MAP Fort Hill Brewery in Easthampton releases first beer as a third brewery takes shape on Pleasant Street

Last modified: Friday, October 10, 2014
EASTHAMPTON — Standing at the wooden bar in the tasting room of Fort Hill Brewery this week, owner Eric Berzins held a glass of Oktoberfest, the first beer his brewery has released, and indulged in a proud moment.

“Twenty-two months ago, this was just a field,” he said.

After building a $4 million-plus brewery on a 3-acre parcel at 30 Fort Hill Road and spending months developing his Oktoberfest, Berzins, 28, began distributing the beer to bars in Easthampton Thursday. Since then, he has been selling growlers of the lager to visitors at his Fort Hill Road operation. The reception has been good, he said.

“It was really nice to go to Galaxy and purchase my own beer for $5,” he said of the bar and restaurant at 60 Main St. “That was definitely a cool feeling.”

Berzins chose Easthampton as the site for his 9,500-square-foot brewery and hop farm, financed by investors, in 2011. Since then, the city has become home to two other microbreweries. The newest, New City Brewery, under construction in Mill 180 at 180 Pleasant St., could open as early as next month. Abandoned Building Brewery, which started producing beer in March, is now selling pints that can be consumed in the brewery at 142 Pleasant St.

New City Brewery is owned by Sam Dibble, a 29-year-old city resident and former head brewer at Green River Ambrosia in Greenfield.

“We’ve been installing equipment and we’re on track to release a beer by the end of September or early October,” Dibble said in a phone interview this week.

The 8,000-square-foot space he has been building out since January is the same one that High & Mighty Beer Co. had planned to move into until pulling out of the project in 2013.

“It came close to not being a brewery at all,” Dibble said. “I saw huge potential in the space and location.”

Dibble co-founded Green River Ambrosia in Greenfield, which brews meads as well as a ginger beer called Ginger Libation. In 2013, it merged with Katalyst Kombucha to become the Artisan Beverage Cooperative, and Dibble left to pursue his new project.

He said he did not want to reveal too much about the kind of beers he plans to make, although he is experimenting with test batches.

Winning a permit

At Abandoned Building Brewery, new developments include the brewery’s first foray into retail growler sales at River Valley Market and its new permit that allows people to drink the beer at the brewery.

Owner Matthew Tarlecki, 28, got approval Aug. 13 from the state Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission for a Farmers Series Pouring Permit that allows him to sell pints to be consumed on the premises. Without it, breweries can only give out 2-ounce samples or sell the beer to be drunk elsewhere.

“People have been coming into the brewery often and asking to get pints,” said Tarlecki, who runs the brewery by himself. With the permit, “we can make customers happy and make a little extra money.”

Although people can drink there, Tarlecki said his brewery is not going to have the atmosphere or late hours of a bar. It is open Tuesdays and Thursdays from 5 to 7 p.m. and Saturdays from noon to 6 p.m.

Fort Hill’s first

Berzins’ first beer is a German-style Oktoberfest with an alcohol content of 4.5 percent. Unlike American-style ales that use the same name, a German Oktoberfest is a light lager.

Fort Hill Brewery will focus on German-style lagers, a rarity in the Massachusetts craft beer market where ales are king. Next, Berzins said, he plans to brew a dark bock, a traditional malty lager.

It took 2,500 pounds of German malt, 20 pounds of dried hops, and about six weeks to make the batch of Oktoberfest Berzins released this week. “We’re really happy with how it tastes,” he said.

While he had hoped to release the beer earlier this year, problems with equipment and a few “rookie mistakes,” he said, resulted in batches of beer that were not good enough to release. “It was drinkable, but not excellent,” he said.

He said he did not feel pressured to come up with a beer within a certain timeline, but was focusing instead on creating a beer he was proud of. “I knew we had delicious water, a sophisticated system, and we just needed to get it just right,” he said.

It took some time to translate his small home-brewing recipes into 3,000-gallon batches, he said, but the main problem was a technological one. “We had a sensor giving us a false positive. It said we were boiling but we weren’t,” he said.

While it might seem like a minor difference, the liquid at one stage of the process was only reaching 207 degrees, when it needed to hit 212, he said.

“We dumped probably 10 batches. It was frustrating,” said Berzins.

Brewing beer is a complex process, and even the smallest slipup can ruin a batch.

In one mishap, a coolant valve that was open just seconds too long dropped the temperature of the beer too much, which “shocked the yeast” so that it stopped turning sugar to alcohol. “It’s extremely delicate,” he said.

Experiments continue

Now, even though he has created what he maintains is an excellent Oktoberfest, Berzins said he and his fellow brewers will continue to experiment and tweak recipes to make the best brews.

“The beer is going to keep getting better,” he said. Berzins runs the brewery with two employees, Kriss Strikis and Chris Gingrich, and said he will likely hire more employees as the business grows. His beer is on tap, or will soon be, in Easthampton bars and restaurants including Riff’s Joint, Galaxy, Coco, the Brass Cat, and the Apollo Grill, and in Holyoke at Wyckoff Country Club.

“We’ll focus on Easthampton and Northampton for the next couple months or so,” he said. “We’re definitely going to grow into the system, probably within half a year.” He said eventually he aims to sell beer in cans as well as growlers.

The size of the brewing system will allow Fort Hill Brewery to make approximately 8,000 barrels a year.

Each barrel is two kegs. For comparison, Berkshire Brewing Co. in Deerfield produced 21,000 barrels in 2013, according to the Brewers Association.

“We want to add to the western Mass. beer scene,” Berzins said. “We want to maintain the high bar or raise it a little bit.”

Fort Hill Brewery’s tasting room does not have regular hours yet, Berzins said, but it will be open from 2 to 6 p.m. Saturday. Those interested in visiting can check for announcements on the brewery’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/FortHillBrewery.

Rebecca Everett can be reached at reverett@gazettenet.com.