By Christopher Peter Ehnstrom | Photographs by Dominic Perri and Carole Topalian
The Pioneer Valley is home to a wealth of locally produced, lovingly fermented beverages. It wasn’t always so. When I first came to the Valley, the microbrew movement was just getting under way. Very few craft brews existed and those of us with an adventurous palate turned to homebrew. A toast with local beer, cider, or mead featured beverages we brewed ourselves, with results that ranged from comic to tragic.
Times change. Now when I raise a glass with friends it’s more likely to be filled with an offering from one of the Valley’s professional fermenteers.
My cohort back then consisted of a ragtag band of twenty-somethings—our relationships ranging from housemates to coworkers to partners-in-crime. We liked to grow, gather, hunt, cook, can, and ferment many of the things we consumed. These days, my rounds of good cheer happen with a collection of fairly new fathers. One evening—after tucking in the toddlers—we gathered to sample some of the Valley’s fermented offerings.
We tasted a few hard ciders to start. I remember the days when hard cider was, to me, something spontaneously created in the walk-in refrigerator at one restaurant or another. Whenever autumn was winding down, there were inevitably a few plastic jugs of apple cider forgotten in some corner. On a slow evening, someone would discover them, inflated and ready to explode. By the end of the shift most of the staff would be in a festive mood—fueled by clandestine trips to the cooler to sneak a belt or two of the sharp, boozy beverage.
These days, the Valley’s cider makers offer more intentional fermentations.
West County Cider (Colrain)
McIntosh Pura Vida
This single-varietal cider is a wonderfully drinkable bottle. The color is a pale straw and the aroma straight McIntosh. A light body, good carbonation, and a clean finish make it quite refreshing. Its flavor is crisp and bright, capturing the quality of the apple perfectly.
Headwater Cider (Hawley)
New England Dry Cider
This somewhat heartier offering has a floral, fruity nose that hints at its nicely complex taste. A light body spreads slowly across the palate and a long finish delivers ever changing tones of sweet, sour, and tangy apple.
Bear Swamp Orchard (Ashfield)
Sparkling Hard Cider
This certified organic cider sparkled nicely out of the bottle, though it had gone a bit flat by the end of the glass. Its wild yeast fermentation gives it a musky nose and an earthy flavor overall. Dry and lightly acidic, with a sour note, this cider delivers an untamed, meaty essence.
Back in the day, a few of the guys kept bees. Trying our hand at making mead seemed like a good idea. It was a fun project for a midsummer day. Honey, water, yeast—what could be simpler? It turned out that mead was, in fact, a bit more complicated. One evening as we were sitting around the living room, we became aware of an intermittent rumble. There were bursts of quiet drumming coming from somewhere in the house. About every half hour, at first, but then their frequency increased until a muted drumroll was heard every few minutes. We finally tracked down the source—it was coming from behind the door where the mead was aging. Unchecked bacteria had run amok, and one by one the bottles were ejecting their corks to ricochet about the closet. Filtering your backyard honey is important, we learned.
Our recent tasting included a pair of local meads. By virtue of still being contained in the bottle, they started out with a distinct advantage over any I’d tried before.
Green River Ambrosia (Greenfield)
Liquid Sunshine Mead
True to its name, Liquid Sunshine pours with a deep, clear, golden color. Similarly, its flavor is pure and simple. It is not overly sweet, yet has a full body that accentuates the taste of honey. This straightforward honey essence makes it a great candidate for midwinter mulling with one’s favorite spices.
Green River Ambrosia (Greenfield)
Bourbon Barrel Cyzer
In contrast to the simplicity of Liquid Sunshine, Bourbon Barrel Cyzer is remarkably complex for a mead. Combined with local cider and aged in bourbon barrels, this pale amber mead’s depth is evident immediately in the nose. The fruit flavor is quite forward, with floral, honeyed notes and a heady edge of bourbon.
Beer is the one beverage with which I can claim a modicum of success—though the homebrewing victories are still outweighed by the defeats. One early effort to make a porter ran into a snag when (due to ongoing prank warfare) it was discovered that someone’s hat had been boiled, unseen, in the tar-black wort. After some grumbling and temple rubbing, it was decided to go ahead and finish the batch. Months later, with great trepidation, we ventured to taste the finished product. Surprisingly, beer made with hat tasted remarkably like feet.
Nowadays, I’m happy to leave the brewing to others, and there are plenty of Valley professionals brewing on our behalf.
Element Brewing Company (Millers Falls)
Interval Ale: Altoberfest
This seasonal selection opens up with a thick, persistent head above a clear amber-brown ale. Toasted malt is prominent in the nose. The grain flavors are balanced by a hint of bitterness without being too hoppy. Element delivers as billed: the mellow profile of an Altbier with the fuller body of an Oktoberfest.
Lefty’s Brewing Company (Greenfield)
Lefty’s Oktoberfest can only be described as a true representative of the style. The ale’s ruby brown hue tints its thick head, and its many malts are evident in its aroma. The flavors of smoky malt and caramel are very forward without being too sweet. A bit lighter on the palate than many Oktoberfests, this a very drinkable ale if the plan is to share a few rounds.
Paper City Brewing Company (Holyoke)
Fogbuster Coffee House Ale
A robust beer for a cold winter’s evening (or morning), Paper City’s Fogbuster Ale is a standout for those who love the darker side of the brewing world. Inky black to the point of opacity, it pours with a full, heavy head that clings doggedly to the sides of the glass. Rich coffee smells precede each opulent swig. Dark roasts of malt and coffee hang around on the tongue with notes of chocolate for a good, long while at the finish of this one.
The People People’s Pint (Greenfield)
Brownish-black and turbid beneath a short, brown cap, a glass of Shortnose Stout looks dressed for the winter. There is sweet licorice in the nose, which closed off a bit as the head receded to the rim of the glass. Hints of raisin, fig, and prune blend with the sweet malt. The body is on the thin side for a stout, but it finishes with a pleasant nuttiness.
Brewmaster Jack (Northampton)
Hop Essence Series: Hallertau Blanc
A single-hop brew is always fun for the hop lovers, and the latest in Brewmaster Jack’s series doesn’t disappoint. The name “blanc” belies the deep amber hue of the beer, which pours with a fine, lively head. One can spend a while with their nose stuck in the glass. There’s a lot going on in that one hop. Fresh, grassy resin, citrus tones, a tiny floral note, a bit of pepper—the longer one smells the more one finds. A subtle malt complements the single hop nicely, and the long finish leaves a pleasant bitterness.
Howler Brewery (Hatfield)
Billy’s Pale Ale
From one hop to two, Billy’s promises Cascade and Nugget hops in this pale ale. It pours a slightly cloudy, copper color with a good head. The Nuggets dominate the nose, giving a perfumy, lavender bouquet. Light on the tongue, the sweet, bready flavor of the malts and a slight yeastiness outweigh the hops more than one would expect in a pale ale.
Scantic River Brewery (Hampden)
Totally Massachusetts Ale
Scantic takes “local” up a level by sourcing this ale’s ingredients exclusively from Massachusetts. Misty and golden in the glass, with an aroma that suggests a Wiesen’s yeast along with lemon notes. The biscuity Vienna malt is evident, along with very earthy overtones.
Berkshire Brewing Company (S. Deerfield)
Czech Style Pilsner
For those who prefer lighter beers, BBC has perfected a Pilsner. It is crystal clear amber in the glass, with a dense, fluffy head and refreshing carbonation. The clean, zesty bitterness of Saaz hops is unmistakable in the nose. With a crisp, simple balance of light malt and grassy hops and a dry, refreshing finish, many consider this more a beer for summer. But if your holiday revelers include “macrobrew” drinkers, this is a great one to ease them over toward beer with flavor.
Times change. Back then, after a tasting like this, the gang would fall asleep on chairs, sofas, perhaps the floor. Some would rise bleary eyed, a few hours later, and drag themselves off to kitchens and bakeries to suffer through a shift. Others would wake and forego coffee for another pint—fortification against the coming winter’s chill.
Back to the present. By the time we reach the final bottle, the group has slowly dwindled away—“early lecture”, “baby has a cold”, “promised the wife 11 o’clock” ... There’s no razzing, no teasing; we share similar situations. Times have changed. Still, those changes have brought many new reasons to raise a glass, and many local offerings to fill it with.
We did, however, throw a homebrew into the evening’s mix… hope springs eternal.
Christopher Peter Ehnstrom is a Cape Cod native who was transplanted to the Valley in 1992. He is a former chef and bread baker, a current daddy and tech geek, and an eternal lover of all things fermented.