Growing up, my family didn’t have much in the way of tradition. We weren’t religious, we didn’t have strong ancestral roots, and our extended family was usually so close that gatherings didn’t necessitate much fanfare. The traditions I have practiced have been small ones. Sophomore year of college, Gibson and I began sharing our tradition of long drives to and from school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Gibson is from Carlisle, Massachusetts (no, that’s not a typo) and I hail from Brunswick, Maine. I would swing down through Maine’s two-lane, tree-lined highways (we’re a simple folk), pick-up Gibson, and we would spend the next seven-plus hours in the car sharing music, talking extensively about school, politics, girls, religion, food, and beer, and avoiding the tractor trailers that toil like ants on Route 84. It was always bittersweet when we got to school.
Our most recent drive home marked the end of this tradition. When we graduate from Dickinson College this May, we’ll both be driving home with our parents. We wanted to end our tradition on a high note. We see ourselves as (amateur, but proud) beer geeks, and the logical choice was to visit a couple breweries as we drove home. We wanted more than a simple tour; we wanted to talk to the brewers, the owners, and the drinkers. We’re home-brewers, and we wanted to better understand what it took to brew successful and meaningful craft beer. We started our last trip home, this time with some pit stops.
Our first stop was New England Brewing Co. in Woodbridge, Connecticut. From what we found online, NEBCo. seemed down-to-Earth and locally focused. NEBCo. is a little tough to find but by way of some urban bushwacking we found ourselves in front of the large, white bay doors in an industrial area of town. The tap room didn’t open for another four hours, so we wandered into the brewery itself.
From the heavy, wheaty smell and the cat’s cradle of hoses on the floor, we knew we had walked in on the end of a brew day. It felt like showing up to a party after everyone has gone home, but in this case there was still plenty of alcohol. 90-barrel fermentors neatly stood in pairs, some already putting their blowoff tubes to work. The only activity came from a small canning line humming in the center of the brewery. The hypnotic process drew me in, its whirring and clanking reminiscent of a Siren’s song. We were greeted by Sebastian D'Agostino, one of NEBCo’s lead brewers. He hadn’t been told that we’d be coming in, but was excited to show us around nonetheless.
Sebastian is soft spoken and knowledgeable. He’d studied at Versuchs- und Lehranstalt für Brauerei (VLB, because German is hard) in Berlin, breaking the homebrewer-turned-brewer mold. He quickly ran us through what was going on in some of their fermentors; Coffee Breath, a robust coffee stout, and Sea Hag, a hop-heavy IPA brewed with Noble hops that gave off floral and grassy notes and had a solid malt backbone. We discussed NEBCo’s usual host of brews (they only brew three, G-Bot, Sea Hag, and 668, year round) while Blue Scholars and Black Star bumped in the background. NEBCo. may only consistently brew three beers, but brewers are welcome to try out any recipe on a homebrew system. The idea is that no recipe is a bad recipe until it’s proven to be bad. Trying out an idea and messing up can only fuel the creative process of brewing. If it’s drinkable, then it gets promoted to the big fermenters. Sebastian told us of his favorite screwup-turned-success, Fat Tenner Milk Stout. A misstep in the process (any brewer knows the “oh fuck” moment) led to a much lighter beer than anticipated, so he tossed in some extra dark malt last minute. The result was a dark, heavy, and more-than-drinkable milk stout. Replicating the beer is near-impossible and it became an ode to the often spontaneous and unpredictable process of brewing at NEBCo.
NEBCo’s tasting room is a testament to their humble approach to brewing. The space is wide-open and simple, adorned with beer-can art and framed versions of their various can logos. Their Imperial Stout Trooper logo recently prompted a cease-and-desist letter from Lucas Films for featuring a Storm Trooper helmet. NEBCo. responded by slapping some Groucho Marx glasses onto the helmet. It’s a testament to NEBCo’s sense of humor and down-to-earth mentality. Sebastian explained to us that the brewery is dedicated to providing a sense of locality; Woodbridge and the surrounding communities are a huge part of NEBCo’s success. When they release new brews; dates and times aren’t advertised weeks in advance, bringing in every beer aficionado from Maryland to Maine. Instead, they announce new releases a day or so in advance to let Woodbridge residents and frequent patrons have a fair chance at enjoying local beer. This sense of support is reciprocated by the breweries themselves. Despite the competitive nature of the beer scene, when crucial brewing equipment failed at NEBCo. other breweries, like Two Roads in Stratford, Connecticut, have stepped in to help so that production isn’t hindered.
New England Brewing makes terrific beer, but that’s not what defines their character. NEBCo. has established a sense of locality. Beyond local, a sense of locality means a sense of where you are and what’s around you. It goes beyond sourcing local ingredients - it’s about being an active part of the community. NEBCo. supports town initiatives, promotes collaboration, and even invites the local Girl Scout troop to sell cookies in their tap room. While we discussed beer, Star Wars, and music with Sebastian, local business owner and beer enthusiast Matt Browning stopped in for a growler. He came in like someone eager to get home, and NEBCo. was his home. He spoke with us about his business, Oui Charcuterie, which produces nitrate-fee salami from pigs fed on NEBCo’s spent grain. The connection between these two businesses illustrates just how integrated into the fabric of Connecticut this brewery has become.
We could have stayed for hours but that would have been unfair both to Sebastian, who probably needed to get back to work, and our parents, who were trying to gauge our ever changing arrival times to greet us with some home cooked dinners. Sadly, we needed to hit the road again; however, we certainly didn’t leave empty hearted or handed. We climbed back into my un-airconditioned Subaru toting cans of Sea Hag and some of Oui Charcuterie’s seriously hot (and delicious) salami.
Words and Photos by Gibson Holland
I attempted to process everything we saw, heard, and tasted over that hour with Sebastian with repeated exclamations of “Dawg!” and, “Wow!” I suspect this peeved Nick, who sat in the passenger seat, as I stated the obvious. My giddiness only slightly subsided before we pulled off of Route 290 in the heart of Worcester, Massachusetts and found ourselves right outside one of the city’s many refurbished red brick buildings and our next pit stop.
When Wormtown Brewery started out of an old ice cream shop in 2010, it became the first brewery in Worcester since the 1950’s. While their collection of light and hoppy year-round ales such as Bottle Rocket Pale Ale and 7 Hills Session Ale bear odes to the city’s history, that hasn’t stopped them from experimenting with all things dark and barrel aged. Their 2015 relocation within Worcester represented an expansion necessitated by a rapidly growing popularity. They’ve created a culture - Worcester now houses three breweries with more coming in the next year.
We didn’t call or email ahead of time. We could only stay an hour and wanted to experience the taproom in its natural setting. At 3:00 PM on a Friday, the place hummed - the perfect balance between awkwardly empty and can’t-hear-your-own-thoughts busy. The taproom itself isn’t that big, especially for the towering collection of 30 and 90 barrel fermenters glinting through the glass wall behind the bar. The place has a cozy openness - huge windows wrap around almost the entire space from the bar to the open glass doors opposite that lead out to a patio. Wormtown is the antithesis of the dark, dingy space that so many people might think of when you say “beer bar” let alone anything associated with worms. Afterall, their flagship beer “Be Hoppy” is a hop-forward IPA packed with citrus juiciness and its yellow-smiley face trademark dots the taproom.
As Nick ordered a flight and I started chatting with Drew Frechette, the Taproom Manager with ample beer enthusiasm and the seemingly requisite beard, the essence of Wormtown continued to come into focus. Wormtown means local. Born and raised in Worcester, Drew explained the “A Piece of Mass in Every Glass” etched on their growlers. Their sense of local extends beyond Worcester’s urban, red-brick buildings. Every one of their beers is made with an ingredient grown in Massachusetts. Then there’s the “Mass-Whole” series, which takes the Wormtown commitment one step further: beer that is 100% Mass - from grain to glass. I was lucky enough to try one, their SNAFU Rye Wine. Maybe it was just a dose of my Mass pride, but its malty-spiciness presented the best of what both rye and local have to offer.
The urban-rural synthesis starts with Ben Roesch, Wormtown’s Co-Founder, Brewmaster, and a Worcester native. Ben led us through the brewing pit, fielded all of our questions, and asked a few of his own. His career path was meandering but ultimately led to an authentic and logical point like many other great brewmasters. A Forestry degree from U. Mass Amherst had him clearing trees for farms in the central part of the state. He started working on one of these farms, discovered their existing connection with other breweries in Central Mass, and wound up working for one and then another…and then another.
This past March, Wormtown celebrated its sixth birthday. They’ve earned national brewing awards while maintaining their founding principles: a commitment to using locally sourced ingredients and to serving their home market. Despite the shiny new brewery and taproom featuring handsdown-the-most-badass growler filler I’ve ever seen, Wormtown maintains a refreshing normalcy - something that deserves an award in and of itself.
When we arrived, they’d finished brewing for the day but were digging into their Friday afternoon tradition: a meal with the entire crew. They poured good beers (no, not just their own) and stood, breaking bread round a foldable plastic table. For a moment I felt like an intruder crashing some sacredly casual ceremony, but everyone genuinely wanted to talk and urged us to dig in. Whether they worked at Wormtown for two years or two weeks, everyone possessed the same level of gregarity and just simple kindness.
We really didn’t know much about either New England Brewing Co. or Wormtown before our drive; they were on our route and we heard they brewed some good stuff. Instead, we found some truly world class beer but more importantly some incredibly welcoming people. Express interest in the craft and it will bring you into contact with an authenticity that we could all use a little more of.
That’s perhaps the greatest thing about the growth of local, craft beer - it’s a vehicle to good people.
I’m not just referring to the sustainable entrepreneurs or talented brewers Nick and I are so fortunate to spend time with. This trip was as much about finding good beer with a story as it was about being able to go exploring with my best friend. Punctuating the drive with a couple of brewery stops simultaneously elongated and sped up our drive - I think we were happy about both.
So I encourage you, grab a friend, drive somewhere, and eat or drink something local. At the very least, I can guarantee that you’ll spend a day with a friend talking about the important things: music, politics, food, religion, relationships, beer, and the stupidest of jokes. But most likely, you’ll discover something new that you love. You’ll connect with and learn from people who love to create for you. You’ll want to go back and visit again - you’ll almost definitely start a new tradition.
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