Brewer’s dream takes shape in Easthampton field
Fort Hill Brewery, of Fort Hill Road in Easthampton, a microbrewery under construction off Fort Hill Road, is slated to be up and running by Thanksgiving. It is not the first microbrewery to call Easthampton home. High & Mighty Brewing Company, which has been producing beer out of the Paper City Brewery facility in Holyoke, is scheduled to open in February or March at a former mill building at 180 Pleasant St. Purchase photo reprints »
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 — In a field off Fort Hill Road Friday, five men worked on the concrete skeleton of an industrial building while trudging through the 6 inches of snow blanketing the site.
It may not look like much more than a foundation to people driving by the clearing, but to Eric Berzins, the owner of the hop farm and brewery that is taking shape there, it is the first manifestation of a business dream.
Standing inside the incomplete concrete walls of the 9,500-square-foot building, Berzins points out where the Fort Hill Brewery tasting room will be and where the brewing, fermenting and bottling will take place.
“I think we could potentially be brewing by Thanksgiving of next year,” he said.
Berzins’ microbrewery will focus on lagers made with fresh hops grown on site and at other local farms, he said.
When he announced his plans to city officials in September 2011, the then resident of Bridgewater Corners, Vt., said he had selected Easthampton as the site for his brewery because the city’s water is superior and would make for tasty beer.
Berzins, 26, moved to Easthampton five months ago and purchased the 3-acre property Sept. 28 for $539,750. Forish Construction of Westfield began work on the foundation in November.
Fort Hill Brewery will not be the first microbrewery in the city. High & Mighty Brewing Company, which has been producing beer out of the Paper City Brewery facility in Holyoke, is scheduled to open in February or March at a former mill building at 180 Pleasant St., according to the building’s owner, High and Mighty President Michael Michon.
“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.”
The business of beer
Berzins said his journey to become a brewer started when he began making small batches of beer in his apartment while he was a student at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. He graduated in 2008 with a degree in economics.
“I got a job at a bank, and I realized I didn’t like working a desk job,” he said. “But then I couldn’t find another job.”
In 2009, he started working as an unpaid intern at Blue Hills Brewery in Canton to get practical experience. The next year he enrolled in the Siebel Institute of Technology in Chicago, a 140-year-old brewing school that teaches theory, science and technology to aspiring brewers from around the world. He received a certificate of completion from the institute.
But his plans to enter the brewery field were put on hold when he was diagnosed with lymphoma, a type of cancer that causes unnatural white blood cell growth.
Berzins said the kind of lymphoma he was diagnosed with is highly treatable. Thanks to that treatment, he has been cancer-free since January 2011.
Although the sickness was a setback, Berzins said, his resilience helped convince many of his investors — mostly family and friends — that he was worth betting on.
“I think it gave them confidence in me, and from there, it made it easier to get others to invest,” he said.
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. Berzins said he also has a small bank loan.
Berzins began his property search in south Boston, viewing close to 50 properties. Most of the sites, he said, had environmental issues from past industrial uses. “We wanted to start off on the right foot, not in a contaminated building,” he said.
He said Easthampton appealed to him not only because of its water quality but because the parcel he found had enough land to build the brewery and also to plant an acre of hops.
The property had no utility service when Berzins first looked at it. The city installed sewer and water lines on Fort Hill Road this past spring, and Columbia Gas extended gas lines to the property from Ferry Street this summer. Electricity will be installed in the spring, Berzins said.
“Everyone came together to be as supportive as we could,” Tautznik said of the utility work. “The work has benefited a lot of folks, not just the brewery.”
Friday was scheduled to be the final day of concrete pouring. Construction of the microbrewery will resume in February or March, when the steel for the building’s frame is delivered.
Berzins will start growing 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.
He said he hopes to buy more land to expand his hops-growing operation.
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.
He also plans to focus on lagers because he thinks that the craft brewing industry is flooded with ales. He sees a need for “session beers” that have lower alcohol contents than many craft ales.
“Lagers are harder to brew. They take about twice as long,” he said. That translates to five or six weeks, compared to three weeks for an ale.
However, he might make a seasonal ale, Berzins said, and he hopes to brew at least one unfiltered beer, although they have a shorter shelf life. “Unfiltered beers taste more hearty and meaty,” 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.
He said that when he relocated to Easthampton this summer, he was pleased to find that the city is a welcoming community with lots to do.
“I think I definitely got really lucky,” he said. “I came to Easthampton because of the water, but I got a really great town.”
Rebecca Everett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.