Brew Biz: Werts and All

Wormtown Brewery
455 Park Avenue
Worcester, MA 01610

Ken Carman is a BJCP judge; homebrewer since 1979, club member at Escambia Bay and Music City Homebrewers, who has been interviewing professional brewers all over the east coast for over 10 years.

Brew Biz is a column written by Ken Carman for Professor Goodales

I have spent a lot of time over the years touring New England as an entertainer. That has given me the delightful opportunity to interview some great brewers, sip beer as I watch sailboats float in and out of Kennebunkport from up high: Federal Jacks, and rave about David Wollner’s beer at Willimantic in Connecticut. One such experience was at least 10 years ago: I went to a “new” brewpub in Worcester, Mass… don’t ask me how “Worcester” is pronounced; I’ve asked residents in the past and I’ve heard at least three variations. Maybe you won’t even have to ask: they’ll just correct you with whatever version you don’t use.

Main Street was impressive: a bit too much for downtown Worcester: a city not exactly in that great economic shape at the time… but I admit maybe no place might have been that good. Huge brewery and bar downstairs, concert hall second floor, huge pool room and a walk around to see it all from on high? Trust me: these folks really over built. Ever since Main Street’s passing I have whispered to the beer Gods, over and over, how much Worcester really, really, really, really, really needed a new brewpub type restaurant. And they answered with Wormtown.

“Over built?”

Not Wormtown.

Though nothing in life is ever perfect, they do seem to be doing it right, proving there’s an obvious value to growing with demand instead of over building in advance. But I do wish it was more visual on the south side Route 9 coming out of Worcester. Easy to miss traveling east to west. From the west: headed into Worcester, it’s fine. I tell you this because I really would rather no one miss this fine jewel.

I saw the ad in Yankee Brew News and decided to swing by. It’s on Park Ave.: the part Route 9 headed West towards Spencer and Ware. (“Ware?’ ‘Ware.’ ‘Ware?’ ‘Ware…'” Abbott and Costello missed a great addition to the baseball routine.) On my first visit neither Ben: brewer and owner, or Tom: manager and owner of the restaurant, were there.

Small, little, place. No over build here.

I had a drop dead beautiful unto the taste buds Barleywine, and I’m rather critical of Barleywines, having sat through many a late night session of Big Bob’s Barleywine Bash in Pensacola Beach, and also as a winner of the “coveted” Big Bob Barleywine award. I bribed him, I admit, bringing lots of 10% and over quaffers each year.

Ben’s Barleywine would be perfect as is, but he went one better by added a touch of the oak cask during fermentation. Amazingly taste-rrific.

Damn. I knew I had to meet this brewer.


So I E-ed and called. Made my usual damn nuisance of myself. The only thing I didn’t do is tweet. Sorry, in my late 50s and just a bit old fashioned I guess. This beer geek twit doth not tweet.

Wormtown is attached to Peppercorns Restaurant. Together they’re smaller than many houses.

Note: I did stop a few weeks later and had their Steak Tips for lunch with mushrooms that magically melt the moment you put them in your mouth, tender grilled steak tips: rare as ordered, onion: all with a Marsala wine butter sauce and on a bed, rice pilaf. Wow! Everything on the menu looked good and I also sampled the newest tap… Red Headed Bitch: lighter than some of the taps. Ben told me this brew started at about 5% then aged in Cabernet casks. The raspberries that Ben added were the most dominant, taste-wise, with a hint of the wine cask in the background, malt even less so. A gentle, pleasant, quaff. There’s has to be some story behind that name! He also mentioned there was a secondary fermentation: I would think once placed in the wine barrel. Yeasties do love to live in the wood, don’t they?

The restaurant: nice green walls with Worcester pics and tasteful lighting.

I recommend.

The brewery is very tight, although I have seen as tight or tighter: Barrington Brewery and McGuires in Pensacola, to mention a few. It does seem to have a bit of a drainage problem, which is not uncommon when retrofitting places that have un-pitched floors. Now that they have expanded, Ben mentioned that they’re also considering adding another location for brewing in the future.

I knew before I got there I had heard of Ben Roesch. I wasn’t sure when or how, except in connection with beer. Well it seems this beer geek and Ben have been chasing each other around a bit: Honest Town in Southbridge, Mass., which is now defunct and I tried to do an article on. Hard to do a column when I was told they had a different brewer every time I stopped by, and staff seemed to know squat about the current brewer’s whereabouts. Nashoba and Wachusett: I was given his name at both once upon two times. And I think I remember another brewer I interviewed mentioning meeting him at Cambridge and that I should “interview Ben sometime.”

A bit tall. Short hair mustache with short light black hair, Ben just turned 33 the second time I stopped. My visits tend to do that to brewers: make them feel older before their time. Kind of an oval face and a constant beer-focus that made him a great Brew Biz interview.

Ben started homebrewing in college: UMass Amherst. Inspired by the writings of Dave Miller on beer… (By the way, Miller is back brewing at Blackstone in Nashville now after a short retirement, for those who know of him: especially us homebrewers) …and after Ben took a job at a home brew store after college: Homebrew Emporium in West Boylston, he heard there was an opening for an assistant home brewer at Cambridge. He hasn’t studied at UC or Siebel, but to be honest I have noticed brewers come at brewing from all walks of life, and some of the best come from right angles, left turns and bloody near all kinds of weird, seemingly, unrelated fields. To quote Todd Hicks who has brewed at more, unfortunately mostly defunct, brewpubs in the Florida panhandle to Louisiana region than anyone else for about 20 years…

“Most beer I’ve had from those who only studied professionally before they brewed have been boring as hell.”

Ya owe me Todd! I keep quoting you, or at least paraphrasing. Pay up!

(Why, if you’re only quoting one phrase, is it a “para?” Wouldn’t a “para” be two quotes? Does a “para” quotes beat a full house of quotes? Chuckle.)

Ben: “I like to keep my names local related.”

Ah, let’s go to the name of the brewery. Apparently there was a rather popular punk fanzine in Worcester for a while called: Wormtown Punk Punk Press. The name stuck. Why? Funk-in punks me.

He also likes to use local ingredients: for example he uses local wheat in his beer from Valley Malt. If I remember right he said, “In all our beers.”

He mentioned that he’d never forget when he took his first job as a brewer. It was an amazing, uplifting, experience… then pretty much immediately 9/11 happened. Kind of an odd way to have history mark the beginning of your career, I suppose: one I’ll bet he’ll never forget.

He had always wanted to try it on his own, and has always been interested in trying new things; new ways of doing things: especially new brews, so he left his last job brewing for someone else in 2009. He knew that he had to find a partner with resources; including a restaurant business background and financial backing, so he contacted Tom Oliveri at Peppercorns in Worcester. Together they worked on a business plan. In March of 2010 they opened the brewery just in time for the local St. Patty’s Day parade.

Great plan! Was that the “luck of the Irish?” Or did the leprechauns bless your brews? Seems so, if you count the gold medal you won I’ll mention in a moment.

The second picture is a bit fuzzy because they were brewing Angora Cat Kolsch that day and some fur stuck to my lens. No, I’m joking. It’s my funky camera.

Wormtown has a 10 barrel brewhouse, 1,000 a year: four fermenters, a bright tank… and it all quickly spilled into the restaurant. So Ben hired a bunch of pirates and they took over the part that in its previous incarnation was an ice cream shop. Avast ye non-beer-lovers, we have more beer to brew.

No actual pirates were actually involved in this move. But considering cows are sacred in at least one religion, adding on more brew space that once did sell ice cream qualifies as a holy act, I suppose, especially if you’re Hindu.

As Homer might say… “Beer…” and add… “ice cream for adults… yum!”

Some of the equipment Ben designed himself and then had fabricated. In my own line of work, when I design props, I have found that approach has its pleasure but also pitfalls, as Ben and I discussed. But whether fabricated for Ben, or pre-designed DME equipment, the brewery does seem to have gone from start to full production quickly, so that says something about the design and the willingness to adapt. Yes, I know all about that. Turning lemonades into lemonade, or Shandy I suppose, would be the less cliched, more “beery,” metaphor.

It also says a hell of a lot about how popular Ben’s beer is.

Their first beer: Seven Hill Pale Ale. Since then he had brewed as much a 30 different beers in a year, as well as regular quaffs: Be Hoppy IPA, Elm Park Amber, Worcester’s Bravest… where $10 from each keg: no matter what size keg, goes to Worcester Poly Tech Institute. All for “fire safety,” if I remember right. Then we also have Turtle Boy Blueberry Ale, Buk Rye Pale (served at several restaurants in the area and, of course, Peppercorns), Dark Day IPA: named after a day in 1780 when the was no sun in New England and parts of Canada… they thought because of distant volcanic activity. Many one offs and seasonals, like a wet hop beer called Misty Brook Harvest Ale. A coconut Porter.

One of the more interesting beer names he came up with was “Mass Whole:” a beer with all Massachusetts ingredients. (Yeah, that’s right. If you didn’t get the joke, pronounce Mass Whole as if it was one word. I love clever, funny, stuff like that: shows a sense of humor and creativity.) All Massachusetts ingredients.

“I guess a Best Bitter comes the closest, style-wise.”

Ben poured three samples of Local First, one of their newest offerings. Delightful with a nice, spicy/earth hop. (From his assistant’s garden, another Ben… last name Pratt.) Nice big pillow head.

“I do try to buy local. Even after any beer requiring local grower’s product is done I still try to promise to buy a certain amount a year from them. Just one order wouldn’t keep them in business.”

He does have a hop contract.

“Before the hop crisis hit I already knew I had to have specific hops for specific beers.”

And while his house yeast is Fermentis…

“We like to swap yeast with other brewers.”

When it comes to homebrewers Ben Roesch’s suggestion was to “get to know your ingredients. Smell it. Taste it. Just buying it as labeled… how do you know it’s fresh? “Fresh brew dated” means nothing. Bud does that. How fresh do the ingredients taste, feel? Try hop rubbing. How else would you know for sure something isn’t wrong.”

Very tactile.

Very true.

While his assistant took care of brew business… also named “Ben…” (Ben Pratt) so at Wormtown when you’re in the brewery you’ll always know where you’ve BEN… and after touring the brewery, Mr. Roesch personally took me out to the bar and talked with me about what I was sampling. The first was the blueberry and I really wish I could have gotten some in a Grolsch top growler for beer tastings I do in the Adirondacks in August: they only prepackage, and with screw tops. With just a screw top the carbonation would fade off to wherever carbonation goes by the time I would open it: probably going to wherever the spirit of Lawrence Welk is right now so he’ll always have plenty of “tiny bubbles.” (Yes, that was a joke for us older, and sometimes more cranky, beer-folks.) Sigh, and I even had brought several Grolsch top growlers for the occasion. Actually I’m kind of “have growler will travel” type of guy.

The blueberry was very much up front and in the nose. Yeah, it did hurt when I put it up there. (Yes, another joke, what you gonna do about it?)Though a wheat beer it wasn’t all that wheat like. As a BJCP judge, I judge wheat well, because I don’t care for it all that much. There really seems to be something to that. Liking a style too much often seems to mean preconceived notions. It was also a bit blueberry sweet with a hint of dry to the after taste.

A very interesting take on version of fruit beer.

He said he uses a combination of blueberry extract and actual blueberry in the blueberry beers he brews. He picks them himself, which he admits is a lot of work. Some blueberries in his blueberry beers (He does at least two.) are frozen and put in a muslin bag. A bit like dry hopping, I suppose as they gently melt they add blueberry savor to the great beer flavor.

I was amazed at the Imperial Maple they had on tap. Having worked with maple I find the flavor tends to ferment out so easily I stopped making my odd version of mead with no honey called Maplead. Ben told me, without knowing about this, that he basically kept adding it during fermentation and at some point the yeast get tired and just let the flavor settle into the beer. I would think, given the tenacity of yeast, the buggers would never take a bloody nap… but it seems to have worked. Plenty of maple in the nose and to the taste. Nice firm supportive body.

Hm… time to retry my Maplead recipe?

Maple syrup from Ewen’s Sleepy Hollow Sugar House, Lunenburg, MA. Remember what I typed about “local?” Yup. Passed by there a few days ago on my way back from performing in Amherst, NH. Nice brown malt base provides, again, the perfect body.

Dark Day was a nice Black IPA, kind of like a Anchor Liberty with slightly different hoppings and some dark malt character. Could use a bit more nose, but other than that I can’t imagine even dark beer fearing folk would turn away from this.  Be Hoppy was that, without the slight dark malt character. Both citrus with grapefruit character. Ben told me in the Be Hoppy he used several hops including Columbus, Centennial, Simcoe and one I admit I hadn’t heard of: Falconer…  a proprietary hop blend from Hop Union, according to Google.

I knew I had to have some of their beer for Millie, my wife, to taste, and for my beer tastings in the Adirondacks at the end of the summer. Unfortunately they can only sell pre-poured growlers with screw tops. That would leave my tasters a bit… flat. So Ben sent me to a store down route 9 and I picked up collaboration beer he did. Here’s what their web site says about Pro Am Porter…

“A collaboration with local home brewer Keith Antul. Inspired by the Great American Beer Festival’s Pro-Am competition we chose Keith’s American Homebrewers Association competition medaling robust porter recipe and scaled it up and brewed a batch with him at Wormtown. This limited one off batch is extremely dark brown with hints of red when held up to the light. Large roasted chocolate aroma. Medium body complimented by strong malt flavor that mixes roasty malt and chocolate. Dry finish with lingering cocoa and roast accented hop bitterness. Very British in style and ingredients.”

We’ll see, Mr. Roesch, beer tasting time. Hundreds of thirsty souls will be deciding how good this is. Scared?

Didn’t think so.

Why?

Because it was a bronze medal winner at the 2010 GABF Pro Am.

I found every beer had a perfect body for the style. That’s brew-talent.

Well, after a great interview with a lot of appreciated personal attention to the writer, I had to leave. I will be back. Oh, by the way: take good care of my Honda Element, guys. I saw this neat car in the lot and decided to drive off in late Worcester afternoon…

Note: no cute red cars were actually taken off into the late Worcester afternoon by me after my visit: or at any time. It’s a JOKE!

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Brew Biz: Werts and All, is a column dedicated to reviewing, discussing and commenting on all things beer including, but not limited to: marketing, homebrewing and homebrew/beer related events, how society perceives all things beer. Also: reviews of beer related businesses, opinions about trends in the beer business, and all the various homebrew, judging and organizations related to beer. Essentially, all things “beer.”

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Ken Carman and Cartenual Productions
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