Ask a local beer geek about Massachusetts’s premier beer sojourn, and they’ll probably direct you to Tree House Brewing, nestled comfortably in the idyll of central Massachusetts. For your next beer tasting, though, consider staying a bit closer to home. Between well-established outfits like Newburyport’s RiverWalk Brewing Co. and rising breweries like Amesbury’s Brewery Silvaticus and BareWolf Brewing, there’s an abundance of great beer flowing in the area that’s well worth the drive. It turns out that historic seaports and quaint New England mill towns are great spots for setting up taprooms and making craft beer.
Well, the brewers helping to shape the identity of the Newburyport and Amesbury region, for one: Steve Sanderson of RiverWalk, Jay Bullen and Mark Zappasodi of Silvaticus, and Stevie Bareford of BareWolf. Drop in on Amesbury’s streets on a quiet Saturday afternoon and you’ll soon realize they’re only quiet because people have packed themselves in behind the doors at either Silvaticus or BareWolf. (As a happy convenience, they’re less than a 10-minute walk away from each other, in case you seek variety when wetting your whistle.)
On weekends, both breweries hum with patrons’ friendly chatter, families playing board games, and of course the brewers themselves doling out pours and shooting the breeze with customers. Look around the walls and you’ll notice the absence of TVs blaring at the gathered patrons—all the better for talking with your friends sans distraction. “It’s more of an Old World approach,” says Bullen of the Silvaticus aesthetic. “So building this place out, we wanted to make it feel like a nice community place, like if you were in Europe, somewhere in Belgium or Germany, sitting down, drinking some beers, and having a good conversation.”
Zappasodi agrees. “This is the way people drink in Europe. People bring their families. It’s a social environment.” That’s antithetical to the standard American drinking experience, which tends to revolve around televisions and sports games. But Bullen and Zappasodi, brewers with different backgrounds (Zappasodi hails from the home brewing perspective, while Bullen studied in Germany and spent five years running a brewery outside of Alaska’s Denali National Park), believe that’s changing. “It’s been bastardized in America for so long,” says Zappasodi. “Now, people are centering on community more and more, and it’s becoming more acceptable.”
At BareWolf, Bareford shares the same outlook on what a good taproom experience should be. “Our main motivation is making the best possible beer that we can make,” says Bareford. “But the next most important thing to me is getting people here to enjoy one another’s company, sharing a beer. It’s a unique thing to beer, I think.” He’s not wrong. Ever walk into a wine bar that was blasting Michael Jackson over the speakers? Probably not. But you’re as likely to hear “Billie Jean” playing at BareWolf as live blues on a Saturday night. That’s Bareford’s goal: “I’m trying to make a comfortable living room vibe where people can chill out and play a few games of pool, or some board games, or just distract their kids for ten minutes while they drink a beer.”
That inviting atmosphere is essential for BareWolf, for Silvaticus, and for RiverWalk, too. One of the common threads among the breweries is a belief in community, and making a space that fits in with and enhances the town they’re based in. “We really wanted to be part of the local community as well as the broader community,” says Sanderson on the subject of RiverWalk’s move, “whether it’s people here in town who can come down and see what we’re about, try a few beers, get some education on how we work and what the brewing process is like, or people coming from out of town or across the country. It had to be kind of a destination.”
“Destination” is an important recurring keyword for each brewery, but of course nothing is more important than churning out top-notch beer. Silvaticus emphasizes classic European traditions, from helles to pilsners to smoke beers, à la the superb Baron von Rauchbier, and says there are also Belgian-style Abbey beers on the way; BareWolf shoots from the hip, eschewing flagship beers to dodge stagnation as they drum up creative names for their beers (like Kitty Kitty Pizza Party, a dry hopped pale ale thick with ambrosial funk); and RiverWalk balances a variety of styles, from farmhouse ales to IPAs, and in particular brews terrific session ales, each designed to highlight a specific kind of hop. The right build-out is important, whether it’s a brick-walled open concept room like Silvaticus or, in Bareford’s words, a “hole-in-the-wall speakeasy” like BareWolf, but nothing matters more than making the kind of beer you’d want to drink yourself.
“We figure that if two brewers can sit down and create a space where we make beers that we want to drink, how can it not be successful?” says Zappasodi. The significance of that freedom is also a common thread among the brewers. As Bareford puts it, “It’s as important for me that me and my guys get to make what we feel like making as much as it is that people get to try new stuff.” And that’s one of the many luxuries running a taproom affords you: the ability to keep things fresh, experiment, and fine-tune recipes with the benefit of instant feedback from customers.
For Sanderson, taprooms offer another advantage, the chance to educate their consumers on the brewing process. “We feel like we’ve got a lot of experience to draw from, and we do things our own way,” Sanderson explains. “A lot of our inspiration is drawn from travel, from places around the world, from different traditions. To be able to distill that in our own way, and bring it back to share with people here, is very gratifying.”
The truth is, talented brewers can brew good beer anywhere as long as they’ve got the right gear. What makes the North Shore so appealing is the North Shore itself, and the people who inhabit it. “I think we’ve got a very creative community in general, and a community that’s open to and embracing, supporting of local businesses,” Sanderson says of Newburyport’s residents and its vibrant art scene. Meanwhile, just over the Merrimack River in Amesbury, Bullen, Zappasodi, and Bareford all feel right at home. “Amesbury has been fantastic,” affirms Bullen. “From day one they’ve been supportive of us, which has been great, because we really felt we could provide something that Amesbury was lacking.”
“I like Amesbury for my own reasons,” says Bareford. “It’s got a lot of mill city charm to it, and we love the locals.” If the mission is making the best beer possible, then maybe the incentives are the people they make the beer for and the places they make the beer in. There’s nothing quite like feeling welcome.
Asking your average craft beer geek to name their favorite brews is asking a lot. The craft beer market grows by leaps and bounds even from one year to the next; there’s a ton of great beer out there for die-hard beer lovers to sample, so narrowing down the ones we like best is naturally a daunting task. But asking a craft beer brewer to name their favorite brews is an even bigger ask. They’re the people tinkering with recipes, sampling new beers made in classic styles, pushing the definitions of what craft beer can be. If anyone needs to take a pause when considering the beers that they like best, it’s a brewer.