It's fun. Fun to drink and fun to share.
But is it always fun to make?
“We’ve had our hurdles, we’ve had equipment break down but we always seem to overcome it in some fashion," said Fort Hill founder Eric Berzins, sitting on the open hatch of the pickup truck he and the rest of the Fort Hill Brewery crew use to deliver fresh cases out to local bars, restaurants, and liquor stores around the Valley.
"Like last week our glycol chiller went down, and that’s sort of a key piece of equipment because it chills basically the entire brewery" said Berzins. "But we’ve got really good insulation in our tanks so we only lost about a degree, which actually in the grand scheme of things isn’t that bad. But it’s stupid little stuff that… there’s a lot of little parts that go on and if something doesn’t work the whole thing is affected."
Fort Hill Brewery, a state-of-the-art brew house nestled in the shadow of Mt. Tom and just a stone’s-throw from the Oxbow, was built in two years; construction began in November 2012 in what was once a hay field on Fort Hill road in Easthampton (hence, the name). As with most construction projects, there were some things that went smoothly, while others provided a bit more of a challenge.
“We found out that [the large doors leading into the brewery] turned out to be 13 inches too small - so we had to hoist all the tanks in vertically inside the building,” said Berzins. While maneuvering the 27-foot tanks through a 26-foot door did lead to some dings on the metal legs, Berzins is sure this will not have any effect on the taste of the beer.
In all, Fort Hill took around $4.5 million to get off the ground, with most of the original funds coming courtesy of friends and family. But around this time, Berzins was diagnosed with cancer, so that put everything on hold for about a year. He survived the experience in good spirits and was able to continue on with the brewery, and with the help of two angel investors who committed to funding the project.
“Originally we were going to build, like, a fifteen barrel brewhouse but we got these two people [who prefer to remain out of the public eye] to join on, and it basically tripled our budget. So I guess it was sort of a blessing in disguise,” said Berzins.
Finding a home
For Berzins, the path to being a brewmaster began when he started working for Blue Hills Brewing in Canton, MA several years ago.
“I worked as a brewer for almost two years, but I wasn’t really progressing my technical knowledge. So I went off to beer school in Chicago and Germany, called the Seibel Institute of Technology. I graduated knowing that I wanted to start a brewery,” he said.
Berzins started his search for a spot to put his brewery by looking around Boston, where he “probably saw about 60 sites.” Unfortunately, all the interesting prospective locations had water contamination issues.
“We chose Easthampton because of the water source, the Barnes Aquifer,” said Berzins. "Water, that is huge for us - especially for us, because we only use four ingredients: barley, hops, yeast, and water. Since water is a very, very key ingredient, we're happy that Easthampton does have [a high quality water]."
And that it does. In January, the National Rural Water Association - a national board that meets annually in Washington, D.C. - officially designated Easthampton's groundwater as the best in the country.
"Honestly, Easthampton's water has always been good," said Tom Newton, Easthampton's Water Department supervisor. Newton, who has been in the water business for over forty years, said the quality of water from the Barnes Aquifer has been great as long as he can remember. He credits this to the natural filtration the water undergoes when passing through a layer of sandy soil under Easthampton prior to reaching the Aquifer, as well as a "lens of clay" that protects the groundwater from contaminants.
"Most groundwater needs very little processing," said Newton. "It has a very good mineral quality already. And although it probably did draw contaminants from factories about a century ago, during Easthmpton's industrial age, most have been diluted to the point where there is not much left at all."
For a brewer like Berzins, the cleaner, the better.
“Well beer is 99 percent water,” said Berzins. “And so the water quality [in Easthampton] is really good. So those two things combined really allowed us to brew beer in a really traditional form.”
If you are a brewer, you make beer. But what actually goes into a beer?
The "traditional form" Berzins strives for has its roots in Reinheitsgebot, a centuries-old German beer purity law that restricts the ingredients used in beer to only four: hops, barley, water, and yeast. Fort Hill follows the reinheitsgebot in brewing all of its beers, using only these ingredients for each variety.
Although Fort Hill does purchase hops from all over the world, including Czechoslovakia, Germany, Oregon, Washington, they do have 160 organic Cascade hops grown just feet from the brew house, which Berzins and the rest of the Fort Hill crew planted and have cared for since the brewery’s opening. They also source from 600 more hop plants grown down the road from Fort Hill at Goat’s Peak Farm and Vineyard.
The Fort Hill grains, predominantly Breiss malted barley, come mainly from Wisconsin.
“We are going to try to work with Valley Malts, [a local malt supplier based in Hadley,] but she’s got more demand than she can supply,” said Berzins. “Her capacity, she can do about 2000 lbs a week and one of our batches takes about 2000 lbs.”
But what really makes the beer unique to Fort Hill is the yeast. The particular strain Berzins uses was developed by a brewing professor of his back in Germany, and brought over to the states for use at Fort Hill.
But why bother with an old German beer purity law?
“Beer has always been something that I guess hasn't really poisoned people because it is boiled, historically. So back in the day people knew that they could drink beer and not get sick,” explained Berzins. “So I didn't want to produce something people would consume and would already be tainted.”
Hopping on board
“I first met Eric at a diner in Easthampton where I used to work; I worked there six and a half years,” said Robin Pasquini, Fort Hill’s sales manager and one of the first to jump on board the Fort Hill train.
“Eric came in and said he was building a brewery. He didn’t exactly ask if I wanted to work for him, but it just ended up that I started working here.”
Although she has a title, Pasquini does packaging, sales, accounting, marketing, and other things in brewery as well. This can include tasks like helping with canning, working at the tasting bar on weekends, and even helping to string up hop plants, which can grow up to a foot a day.
“We do have some help this summer. We just hired someone from Smith College, so she's been helping with [everything] too," said Pasquini. "I mean, we all have job titles, but in a way we all help each other out. Which is the way it should be."
Running out of beer
Brewing lagers is "sort of capital intensive,” according to Berzins.
“I think we’ve got a fairly unique product and so we’re just focusing on the lagers. We do have our wheat ale but that’s sort of an in-house only, tasting room kind of beer and we’ve got a few kegs. But we are focusing on the lagers, and for as big as our system is we’ve run out of beer a couple of times. So we’ve got to balance everything.”
Sometimes, the scene can be sort of hectic.
"Right now we're literally canning the Rauchbier and it's going into twelve packs and then into this truck," said Berzins, overseeing the whirr of the canning machine just before the July 4th holiday rush. "We just canned and ran out of [our signature brew] Red Flag, too. The people buying this are going to have the freshest beer, literally, that they’ve probably ever had. Also, I'm pretty sure there aren't that many twelve packs out on shelves any more."
But why only brew lagers?
"Well, I enjoy lagers more than ales. I mean, there's lots of good IPAs and ales out there, so there's really no sense in re-inventing the wheel. But there aren't that many Rauchbiers these days," said Berzins.
And like any specialty brew, there is more than one practical application for it.
"Our Rauchbier is not as overwhelming as other smoky beers," according to Pasquini. "In the summertime, I try to tell people to keep in mind cooking - marinate ribs, kielbasa, beer can chicken. You can do other things with beer besides drink it."
Not sure if you like a smoky, authentic German beer? Then you might want to swing by Fort Hill on a Saturday, when the crew offers tastings in their on-site brew pub, complete with live music and giant beer checkers.
"Saturday's been great, especially with the live music," said Berzins. "We're planning on going into acoustic Fridays, too. It's always pretty fun. Plus, you can’t complain about location."
Birds of a feather
In the past few decades, and particularly in the last ten years, brewery after brewery have broken ground on the banks of the Connecticut River, forming a chain of over a half dozen craft breweries stretching from Deerfield down to Holyoke. Easthampton, along with the rest of the town serviced by the Barnes Aquifer, have been the epicenter of this craft brew renaissance due to the exceptional water quality.
"There are actually two other breweries nearby, on Pleasant Street, but we all brew different styles of beer," said Pasqunini, who regularly serves guests at Fort Hill's tasting room on Thursday nights. "I actually suggest when people come to our tasting room that they should go try the other two. Because in a way we all do have to stick together, and why make enemies when we’re in the same city."
But does this mashup of styles create competition, or collusion?
"We haven’t found [the market overly competitive] yet, but that could all change," said Pasquini. "I think the craft brew is definitely a lot more happening now, because they are everywhere. But we have yet to run into not being able to get our beer in anywhere, especially close to home... Going further away is more difficult but it’s a matter of educating [consumers] and letting them know who we are. And, we just have to keep showing our face. You can’t just go somewhere once and never show up again, you know. But the word is trickling, there are a lot of people who know about us."
So what's the goal for a craft brewery in 2015?
"Well, we haven’t killed anyone so far, so I guess we are accomplishing goals every single day," joked Berzins. "We're not looking to become a national brand overnight, and we are self-distributing. We’re making sure that our local accounts are happy and sort of taking it from there. We have run out of beer a couple of times so we're just learning. We’re still sort of new at this."