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Taste Makers

At Harpoon and Brooklyn Breweries, BU alums are crafting the next generation of beer

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A smooth, full-flavored beverage with dark fruit and licorice notes in the aroma. Pairs well with beef and earthy cheeses.

The description above is not some sommelier’s assessment of a $42 pinot noir; it comes straight from Harpoon Brewery, and it describes Leviathan Baltic Porter, one of more than 60 beers that have been made by the eighth-largest craft brewer in America.

Al Marzi, Harpoon’s chief brewing officer, says the flavors and aromas that his recipes produce result in a beverage imbued with character, not vanity. “Craft beer is sociable,” says Marzi (COM’90), who started at Harpoon as a truck driver 21 years ago. “It’s not snobby. It’s accessible to everyone. That’s what we want people to take away.”

Beer has changed. The thin, tasteless stuff has been replaced by a multitude of brews that for 25 years have been challenging and rewarding us with a whole new idea of what beer should taste like. President Barack Obama, for example, thinks it should taste like the White House Honey Ale that is home-brewed at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Garrett Oliver, Brooklyn Brewery, craft beer brewer

“Americans were kind of a laughingstock 20 years ago when it came to beer,” says Garrett Oliver (CGS’81, COM’83), brewmaster of Brooklyn Brewery. Today, he says, "America is where the excitement is coming from.” Photo by Joshua Paul

“Americans were kind of a laughingstock 20 years ago when it came to beer,” says Garrett Oliver (CGS’81, COM’83), a leading beer expert and brewmaster of Brooklyn Brewery, in Brooklyn, N.Y., one of the 2,075 craft breweries in the United States. “But today, the American craft beer scene is representative of beer in the world. Now, America is where the excitement is coming from.”

None of those breweries, whose leaders include Harpoon, Brooklyn Brewery, Sierra Nevada, New Belgium Brewing Company, and Boston Beer Company (maker of Sam Adams), make more than six million barrels a year. And while six million may sound like a lot of barrels, it’s all relative. Anheuser-Busch InBev, maker of Budweiser and Corona, sold 106 million barrels in 2010—10 times as much as the entire craft industry.

The Brewers Association, a national trade group for independent brewers, reports that craft beer sales represent 9.1 percent of the $95.5 billion U.S. beer market. The industry saw a 15 percent jump in sales in 2011, a year when beer sales dipped 1.3 percent as a whole. This after a 12 percent increase in 2010 and a 10.3 percent jump in 2009. And craft beer experts predict that the 2,075 craft breweries—more than have existed since 1890—will increase by 900 in 2013.

Beer has been a staple in this country ever since the lack of it compelled the Pilgrims to stop in Plymouth, Mass., when the Mayflower ran dry (beer was safer to drink than water). In the 19th century, immigrants from Germany and other beer-drinking countries arrived with few belongings, but many recipes for beer and ale. By the 1890s, there were roughly 2,000 breweries in the United States, and every one of them was officially closed in January 1919 with the ratification of Prohibition. When Prohibition was repealed 14 years later, America’s history of flavorful beer was stunted by the Depression, as brewers resorted to less expensive grains like rice and corn.

It wasn’t until the last decades of the 20th century that American brewers got their groove back, thanks in large part to home brewers with entrepreneurial aspirations. When Harpoon was founded in 1986, the company was granted Massachusetts Brewing Permit 001. It was the state’s first brewery start-up in 25 years. Harpoon produced 500 barrels of beer that year; by 2012, it was up to 200,000 barrels.

Al Marzi, Harpoon Brewery, craft beer brewer

Al Marzi (COM'90), chief brewing officer at Harpoon Brewery, started at the company as a truck driver 21 years ago. He describes craft beer as sociable. "It's not snobby," he says. "It's accessible to everyone." Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

After graduating from the College of Communication, Marzi looked for a job in advertising. When a friend introduced him to Harpoon cofounder Rich Doyle, Marzi proposed that he handle the young company’s advertising. Doyle said he had an opening for a truck driver. “I drove the truck for 10 months and learned a lot about the industry just from being inside the bars and restaurants. I became head brewer and went to the Siebel Institute of Technology in Chicago. When I got into the industry, you could do that kind of thing—start in the mail room and work your way up.”

Oliver lived in London for a year after leaving COM; he found himself in a pub the first night he arrived. The barkeep handed him a pint of room-temperature ale in a “dimpled fishbowl” and a whole new world of beer was unveiled. When Oliver returned to New York, he started brewing at home, and in 1987 he cofounded the New York City Homebrewers Guild. Two years later, he became an apprentice at the now-defunct Manhattan Brewing Company. He joined Brooklyn Brewery in 1994.

“There’s nobody who goes into beer brewing as a business,” he says. “It all comes from passion. You fell in love with it first, you found it fun, and then you did it professionally. That’s what makes American craft brewing powerful.”

Oliver, now the editor of the Oxford Companion to Beer, believes that the interest in craft beers is part of a wider enthusiasm for artisanal foods. Today, he says, there is a beer to be paired with just about any dish, from Mexican to Japanese, barbecue to Michelin-starred. A stout can be matched with a dessert to pull out the chocolate and chestnut flavors, or a light, citrusy Belgian witbier will balance a delicate fish.

These days, the New York Times and Washington Post regularly write about new beers as if they were movie releases, the interest in home brewing has soared, and specialty beer stores all over the country carry hundreds of different types of craft beer from around the world.

Meanwhile, all-women groups like the Pink Boots Society, a professional organization of women in the brewing industry, and Ladies of Craft Beer encourage women to home-brew and become craft brewers. Smaller microbreweries, like Peak Organic in Maine and Eel River Brewing in California, make beer with organic ingredients, and others use bourbon barrels to age their beer. And in November 2012, Anheuser-Busch InBev, which sells the craft-like beers Goose Island and Shock Top, formed its own Craft Advisory Board.

With the 900 new breweries expected to open this year, and planned expansions at larger craft brewers like Harpoon and Brooklyn Breweries, some in the industry worry that the craft beer movement might become too big for its market.

But Marzi doesn’t buy it. He can’t imagine that beer drinkers who appreciate the newer brews will ever go back. “It simply becomes a part of what you do,” he says. “It even changes your taste in food. You don’t go backward.”

The Couple Behind Brooklyn Brew Shop

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Erica Shea (CGS’04, COM’06) and Stephen Valand (CAS’07, COM’07), founders of Brooklyn Brew Shop, want to demystify brewing. Video by Alan Wong View closed captions on YouTube

At the height of the recent recession, in 2009, Erica Shea (CGS’04, COM’06) and Stephen Valand (CAS’07, COM’07) quit their jobs to invest in beer. The former film majors realized that most home-brew kits made five gallons of beer at a time, far too much for a typical New York City apartment. They also saw that the instructions on existing kits were hardly user-friendly, with words like “acidulation” and “fluctuation.”

“We wanted to demystify brewing by taking it back to the kitchen,” says Shea. They also wanted to sell home-brew kits and ingredient mixes for small-scale brewing in tiny city apartments. They named their venture Brooklyn Brew Shop.

Stephen Valand and Erica Shea, founders owners, Brooklyn Brew Shop, craft beer brewers, beer brewing kits, how to brew beer

Valand and Shea sell their kits in Whole Foods and Williams-Sonoma stores across the country, in Europe, and in South Africa. Photo by Joshua Paul

The entrepreneurs started sawing and rejiggering plastic tubes and clamps to make a better, simpler kit, one that included most ingredients a home brewer would need (grain, hops, and yeast), as well as clearly written, foolproof instructions.

Luck was with them. The couple’s first sales outlet was a booth at the Brooklyn Flea Market. The flea market happened to be right across the street from a Whole Foods store, whose proprietors took an interest in the home-brew kits. Whole Foods put 30 kits on its shelves. Less than three hours later, they were all sold. The next day, it happened again.

Now Brooklyn Brew Shop kits are sold in Whole Foods and Williams-Sonoma stores across the country, in Europe, and in South Africa. The product has been featured in the New York Times, on NBC, and in Food & Wine magazine. Shea and Valand use their film skills to produce simple, step-by-step home-brewing tutorials. They have teamed with Brooklyn Brewery to sell that company’s ingredient mixes, and they hope to cut similar deals with other breweries. Their first beer cookbook, 2011’s Brooklyn Brew Shop’s Beer Making Book, explains how to make beers as varied as a lobster saison and a bourbon dubbel.

“Beer that you make on your stove is yours entirely,” Valand says. “No beer in the world tastes exactly like it.”

“And,” says Shea, “it gains you a lot of friends.”

The Up-and-Coming Brewer

Helder Pimentel, Backlash Beer Company, beer brewer, craft beer breweries

Helder Pimentel (CGS'04, SMG'06) launched Backlash Beer Company in his garage. "I think the market is primed for local anything," he says, "and beer fits into that." Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Like the legendary masters of Silicon Valley, Helder Pimentel started his business in his garage, tweaking craft beer techniques and recipes for seven years. In 2011, after years of listening to his friends tell him that his beer was good enough to sell, Pimentel (CGS’04, SMG’06) left a lucrative banking job and launched Backlash Beer Company with partner Maggie Foley.

Pimentel says Backlash, based in Holyoke, Mass., targets a younger demographic than other craft brewers. Its labels sport a set of brass knuckles and names like Groundswell (a Belgian Blonde) and Declaration (an IPA). The company hand labels, wax dips, and stamps all of its beer. But what really sets Backlash apart, says Pimentel, is taste. “My strategy with what we brew is to make beers that would be easily respected by someone who is just exploring the craft brew space,” he says. “My mission is to bring over the fringe drinkers who don’t know where to begin.”

Backlash is one of many start-up craft brewers that rents space and equipment from a bigger brewery, which allows it to focus on brewing and marketing, rather than building infrastructure. Pimentel spends a few days a week visiting bars and restaurants in the New England area, asking if they would like to try his beer. More than 50 restaurants and bars serve Backlash.

“I made a business plan when we started, and we’ve blown everything out of the water,” Pimentel says. “I think the market is primed for local anything, and local beer fits into that.”

Beer Goes Back to the Future

George Schwartz, historian, history of beer, beer history

Historian George Schwartz (GRS'14) has a keen interest in the new movement to brew old beers. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

George Schwartz is a historian who loves beer. A doctoral student in the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences American & New England Studies Program and a former assistant curator for exhibitions and research at the Peabody Essex Museum, his lectures often focus on what people want to hear: beer.

“There is such a range of types and styles of beer you can make that aren’t possible with wine and Scotch,” says Schwartz (GRS’14).

Unsurprisingly, Schwartz has a keen interest in the new movement to brew old beers. He notes that craft brewer Dogfish Head has used ingredients found in a 2,700-year-old drinking vessel from the tomb of King Midas. Its Midas Touch, which the brewer describes as a cross between wine and mead, has received more medals than any other Dogfish creation.

Another small company, Shmaltz Brewing, attempted to make a batch of an English-style porter made by George Washington, using a recipe found in the New York Public Library. The first attempt produced beer that was overwhelmingly syrupy and bitter. When the company dialed back on the molasses, the brew was perfectly drinkable.

Other attempts to relive brewing history have lifted live bacteria from a beer bottle found in a 19th-century Baltic shipwreck, re-created a Central American fermented chocolate drink from 1200 BC, and used ingredients recorded in a 4,000-year-old hymn to Ninkasi, the Sumerian beer goddess.

A version of this article was published in the winter-spring 2013 issue of Bostonia.

2 Comments
Amy Laskowski

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu.

2 Comments on Taste Makers

  • PK on 04.25.2013 at 6:46 pm

    Awesome!

  • Ashley Stevens on 06.20.2013 at 5:58 am

    British beer is not served at room temperature. It’s served at cellar temperature — earth temperature, somewhere in a range of 50 to 57 degrees.

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