WANDERING STAR CRAFT BREWERY

After I threatened to inject my Thanksgiving turkey with his witbier, Chris Post, brewmaster at Wandering Star Craft Brewery in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, invited me over for a tour.  His experience is a lesson in the opportunities and challenges faced by startup breweries.  Oh, yeah–and his beers are awesome.

Chris founded and runs a brewery whose year-round offerings include an English dark mild ale, a lager (the last three batches have been bocks), and a saison.  He moved full time to and set up shop in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, where he has been coming on weekends for several years.

Like many brewers — and all the ones to which I can relate — Chris’s brewing philosophy is “brew what you like.”  In Chris’s case that means no hop bombs.  Well… no unbalanced hop bombs.  If you ask him why Wandering Star doesn’t churn out big IPAs, he’ll tell you he doesn’t like beers that “assault” you with hops.  So how do you compete, given that the IPA is America’s most popular craft brew?  Chris’s latest answer is to make an imperial English IPA that I got a sneak preview of: Butcher’s Apron IPA (named for a derogatory term for the Union Jack used by the Irish–Chris is English).  Even straight from the fermenter, it was clear that this brew managed to be both huge and nicely balanced.  The English hops result in a hop profile that’s simultaneously mellow and a bulwark against the vociferous malt backbone.  It reminds me of the imperial red style more than a typical imperial IPA.  At 10% and both hoppy and malty, it’s right in my wheelhouse.  To my Massachusetts and NYC Alehead friends: this beer is going to be worth asking for–even in pretty “hot” form, it was sublime.

Fuggle, the brewery cat, is named for an English hops strain, not Czar Vladibeer's sister.

Wandering Star is a bit of a celebrity in the Massachusetts brewery scene due to the outrage perpetrated on them by the Massachusetts Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission (ABCC).  A few months ago, we wrote about the sane conclusion to an insane firestorm begun when the ABCC tried to curtail access to the low-maintenance Farmer Brewery license that enables craft brewers in the state to pay less in fees and bypass the middleman.  The bad part of the story is that while making these fucking stupid regulations that survived about 11 days before the state Treasurer overruled them, the ABCC took no action on Wandering Star’s license application for eight months.

The ironic part of the story (there really is no “good” part) is that Wandering Star uses more of its own grains per capita than almost any brewery in New England.  The Berkshire Saison 01201 was the best beer I tried at Wandering Star.  Wandering Star’s saison is made partly with homegrown hops (grown on the brewery’s exterior wall!) and locally sourced barley, including some grown on Chris’s land.  It was, without a doubt, the best saison I’ve ever had, including the heavyweights from Brasserie Dupont and Hennepin, and the off-the-beaten track favorite from my Ohio days, Rock Mill.  It was slightly sour — in a good way — and overwhelmingly light, fresh and citrusy.  And, it’s one of the few beers that would have met the minimum requirements for hops and grains grown in state.  Yet the ABCC sat on Wandering Star’s application for 8 months and then passed regulations under which it wouldn’t have qualified for the Farmer Brewer license.  Chris is pretty gracious about the ordeal, but it’s unimaginable to have a fully operational brewery mothballed for 8 months while a bunch of beer-ignorant bureaucrats argue about how much barley you should have to grow yourself (in a state that produces a tiny fraction of the barley its craft breweries need).

At long last, in June 2011, Wandering Star opened a 3,500 square foot warehouse in the industrial corridor to the east of downtown Pittsfield, a city of a little over 40,000 people.  Chris got tremendous cooperation from the City of Pittsfield, not in the form of outlandish tax breaks, but of a streamlined permitting process.  For example, the City put together a single meeting for Chris with all of the agencies from which he’d need permits in order to open Wandering Star–including the treatment plant where Chris needed to send his yeasty wastewater.  The message from the City’s Planning Coordinator to the agencies?  “Be there or have your objections overruled.”  Compare that to the usual nightmare!
You could call Mild at Heart, an English dark mild ale, this brewery’s flagship beer.  I love a good stout or porter, but often find them to be overpriced, too strong to have more than a couple, or both.  (As our unnecessarily loyal readers know, I’m subject to brutal beer-sterity measures.)  Mild at Heart is smoky and light-textured like a porter, mellow, but also distinctive and memorable.  It pours a beautiful, lightly carbonated dark brown, very clear with a fluffy head.  Oh, and one more thing: OH MY GOD IS IT CHEAP.  Chris says you can get a 20-ounce glass of this beer for $4 in Brooklyn.  That is PBR pricing for a superb handcrafted dark ale.  Amazing.

So how do you make a great dark craft beer at a price point of $4 per 20 oz. pour in New York City?  Chris didn’t say exactly how, but I’ll jump to a few conclusions:

  1. Keep it simple.  At the moment, Chris — aided by some rambunctious toddler apprentices — is the sole brewer.  Wandering Star doesn’t bottle its beers, except every so often by hand.  As a result, it only distributes to bars.  You can find Wandering Star beers in New York City, the Albany, NY area, Boston, and the Berkshires.  That said, it’s apparent that Chris and his partners have impressed the right people, as even our favorite bar in New York, Rattle n Hum, keeps a Wandering Star beer on tap at all times.
  2. Location.  Cheap real estate, proximity to major markets (2-1/2 hours to both New York and Boston).  You win.
  3. Buy your brewing equipment on eBay.  That’s actually where Chris bought the brewery’s 15 bbl system.  Eventually he’ll need to add another fermenter to bring the rest of the system up to its true capacity.  But he paid pennies on the dollar.  That’s probably the real secret to $4 big beers.

I’ve had some other tremendous beers from Wandering Star, including their Bash Bish Bock and Zingari Wit.  I am looking forward to their next offering.  I am thrilled to have the brewery in my town, and even more thrilled to see Wandering Star’s beers pop up at new taps all the time.  If you can check it out, do it.  Great thanks to Chris Post for being so generous with his time (and his delicious beer)!

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9 comments

  1. Sounds like the first stop when the McHops Clan comes to visit the Commander’s Army. Thanks to Chris for giving us access to his ale factory and his story. Here’s to Wandering Star’s success!

  2. Very cool stuff. Wish I could try it! I love to hear the stories about these smaller breweries, and it’s especially interesting to hear how peoples’ personal philosophies get incorporated into their own beers. Good luck to Wandering Star.

  3. This place sounds outstanding. I really admire brewers who go against conventional thinking and make beer to suit their own tastes. Great write up, Commander.

  4. I’d like to see more small breweries try making low-gravity, inexpensive craft beer. As a poor person, that appeals to me.

  5. Kid – this is my thought as well. You can’t always drink that imperial stout! Another place that does this sort of thing is Cavalry brewing in Connecticut (I wrote them up when I visited earlier in the year). They make really good, true session beers – british session beers like traditional IPAs, stouts, etc. And the cost is the same as anything else in the bar when you go out. The downside, of course, is that these small outfits don’t distribute widely and you can’t try them out as easily.

    https://aleheads.com/2011/03/01/call-for-the-cavalry/

  6. Kid Carboy Jr. · · Reply

    My issue is typically that some breweries will make a lower alcohol session brew, but price it the same as a six-pack of their IPA. In which case I feel like I’m not “getting my money’s worth.”

  7. You better have a few growlers in your fridge.
    Sunday Sunday Sunday.

  8. beer-miester · · Reply

    Awesome write up as usual… I am salivating at the chance to sample those brews! Thanks.

  9. The gripe that I made above is exactly what I’m wondering about when it comes to the upcoming Founders All-Day IPA. Will it be priced the exact same as Centennial? If so, I just wonder what the impetus is going to be that will make me buy it instead of just getting another sixer of the burlier Centennial.

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