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.
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).
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:
- 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.
- Location. Cheap real estate, proximity to major markets (2-1/2 hours to both New York and Boston). You win.
- 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)!