Cover Story » Vol. 57

Central Mass’s Brewery Boom

By Jennifer Russo / Photos courtesy of Discover Central Massachusetts

Once upon a time, people in Massachusetts had to fill their gas tanks to the brim and trek up to Vermont or Maine for a brewery-hopping experience, since breweries here were few and far between. Fortunately, the bandwagon drove through our little state and a whole bunch of people jumped on for the ride! The Central Massachusetts area has now become a kind of “brew hub,” offering us every kind of beer style on our wish lists.

To understand why this explosion of breweries hit our area in the last few years, we asked the experts. According to Rick Walton, of Gardner Ale House, “There are a lot of interesting ‘organic’ trends catching on. By organic I mean quality, worthwhile, good for you and good for the environment … diet and stress reduction and just simple living are getting a lot of coverage. I feel we’ve been heading this way for a while … people are recognizing quality more and more. What is interesting is that they are finding ways to afford it; it’s a priority for them.”

Fortunately, most of the breweries in our area locally source their ingredients, getting hops, barley and fruit from local farms, making this a truly sustainable collaboration. When you get your ingredients locally, you are guaranteeing a fresh product. Jackie Cullen, co-founder of River Styx Brewing, agreed and said, “The evolution of American culture created an incubator for craft products. The impacts of big industry combined with regulation changes and other factors helped spark a new generation of consumers who seek local products hand-crafted with passion, creativity and respect for the ingredients inside.”

And people certainly are passionate about their beer. According to the Brewers Association, in 2015, craft beer sales went up nearly 13 percent in the United States with the overall craft beer market at $22.3 billion. Almost $2 billion of this is from Massachusetts breweries alone. This is excellent for our economy, and many of these breweries are also hiring, so if your dream is to work in beer-making or sales, the time is now. River Styx is currently looking for local artists to help design some art for bottles and cans – reach out to them on social media if you are interested!

Katrina Shabo, from Wormtown, tells us why she loves her job.

“I love the passion, creativity and energy I’m surrounded by every day. Someone once told me if you aren’t passionate about what you do, you will never succeed. Our team loves what we do; we love our brand; and we all energize and help each other to succeed. Beer is a fun industry. Even outside our amazing team, I am out there almost every day meeting interesting and driven people who work in beer and I love it! They love it!”

If you’d rather let others do the work and just kick back with a beer, the choices now are greater than they have ever been. Why grab a the usual when you can grab a Thai Take Out from Cold Harbor Brewery or a K. Sutra Double IPA from Flying Dreams? Cullen said one of her favorites at River Styx is the Phanes, a beer she and her husband Scott collaborated on for their anniversary, which is aged on wild chamomile and includes Montmorency cherries and French oak for tartness and character. There are so many flavorful options (with some very creative names), so break the routine and try something new! Craft beer is about taking in life’s little moments.

Local communities have embraced the addition of breweries to their towns. Keith Sullivan, of Medusa Brewing in Hudson, said that the brewery has “felt nothing but love since the day we announced our plans, and we could not be prouder of our town.” Worcester’s own Wormtown Brewery (Wormtown being an old nickname for Worcester) is thrilled to be creating a community, said Katrina Shabo. “All of our founders and the majority of our staff are from the Worcester area, so we’re proud to be here and help drive tourism to our beloved city … we have a lot of positive support from our community and they support us by drinking our beer. They want more of our beer, and we’re working as hard as we can to expand our capacity so we can give them what they want. I see people wearing our logoed gear out there all the time, and it makes me smile.”

Local establishments, including bars, liquor stores, local events and beer festivals, have been key in supporting these breweries and getting people to try their products. You can find many of these breweries’ beers on taps all around Central Massachusetts, and if they bottle and can their beers, you likely can purchase them at local stores. By the way, if a store doesn’t carry your beer, sometimes you can special order – just ask – and special requests are great for local brewers.

Some breweries, such as Tree House in Monson, only sell beer on draft and in cans at their location, and it sells out quickly. Tree House’s website updates each day, throughout the day, letting you know what, if anything, is available at that time. It’s definitely worth the trip, but always check, so you don’t end up leaving with an empty growler. Tree House, along with Jack’s Abby and Trillium, recently ranked in the Top 10 of the World’s Top Breweries at RateBeer Fest.

If you want a true feel for everything the brewery stands for and the opportunity to speak with those who conceptualize and make the beer, make it a point to visit the taproom. River Styx and Craft Roots Brewing are both opening taprooms soon, and some others are expanding. Wormtown is adding 14,000 square feet this year, and Keith Sullivan said Medusa is “looking forward to our first major expansion project to be kicked off this spring … for now, we can say that it will include an official oak cellar and some very comfortable seating.” Meanwhile, Tree House is expanding to a location in Charlton.

In addition to being very excited about a new saison, Rick Walton, of Gardner Ale House, said the brewery’s biggest recent news is its distribution. “We have been a brewpub for over 10 years and our beer has never been sold outside our doors. When we decided to make the move to distribution last year, it was like a start-up company all over again. We are so glad to be doing this. Get ready to see our distinctive Moon Hill logo on a tap handle near you!”

It is an exciting time for breweries and beer-lovers here in this part of the state. Maybe it’s time for a recognized attraction called the Massachusetts Beer Trail.

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