Beautifully formed, lovely to look at, and full of infinite variety, the Berkshires have something for every taste. Not the mountains -- although they're nice, too -- but the portfolio of ales made by the Berkshire Brewing Company.
Brewers Gary Bogoff and Chris Lalli started production more than 12 years ago in a former cigar factory in South Deerfield in the Pioneer Valley. Their first beer was a pale ale, Steel Rail Extra Pale, because they thought consumers would be most receptive to a light-colored, light-bodied brew.
Since those first batches, the brewers have branched out. BBC now makes rich, hearty brews like Imperial Stout, a beer that would stand up beautifully to one of the cigar s made in the brewery building during its former life. Others are Coffeehouse Porter, and Raspberry Strong Ale. But none of the newer brews has overshadowed the original. "Steel Rail is still 60 percent of all the beer we produce," Bogoff says.
The craft brewery in South Deerfield produces nine styles of beer year-round and brings out six others seasonally. There are three winter seasonals -- Cabin Fever Ale, Raspberry Strong Ale, and Holidale, already off the shelves. The beers are unpasteurized and unfiltered. Each style is distinctive, but they share an elegance and balance that makes them a pleasure to drink.
When asked which of BBC's 15 beers is his favorite, Bogoff says , "That's like asking who my favorite child is." Then in true each-kid-is-special-in-his-own-way style, he adds, "What we've always tried to do is make all our beers dissimilar. Our IPA is completely different from our kolsch, which is completely different from our pale ale."
The BBC website calls the brewery Western Massachusetts' best-kept secret, but the secret seems to be getting out. In 1995, BBC brewed 1,000 barrels. Last year it produced 14,100.
All the beer styles are packaged in 22-ounce bottles, and some are available in 64-ounce growlers and on draft in many area bars.
Bogoff says BBC has no plans to produce its beers in 12-ounce bottles because six-pack packaging adds expense: more bottles, more labels, and six-pack carriers. In addition, packaging in six-packs would put BBC in competition for store shelf space with much larger operations. And it's much easier to get retailers to agree to display the 22-ounce bottles in the cold case, which BBC prefers in order to keep the beer fresh. Unlike most breweries, BBC handles its own distribution, and only within about 125 miles of the brewery.
"We've always just wanted to be local," Bogoff says. Luckily for Boston consumers, they're in BBC's neighborhood. -- ANN CORTISSOZ
Visitors can tour Berkshire Brewing Company's facility, 12 Rail Road St., South Deerfield, at 1 p.m. each Saturday. For a list of stores and pubs that carry BBC beers, go to berkshirebrewingcompany.com.
Eleven of Berkshire Brewing Company's 15 beers are on store shelves right now. All of the beers retail for around $4 for a 22-ounce bottle -- one of the best bargains in town. A group of five did an informal tasting of the portfolio.
Gold Spike Ale -- light-bodied, light-gold-colored German-style kolsch, crisp, mildly fruity, very easy to drink, great for a hot day.
Steel Rail Extra Pale Ale -- medium-bodied ale, very clean, nice balance of malty sweetness and hop bite, with a bit of spice.
Berkshire Ale -- traditional British-style pale ale with a nice malty aroma, and plenty of caramel malt flavor balance d by a nice hop bite. This was the big favorite.
River Ale -- a full, round malty dark ale with dried fruit and nutty undertones and a pleasant hop tingle at the finish. It's brewed with wheat as well as barley.
Cabin Fever Ale -- caramel flavors and malty sweetness meld with a spicy, fruity hoppiness. One of the winter seasonals, it comes out in November, so it won't be around much longer.
Lost Sailor India Pale Ale -- an elegant, nicely balanced IPA, with a biscuity sweetness balanced by citrusy hops. IPA fans who like their palates to be wallop ed by hop bitterness, this is not the IPA for you.
Drayman's Porter -- a lovely mix of flavors of toast, chocolate, and caramel, with a dry, tingly hop finish.
Shabadoo Black & Tan Ale -- a blend of Berkshire Ale and Drayman's Porter, it combines caramel malt notes with a roasty chocolate flavor.
Coffeehouse Porter -- an extract made from Dean's Beans coffee beans is added during brewing to the Drayman's Porter to make this beer. The coffee aroma and flavor are incredibly strong.
Raspberry Strong Ale -- another seasonal, released around Valentine's Day, it has a lovely ruby hue and strong raspberry flavor from the 1/2 pound of fresh raspberries used per gallon of beer. Fizzy and refreshing but not sweet, it was compared to Campari by one taster. Interestingly, men seem to really like this beer. At 9 percent alcohol, it has a kick.
Imperial Stout -- a rich, dark brew with chocolate, licorice, and pumpernickel flavors and an alcohol bite.