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Taking chance proves fruitful for brewer

Unexpected success of Blueberry Ale fuels expansion at Wachusett

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By Jenn Abelson
Globe Staff / July 26, 2009

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WESTMINSTER - Nearly a decade ago, Ned LaFortune began brewing a beer with blueberry concentrate from California and a heavy dose of skepticism. Fruity beers had made their way into Massachusetts without much success in the late 1990s, and LaFortune, one of the founders of Wachusett Brewing Co., was a bit of a purist when it came to his craft libations.

But the blueberry beer turned out better than anyone expected, and it became an instant hit around western Massachusetts. Over the last five years, sales of the refreshing wheat ale have more than doubled to an estimated 263,000 gallons as it has won over local taste buds with berry goodness. These days, LaFortune said, it is decisively the most coveted beer at the Westminster brewery - now the second-largest beermaker and bottler in Massachusetts - and has made its way into new markets like Rhode Island, New York, and New Jersey.

After a massive expansion over the past year to increase the speed and capacity of production at their plant, the owners of Wachusett Brewing are hoping to bring their fruity beverage as far as Florida as the business celebrates its 15th anniversary and approaches $5 million in annual sales.

“We are beer lovers. We love the taste of water, malted barley, hops, specialty grains like wheat, and yeast mixed. We didn’t want anything to take away from the things we loved to brew with,’’ LaFortune shouted over the din of conveyor belts and bottling machines in his brewery. “In our sampling of other fruit beers, the fruit was the dominating flavor. As we say with Wachusett Blueberry - ‘It’s a beer first.’ ’’

Some companies add fruit extracts to beer at the end of the brewing process that give the resulting suds a fruity sweet taste that can overpower the ale, but Wachusett ferments an all-natural concentrate into the beer so the sugars in the blueberries are converted into alcohol. The result is a more balanced wheat ale with a hint of blueberry flavors and aromas, something LaFortune said is “subtle enough that someone not overly enthusiastic about blueberries can enjoy it.’’

Steve John, owner of the Boynton Restaurant in Worcester, has featured the Wachusett blueberry on draft since the brewery first started offering kegs. It has consistently been one of the restaurant’s three top-selling beers - of nearly 40 on tap. He serves it with fresh blueberries in the glass, the way Wachusett Brewing and many restaurants do to add more pizzazz. During a busy stretch in April, he sold about 278 pints in just one week.

“I’ve seen ladies over 50 drinking it and college kids drinking it. I drink it myself,’’ John said. “It’s refreshing. And when you put the blueberries in the beer and they just start dancing around, it just sells much better.’’

Despite the booming business, the blueberry beer has not helped Wachusett Brewing win any major awards or accolades from other brewing authorities. Some owners of local brewhouses around the area have snubbed the blueberry beer, saying that it is too light and fruity.

“We’ve created this league of beer geeks that would look at us funny if we put something like this on the menu,’’ said David Ciccolo, co-owner of the Publick House in Brookline, which offers more than 100 beers.

Ciccolo notes, however, that he serves up some of Wachusett’s other more complex brews, such as the Country Ale, the company’s original pale ale, the Black Shack Porter, a dark porter with chocolate mocha notes, and the Wachusett Octoberfest. The company so far has not experimented with other fruity flavors.

The Publick House recently teamed up with Wachusett to create a brew specially made for a charity event held yesterday. The exclusive beer, known as “Larry,’’ is an extremely hoppy double IPA that packs an alcohol content of over 7 percent - far more potent than the 4.5 percent of the blueberry ale.

But the blueberry beer has managed to make its way into the Publick House’s sister business, the gourmet grocery Publick House Provisions. The famed Cheers bars on Beacon Street and at Faneuil Hall also recently started carrying the blueberry beer, and it is a favorite among the tourists thronging the pubs. Several chains, including Not Your Average Joe’s and 99 Restaurant & Pub also carry the beer at multiple locations.

Wachusett Brewing’s LaFortune said he accepts that the blueberry beer is a simple beverage “more for beer lovers than beer geeks looking for outrageous flavors and intense hops.’’

But he added that selling over 8,500 barrels of the fruity concoction a year is validation enough that he’s brewed a good beer.

Jenn Abelson can be reached at abelson@globe.com.