Last spring, when I’d last spoken in depth with Donald Pacher about his work, variety was the spice of life.
As brewer at the Northampton Brewery, he took pride in how his best-known beers evolved. After taking over the job four years ago, he’s come to find there were few recipes that were sacrosanct—and even those that once might have been, he was beginning to fiddle with. Blue Boots, the bar’s premiere India Pale Ale (IPA), was one of those beers that he wasn’t certain would ever achieve a final form. Each time he brewed it, he found himself upping the ante and trying to adjust the flavors, aspiring to some elusive ideal.
This was one of the joys of being a brewer with a limited run, he reasoned. A batch of beer brewed on premises lasts about 10 days. With a built-in team of well educated and highly opinionated taste testers saddling up to the brewery’s bar every day, he could easily gauge his progress as he took his audience somewhere new with each beer. The joy was in the journey, not necessarily the destination.
Between then and now, though, something unexpected happened.
Even though the summer months are the most intense production-wise for the downtown brewers—with their outdoor roof deck open, they have twice as many spigots to keep flowing—Pacher and his assistant brewer, Steve Bilodeau, found a warm spot with their signature IPA. They found themselves not willing to deviate or change course. As Pacher reported to the Advocate last week, the last five batches have followed an identical recipe.
“When I go to a bar I’ve never been to before,” Pacher said, “I don’t want to mess around. I want them to serve me the beer they’re proudest of. I want their fast ball.” Generally he asks for their IPA. “Maybe I’ll swing and miss. That’s okay. At least I’ll have a base-line standard to measure the rest of what they do by.”
Before he started pitching for the Northampton Brewery team, Donald Pacher flirted with a real-life baseball career, playing in college and dreaming of a chance to play in the minors. He looks more like a first baseman than a beer connoisseur, but he apologizes for the sports metaphor. “The Blue Boots is my fast ball,” he said. “It’s the beer, right now, that I’d like the Brewery to be judged by. It’s our new flagship.”
The first IPAs were created by British brewers over a hundred years ago; by adding a large amount of hops to the process, they hoped to create a beer that would better survive the sea voyage all the way to India. In the last 20 years or so, starting on the West Coast, American brewers have taken this basic idea, turned the hops way up, and started producing a beer with an exceptionally bitter and distinctively American flavor. With few exceptions, every brewery from sea to shining sea produces its own signature IPA, and several international breweries have followed suit, trying to attract American drinkers.
Six months ago, Blue Boots—which took its name from the color of the boots the Northampton brewers wear—was a moderately hoppy beer. Compared to its West Coast brethren, it was mild and unassuming, though pleasant and refreshing. By finding ways to more aggressively dry-hop the beer (adding hops and hop oils to the brew after it’s been through the brewing process), Pacher and Bilodeau were able to bring those flavors to the fore.
The result demands attention and stands tall even among the best other varieties, with a flavor that fills the mouth and doesn’t dissipate or turn on you. While there are notes of citrus, they are subordinated to more piney flavors. This is a beer for hop snobs.
It’s a remarkable transformation, and one that was recognized at the Great International Beer Festival, held earlier this year in Rhode Island. As the name suggests, brewers from all over the world were represented, and this year the Northampton Brewery came home with three medals, beating out many larger, more widely distributed brewers.
The Brewery’s Daniel Shays’ Best Bitter won the gold for English Bitter, its Northampton Pale Ale won a silver in the Pale Ale category, and Blue Boots won the bronze for IPA. While Pacher is proud of all three of the brewery’s victories, given the preponderance of high-quality IPAs and the pride other brewers have in their own recipes, he says he’s most honored by Blue Boots’ placement.
All through December, Pacher will be brewing other IPA recipes (such as his familiar Juggernaut, Humbug, and Mean Green beers, as well as an entirely new creation) in honor of the Brewery’s third annual IPA week.
“It used to be held on the third week of December, but we’re holding the second week this year,” Pacher explained. “We call it IPA week, but it usually turns out being IPA month.” The week will culminate on December 18 with an IPA dinner featuring seven courses matched with seven IPAs. Seating is limited to 20 people to keep things intimate and to allow for a shared enjoyment and discussion of the beer and food.
For now, Pacher plans to stop fiddling with his recipe. He aims to keep Blue Boots in the regular rotation at the bar, a distinction no other Northampton Brewery beer holds. Furthermore, this winter he plans to revive the Brewery’s sale of bottled beer. Soon, 22-ounce bottles of Blue Boots will be available at the bar to be brought home and enjoyed.•