Bear & Bramble: Brewing Beer, By the Batch

By Jordana Starr
Photos by Matt Burkhartt

Tym McDowell has been homebrewing since he was 20, about a year before he could legally sit down at a bar and order a beer. Though he knew he wanted to brew for a living, his parents encouraged him to pursue a more academic career path. He chose to study medicine, but brewing remained a passion. Today, he splits his time as a physician assistant in neurosurgery at Mercy Medical Center and co-owner of Bear & Bramble Brewery in Florence.

McDowell met his business partner, John Wanner, at work in 2010. Wanner, a nurse anesthetist, had been homebrewing for a year, and the two soon developed a friendship that grew out of their love for beer. By 2011, they were brewing together regularly at McDowell’s home in Easthampton. A year later, they moved the brewing system to Wanner’s garage in Florence, and soon expanded the system to accommodate up to 22 gallons of beer per batch. “It was a natural transition from hanging out, talking about beer, to hanging out and starting a business,” McDowell says. Their new venture, Bear & Bramble Brewery, received its federal and state licensing late last year, which meant they could finally sell their beer to the public.

A 22-gallon batch is tiny for a commercial brewery. But there are advantages to brewing on such a small system. McDowell and Wanner can take more risks and produce experimental beers. They are also able to remain self-funded and avoid taking on debt. “At some point, we’ll be happy to take money,” Wanner says, “but not yet!” Their brew system is still in a constant state of development and redesign as Bear & Bramble grows and evolves.

Family support has been crucial to their brewery. Cousins have fabricated sheet metal and installed ductwork, while wives meticulously hand-label each bottle. The brewery’s electric control system is housed in an old ammo box that once belonged to McDowell’s uncle, the first homebrewer in his family. As their young children grow, they hope to see them become a part of the business as well.

McDowell and Wanner source most of their base grains from Valley Malt in Hadley and look forward to building relationships with local farmers. After brewing, they feed the spent grains to Wanner’s chickens. They are also aging some beer in whiskey barrels, increasing the beer’s complexity and, for many fans, its appeal. When the beer is ready, they bottle it and self-distribute to a handful of retailers, including Provisions, Cooper’s Corner, State Street, and River Valley Co-Op.

As for the future, the duo hopes to move into an industrial space or buy some land. McDowell envisions having a little farm, offering a welcoming tasting experience with fresh bread and fine cheese and a place for kids to play. But for right now, their focus is on the beer.

“Brewing is a great blend of art and science,” McDowell says. And, compared to neurosurgery, “you’re less likely to maim people.”

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Janet Egelston-Cichy, owner of the Northampton Brewery, lights up when she says, “I love that we’re able to be a part of people’s lives through different stages—we help them celebrate births, engagements, weddings—and even when people pass away, we are here to give them a place to gather, too.” 

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New Brewery Popping Up in “New City”

by Samantha Marsh

Easthampton is home to a number of historic mill buildings, many of which have been converted to studio space for artists or entrepreneurs, and some of which have sat empty for years. New City Brewery, which took over the old Paragon mill building on Pleasant Street, is one of a handful breweries that has popped up in Easthampton over recent years.

Easthampton is known for its pristine water, which has won several gold medals and is deemed the best water in the country. While this may have been what initially drew many brewers to the town, the historic charm that Easthampton possesses cannot go unnoticed.

“When I got into the space, even though it was in pretty rough shape, I could see the potential because it is so unique,” said New City’s brewer Sam Dibble. “It had a lot of elements that you look for in a brewery like industrial power, natural gas, nice high ceilings, concrete floors, and an industrial loading dock. It was love at first sight.”

Dibble and his five business partners (Danny Workman, Ray Pierson, Marcel Emond, Torrey Evans, and Bob Soares) have converted the mill space into what they hope will soon become a destination, complete with a production brewery and tasting room.

New City Brewery's main focus continues to be their ginger beer, which is currently distributed throughout Hampden and Hampshire counties to more than 25 bars and restaurants. The beer, made from organic ginger, fruit juice, cane sugar, and molasses, was the result of Dibble’s wish to make a dry ginger beer that still had a distinct ginger kick.

“If you don’t have some sweetness to balance the heat then it’s out of balance and it’s really spicy,” Dibble said. “So I’ve been tweaking with that balance and molasses is really the key. [Molasses] has some unfermentable sugars that the yeast doesn’t ferment, so it leaves behind a little body and a sweetness that cane sugar really can’t give you.” New City’s ginger beer, which is naturally gluten-free, is cold-filtered and bottled through a process called counter-pressure filling, making the bottles shelf stable and ready to drink.

While New City is known by locals for their unique ginger beer, they also brew regular beer to enjoy in their tasting room. These beers are currently brewed in a two-barrel system, however Dibble has plans to install a larger brewing system later this year.

“Beer is something we’re very passionate about. I love beer and I love making beer, and want to make it and sell it,” said Dibble. The tasting room, which recently opened to the public, has six beers rotating in a spectrum from light to dark. Dibble brews all different styles, as he believes that having variety in beer is essential.

“I love learning a style and making it, and then making it my own,” Dibble continued. “I like it all. We have a California lager that is one of my favorites. I’m kind of a hop head, though. I have, like, five IPAs that I rotate through,” he added with a laugh.

Dibble hopes that New City Brewery will become a place where people can come from all over to taste and experience their beer fresh from the barrels. “It's very cool because you get to involve people in the brewery,” Dibble said. “They get to come in and they get to see things in action. It's a very direct experience—something I haven't had before in my brewing career.”

A Toast to the Dandelion

Story by Carly Leusner | Photo by Elaine Papa

When I notice the first dandelions beaming their yellow pollen-laden flowers boldly and unapologetically across meadows I can’t help but rejoice! Their cheerful presence reminds me that solar-saturated days have officially returned, that the hundred different pollinators who rely on those sunny flowers as an early nectar and pollen source are at last well fed, and the liver-cleansing medicine my winter weary body craves is now easily accessible at nearly every turn.

We share this delight with deer and rabbits, munching on tender dandelion leaves for a welcome dose of vitamin A, B-complex, C, D, potassium, zinc, iron, and calcium. It’s summertime, and for many creatures, the living is indeed easier.

Touted as harbingers of health for much of human history, dandelions have been cast out, alienated, and maligned in modern lawn culture in the U.S. Still eaten and appreciated all around the world, dandelion seeds and roots were carefully carried by European colonizers across the Atlantic, hoping to sow their closest plant allies in their new home. Seed catalogs in the 1800s included several dandelion varieties and county fairs featured homegrown dandelions as one of the many potential prize-earning entries.

Now suburban lawns receive more pesticides per acre than agricultural land even though 63% of commonly used pesticides are known carcinogens. Millions are spent on herbicides every year in an effort to kill dandelions. We’ve become disenchanted and disengaged, turning our backs on the plant that had always kept us feeling human, connected, like our familiar ancient selves.

Falling in love with the common plants that grace our backyards can transform our perspective; help us to see the same beauty our indigenous ancestors saw. A new ritual I’ve committed to every year, for enough years now that it feels routine, has certainly changed mine. My annual spring rite—aside from gobbling wild greens so fast my body reverse ages—is harvesting four gallons of dandelion flowers to brew sparkling dandelion mead, or honey wine, for celebration and ceremony throughout the year.

I fell into mead making inspired by Sandor Katz’s Wild Fermentation, his enthusiasm for fermentation and grasp of its strong influence on human history and culture, urged me to begin brewing and fermenting. I longed to be a part of the same legacy of folk who healed their friends and family with homemade potent herbal elixirs. Dandelion mead was my first adventure.

“Mead” tends to conjure caricatures of Vikings guzzling foaming steins in the minds of modern people, who dismissively raise their eyebrows at mead enthusiasm as a one-dimensional fascination with obscurity. Our ancestors would raise their eyebrows right back. Far from obscure, mead is our original libation. The simplest mead is honey, water, and wild yeast. As the story goes, humans encountered fermented honey for the first time in a rain-water-logged beehive. Since then, mead, an intoxicating brew and often spiked with medicinal plants, has inspired poetic ecstasy and spiritual euphoria throughout human history, long cherished as a bridge to the divine.

Mead has a reputation as a life-extending elixir in mythology and lore, which speaks to the health-giving properties of honey as well as the potentiating and preserving effect of alcohol on the medicinal herbs often added.

Since my first stab at mead making, my relationship with the awe-inspiring alchemy of bees, flowers, yeast and water each year deepens. Each May, with each turn of the wheel, I find myself feeling more human, more like myself, finding enchantment in all corners. I find real magic in my growing relationship with dandelion, satisfaction exploring the fields where she grows, and well up with feelings of deep reverence for the sky fairies who synthesize flower essence into a substantive food and potent medicine. I enjoy the company of other creatures who accompany me in the early morning gentle sun. Witnessing the joy and surprise my friends experience when they first sip the subtly bitter, floral, effervescent elixir makes my heart sing. All these memories of place wait bottled like a genie, bring me the comfort of easy summer living on the darkest days of the year.

Beginning with her childhood days making dandelion mud pies, wild-crafting remains a vital, integrated part of Carly Leusner’s life. She co-founded and runs Acorn Kitchen, an educational collaborative, specializing in nature connection and wild food cookery. Check out their 2015 schedule at www.wearewildfood.com or find them at the Northampton Tuesday Farmers Market.