We felt like rock stars.
When the Beer Bloggers’ Conference arrived at Harpoon Brewery in Boston this summer, we were quietly ushered away from the rather impressive stream of visitors pouring in for the brewery tour. Off to the side, inside a small courtyard, were black-clad staff with trays of an Imperial White IPA designed especially for us. Rich Doyle had driven down from an event in Vermont specifically to welcome us. Adam McQueen, Harpoon’s Digital Marketing Director, made us laugh. Then we were escorted through the brewery works (ogling great shining fermenters on the way), with more black clad staff waiting at junctions and corners to guide us along the way. We practically burst into the new Mead Hall – er, Beer Hall, a beautiful long room full of light wood and daylight. An almond-shaped bar divided the room 2/3 – 1/3. On the 2/3 side were long tables groaning with beer samples and platters of fresh cheese – the opening salvo of the feast menu. Kent and Rick of Vermont Farmstead Cheese Company wandered around with a wheel of 25-month-old Vermont cheddar, carving chunks on request. A huge screen showed our collective feed as we Tweeted the experience – hashtag #BBC13Harpoon.
Harpoon’s Idea of Dinner – Do This If You Can
Dinner was sumptuous, fresh, innovative, and absolutely delicious. Man, if that’s any sample of the food in the Beer Hall, get yourself to Boston quick! Black-clad staff practically pounced to bring us what we needed or remove what we didn’t. They were sharp-eyed and on the ball, yet friendly, looking out for all 150 of us with pleasant alacrity. Very crisp, very professional, these black-clad staff. I thought to myself they must have one hell of an employee development program at Harpoon. You don’t buy service and loyalty like this.
I wasn’t crazy about the beer pairings, though. Oh, I liked the beers fine, and the food was remarkable – but I didn’t think they complimented each other well. That’s where Zack of Raising the Barstool changed the whole course of my night.
Enter Harpoon’s Various
Zach from had wandered away from our groaning board and over to the bar and gotten into a conversation with a young but very eager and knowledgeable young barkeep. This fellow poured Zack a glass, and Zack then wandered back to our table. It had never occurred to me to go looking for more beer, or to look anywhere other than our long tables piled high with inestimable edibles. Zack let me have a sip. It was a saison. That beer had aromas that layered in the glass, so that as I moved my nose closer to the beer, every sniff came with a different combination of spice and malt. First I noticed coriander and orange, then a light malt, followed by a sweetish hop, then a hint of pepper. I had never, ever experienced a beer aroma with such complexity and interest, or one that lay in layers like that. Thank goodness the glass was a generous tulip shape, perfectly designed for dipping one’s nose in (as I tend to do). (It’s a measure of Harpoon’s coolness that they serve a lot, if not all of their beers in paper-thin tulip glasses. That shape really helps you appreciate a beer.)
I rose and made a beeline for the bar. I noticed for the first time that there were actually non-bloggers present; they were on the 1/3 side of the room, having a grand time. I collared a young server and asked for this beer. And got the beginning of the story of Four Saisons and the Various.
What Zack had let me taste was Saison Various, an experimental beer, one of the 100 Barrel Project series. I love experiments, especially ones by people who really know what they’re doing. So of course when I got home I immediately contacted Harpoon’s media goddess, Liz Melby, and peppered her with questions. She deftly deflected them to Ryan Thompson, one of Harpoon’s two brewers based at their Vermont location, and one of the brewers involved in this particular effort. Ryan was kind enough to answer them all and make himself available for further question-peppering. I’m a blogger. A-peppering I did go.
So first, the story: four brewers at Harpoon were told “Go ye forth, and make saison as ye see fit!” or something like that. So they did. In 120 barrel systems. Now, a U.S. barrel holds 31 U.S. gallons (Imperial measures are slightly different). For me, a homebrewer who experiments in 1 gallon batches and brews in lots of 5 gallons, the idea that someone might trust me enough to tell me to experiment in a 1,621 gallon batch is astonishing. These guys – !
You gotta love a 480 barrel experiment. 14,880 gallons of “experimental” beer. Boo-yah!
The intention from the start was to blend the four, and offer each of the four individually as well as the blend in the Beer Hall. I didn’t make it to a flight of all four individual beers. It was the blend that made me shiver.
Ethan Elston has worked at the Boston Harpoon facility for more than three years. He went to college in New York, then worked as a brewer at Ommegang before coming to Harpoon. He made his saison with a very traditional grain bill. He added coriander, orange peel, and black peppercorns. He fermented his batch with a Trappist yeast strain – he was the only one to use an outlier yeast; the other three brewers all used the same yeast strain. He’s used it previously, and pushed hard to use it here. Ryan thought Ethan called his Earthy Saison; he said it was written down behind the bar, a charmingly informal touch.
Jamie Maxwell has been at Harpoon for over three years also, and works in Vermont with Ryan. He was assistant brewer at Union Station in Providence, RI before that. His Saison Joanisse was very traditional: pilsner malt base, French saison yeast, no spices.
Rich Masella has been at Harpoon for more than two years. He started in a Brewers Guild program with Steve Parks, then worked briefly at Cricket Hill in New Jersey before coming to Harpoon. Ryan said a lot of brewers are coming in that way now, going through a program straight out of college, then moving around to gain experience before deciding where to settle. For his Saison Richard, Rich went American-style: 2-row base malt, New Zealand hops, and a French saison yeast strain. Ryan mentioned that he got some subtle citrus notes from the hops he wasn’t expecting. Rich is younger, maybe not afraid to take a style and run with it. For some of the older brewers, honoring the tradition that goes with a beer style can really matter, but Rich is willing to push the envelope. (Rich recently left Harpoon to move to Eugene, OR.)
Ryan Thompson has the most experience of all four. Like Jamie and Ethan, he’s been at Harpoon for over three years. He’s worked at Rock Bottom in Denver and The Walnut brewery in Boulder, CO. He’s based out of the Vermont Harpoon brewery, rather than the big Boston complex. He brewed his beer first of the four, so at that point he didn’t know what the other three had in store for this project. Ryan’s Saison Juneau (named for his female chocolate Labrador retriever) went with a traditional malt bill: pilsner base malt with a little Vienna and “a small amount” of wheat. He hopped with East Kent Goldings (one of my personal faves) and spiced it with coriander and white peppercorns. He was originally going to use a different yeast strain, but propagating three different yeast strains for the four brewers seemed like it was going to be a pain for the department that does that, so he switched to what Jamie and Rich were using – a French saison yeast. In working with his recipe previously, Ryan had used White Labs Saison II, which brought out a subtly different, more traditional flavor. He thought it would finish a little too dry, but with the blend it worked out. He thought perhaps the hops from Rich’s batch made his own ok.
The 100 Barrel project usually gets started with someone at Harpoon brewing a 5-gallon batch of home brew. It turns out to be a particularly good recipe; the brewer (who may or may not work as a brewer) passes it along to a boss. If the boss likes it, he passes it on to Dan and Rich, the owners. If they think it’s ok and will move off the shelves, it becomes a 100 Barrel project. There are only four 100 Barrel projects a year, and you get your name on a bottle. It’s a big deal for the brewers, and they might get a little competitive when they’re trying to get their beer in front of the guys who might choose it. Ryan says it’s mostly different brewers each time, though there are those who have participated more than once (Ryan mentioned he’d been part of the team that produced batch #47). He didn’t know what the thought process was on which project to choose – ideas come from all over – often the recipes come from in-house home brew competitions. The 100 Barrel project that preceded Saison Various was a home brew recipe that won the in-house brew comp the previous year. He noted off-handedly it was almost time for the next quarterly 100 Barrel project…
The idea for the four-and-blended saison hatched in the spring. The brewers started their beers in July, and blended a few weeks later. (The four beers were mixed in even proportions into a 500 barrel tank.) They’ve been available in the Beer Hall at Harpoon in Boston, at their restaurant in Windsor, Vermont, and bottles sold in places that carry the 100 Barrel Project beers. (Not, alas, anywhere near me.) By those channels you could get a flight of all four plus the blended Various.
None of the batches were casked. Word is, Jamie and Ryan’s came out closest to the traditional saison. No surprise there, they both made pretty classic recipes. Ethan’s had a strong hop presence – that’s what you get when you go American-style in this day and age. Rich’s, of course, “pushed the envelope in a completely different direction.” (I bet it did.)
Saison Various is a little different from some of the 100 Barrel Projects, because these four brewers were asked specifically to brew this particular kind of beer. Ryan said he “got the question” from Al Marzi, head of brewing operations for all of Harpoon, who told him then about the blending plan, and who the other participating brewers were. Ryan thinks they did something similar about ten years ago or so, a different style beer that they brewed for a beer fest at the time. I’d have been giddy getting a phone call from one of the head honchos at Harpoon asking me to make a batch of beer, but Ryan just started working on a recipe, brewed a 5 gallon batch and liked it, and went forth from there.
I mentioned it seems like most brewers I meet these days are young, young, young – he said he works with a few older guys, but that right now most of the brewers really are younger. Footloose and fancy-free, there tends to be turnover as brewers go explore other locations and other brewing styles, or to work with a particular brewer. “You learn constantly in this business.” It makes for one big brewing network – “You’re always meeting someone you know, or someone who knows someone you know.” He says some of the brewers he works with want to own their own brewery one day, or become a head brewer someplace. “Those seem like reasonable enough dreams to me.” At 37, Ryan got a slightly later start as a commercial brewer. Now he’s engaged, and he and his two dogs (Juneau and a pointer) are settling down in Vermont.
Ryan said he’s worked for breweries owned or run by beer fanatics, or people who are crazy about beer so they start a business –
“…and that’s great. Then there’s the other side where you work for someone who’s just in for the bottom line, and don’t really care other than it sells and they’re paying the bills. Harpoon is unique because the owners are business conscious, they went to school and they know what they’re doing, but they really care, they love beer, the really care that the business is profitable but want the product to be something they enjoy…that rubs off on the employees. Passion trickles down. They have a system that seems to work and kinda permeates the whole company.”
Life in a big brewery is pretty regimented. Boston has three shifts with 5-6 brewers rotating through. They went from 3 shifts to 2 recently, 6am-3pm and 3pm-done. That’s right, till they’re done. There’s someone in the brewhouse, someone (or two) in the cellars working filtration and fermentation, and then the bottling guys and the ones in the quality control lab. Ryan noted the bottlers get called brewers but their jobs don’t overlap with the brewhouse guys, though some do have brewing backgrounds. One past bottling manager was a brewer first, then got promoted into his managerial position. For those of you who long to work at a great brewery, there are many roads…
I asked whether Harpoon does much with barrels, given that I’m currently sweet on barrel rooms. Ryan says they don’t do a lot with them. A few years ago they brewed a Catamount Maple Wheat using local syrup, and some of that spent time in a whiskey barrel. He said the bourbon notes really came through, but that if they use barrels it’s generally very small amounts. Part of the reason why is Harpoon’s size (big by craft standards but not huge overall), and part is the style of beer they
tend to focus on – who doesn’t love a Harpoon ale on a hot day? The first barrel brewery that came to his mind was Allagash in Portland, ME, where I’d been just a couple of days earlier – now there’s a barrel room, you can see pictures of it on my Facebook page – and there is a former Harpoon brewer there, so it’s easy for Ryan to visit.
Summer is very tight at Harpoon, schedule-wise. Harpoon does festivals: Oktoberfest of course, in both Vermont and Boston; a big barbecue in July; bike races, point-to-point Vermont-centric bike philanthropy events, a brewery-to-brewery ride from Boston to Vermont; etc., etc. Harpoon clearly wants you to come see them, raise money for charities and enjoy their brewing projects.
Above all, the brewers all still home brew. Ryan says he goes long stretches without; like any other job, sometimes you don’t want to bring it home. He’s brewed a couple of batches at home this year, and one on the ten barrel system at Harpoon in Boston. His fiancée wants him to make a wedding beer as a gift for all the guests, something Ryan’s still mulling over. He says he might use a recipe he already has, or might play around with something for a few months first. She’s in love with stouts…
You can buy Saison Various “in the marketplace”. Well, not my local marketplace, but it might be in yours. If you like a refreshing saison with enough going on to be more than a little interesting, try to find this beer. The Harpoon beer finder will help.
The photos of the brewing staff and the bottle were supplied by Merill Maloney while Liz Melby is on maternity leave. Liz arranged my interview with Ryan; Ryan offered his time to be interviewed and re-read my draft for accuracy. My heartfelt thanks go out to Merrill, Liz, and Ryan for the time they spent helping me.