thing you typically see at a restaurant. A lot of us don't treat working here like a job—I mean, it is a job, but we take a lot of pride in what we do."
This pride is evident in the dialog that ensues when a thirsty customer tries to decipher the beer list written on the chalkboard. All the servers are well trained in the differences between the beers. Rather than just rattling off a prepared speech or offering a sense of light versus dark beer, they'll offer nuanced descriptions, acting as epicurean tour guides. For the faithful beer drinker, this knowledge base is comforting. For those still drinking "lite" beers, it can be a surprising—and even enlightening—change of pace.
"There are still a whole lot of folks who still need to be converted," Egelston said.
"Hallelujah!" Pacher interjected.
The female market, she continued, is still a tough nut to crack. "There's still a lot of misconceptions about beer being really filling and fattening, and there's the idea that beer isn't complex enough. [Some people think] wine has all the complexity. Nothing against wine, but if you do the math, how many kinds of beer are there versus how many kinds of wine? When I hear people putting beer in the back seat to wine, I really want to talk to them about it and share with them all the layers of flavor you can find in a glass of beer. It's pretty in-depth stuff. It's a conversation we like to have."
"And it's one we have a lot," Pacher added.
Taking the beer-as-music metaphor even further, Pacher has begun to collaborate with some of the Western Massachusetts brewers he admires. These jam sessions have resulted in some truly unusual and tasty licks. Working with the Amherst Brewing Company and Wormtown (based in Worcester), Pacher and his cohorts got together to play and experiment.
"It was so much fun," Pacher said with a wily grin. "It was kind of ridiculous. We went kind of nuts."
In one day, they created two beers. For a Belgian-style amber beer flavored with maple syrup, they added not just one kind of yeast but three different strains, one from each brewery.
"We put together this crazy grain bill—a recipe, if you will—put all the ingredients together and waited for a week to see what would happen," Pacher said. "And it was beautiful. It came out really, really well."
The second beer they brewed that day was an Indian Pale Ale, which is Pacher's favorite variety to brew and drink.
"We all brought our own hops and added more than really should be in any beer," he said. "We showed a wanton disregard for IBUs [International Bitterness Units, a beer flavor measurement]; there were so many hops in the kettle that we couldn't get the wort to come out." In trying to unclog the valve, an assistant got badly burned, and in his honor the beer was dubbed Second Degree IPA.
In addition to creating fine beers, Pacher said these collaborations have been rewarding on other levels.
"You learn techniques. You watch these guys work and you see stuff," he said. "Sure we talk shop when we get together, but when I'm with these guys that I admire and we start to talk beer, I just shut my mouth because I might miss something.
"There's no un-cool people in this business," he added. "The competition is friendly—if there is any competition—and we all watch each other's backs. We all want other beer makers to succeed because that means there will be more beer drinkers coming in here."