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New brewery under way on Fort Hill Road in Easthampton

Eric Berzins, 26, shown here at the site of the new brewery he is building off Fort Hill Road, plans to create Fort Hill Brewery, a microbrewery focusing on creating lagers using fresh hops grown on site and on other local farms. Berzins maintains Easthampton's water is superior and makes for tasty beer.

Eric Berzins, 26, shown here at the site of the new brewery he is building off Fort Hill Road, plans to create Fort Hill Brewery, a microbrewery focusing on creating lagers using fresh hops grown on site and on other local farms. Berzins maintains Easthampton's water is superior and makes for tasty beer. Purchase photo reprints »

EASTHAMPTON - Construction of Fort Hill Brewery, a combination microbrewery and hop farm slated to open later this year, is under way in a snowy field off of Fort Hill Road.

Owner Eric Berzins, 26, moved to Easthampton five months ago and purchased the 3-acre property in September for $539,750. Forish Construction of Westfield began work on the foundation of the 9,500-square-foot building in November.

“I think we could potentially be brewing by Thanksgiving of next year,” Berzins said in an interview. Berzins’ microbrewery will focus on lagers made with fresh hops grown on site and at other local farms, he said.

Formerly a resident of Bridgewater Corners, Vt., Berzins said he selected Easthampton as the site for his brewery because the city’s water is superior and makes the tastiest beer.

Fort Hill Brewery won’t be the first microbrewery in the city. High & Mighty Brewing Company is scheduled to open in February or March at a former mill building at 180 Pleasant St., said Michael Michon, the building owner and High and Mighty president. It is currently producing beer out of the Paper City Brewery facility in Holyoke.

“It’s pretty exciting,” said Mayor Michael A. Tautznik of Easthampton’s budding brewing industry. “I’m looking forward to it. I think Easthampton has a good water supply, and that’s part of what makes it attractive to brewers.”

Berzins estimated it will cost about $2.3 million to get the business off the ground. Most of his financing comes from his investors, who will share in any profits. He said he also has a small bank loan.

Construction of the microbrewery will resume in February or March, when the steel for the building’s frame is delivered.

Berzins will start growing about an acre of hops on the property in the summer. He hopes to contract with several local farmers to grow additional hops for Fort Hill beer.

“Hop prices are on the rise, especially because of the demand for specialty hops because of craft breweries,” he said. “It’s a rewarding crop, if you’re willing to make the investment.”

It will be three years before the hops will produce the cone-shaped flowers that are used to give beer its distinct bitter taste. Berzins will purchase hops until then.

Most breweries use hop pellets — ground hops formed into pellets that can be easily stored — to brew beer. Berzins said he prefers fresh, whole hops. “It’s so much more delicious with whole hops,” he said.

His goal for his first year in business is to produce 1,200 barrels of beer, or 37,200 gallons. Berzins said he expects to hire four employees starting out.

Fish ladder awaits funding

The city has selected a construction company to complete the stalled fish ladder on the Manhan River, but it is waiting for funding sources for the project to come through. Mayor Michael A. Tautznik said if that happens soon, the project may get under way as early as this spring.

Tautznik said the city chose the lowest of seven bidders for the project. New England Infrastructure Inc. of Hudson offered to complete the project for $465,000.

“We will sign a contract with them when the funding comes through,” he said. “We can’t move forward until then.”

The project seeks to open more than 10 miles of spawning habitat to various species of migratory fish. It was started in 2010 when the city, in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, received $750,000 in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds.

But soon after construction began, the contractor discovered wooden timbers buried in the river bottom that needed to be removed, bringing project costs to over $1.2 million. Work stopped due to a lack of funds.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has found other funding sources to get the project started again, Tautznik said. In addition to the remaining $92,490 of the original recovery act funds, Fish and Wildlife is allocating some of its own money. Around $150,000 is expected to come from a $345,000 settlement between the Department of Environmental Protection and the Holyoke Gas and Electric Department. In 2004, the Holyoke natural gas plant was found to have released coal tar into the Connecticut River.

He said he is confident the project will be completed without further issues because the engineering and construction companies are aware of the buried timbers this time around.

“We identified all that to the bidders, so it’s up to them to figure it out,” he said. “It’s when there are unforeseen issues that it’s a problem.”

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

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