In a few weeks, renowned brewers from across the globe will gather to pour their beer at The Festival: An International Celebration of Small Brewers and Cider Makers, put on by 12% Imports and The Shelton Brothers. More than 60 breweries will be there, including very hard to get a hold of beers like Cantillon, De Struise, and Nøgne-ø. It’s a landmark beer festival, the likes of which have never happened in America, and it’s happening in … Worcester.
“A lot of people have said, ‘What the hell are you doing in Worcester?,’” said fest co-founder Will Shelton.
The Shelton Brothers have been kicking around an idea for a new kind of festival for a few years. “It’s an idea that’s been germinating for years,” said Shelton. “We’ve basically stopped participating in fests ourselves because they tend to be a drunk fests, they tend not to be very intimate. Generally the brewers are not involved and it’s about throwing a lot of beer out there and trying to make money for whosever throwing it.”
The conversation turned serious when Dan Shelton, Will’s Brother, spoke with Brian Ewing of 12% Imports, a Brooklyn-based mostly Belgian beer distributor, about banding together their extensive beer portfolios. Together they decided to put on a beer fest, that’s more “dinner party than party” as Shelton put it. Brewers will pour the beer themselves, sessions are intimate (they cap at 1,000 per session), and it will be an opportunity for beer drinkers to try brews they wouldn’t be able to get their hands on without traveling thousands of miles.
And as for the decision to hold it in Worcester, it just seemed to make sense, said Shelton, although they might take it on the road next year and hold it in various location.
“[Worcester] seemed like a central location to various cities, you can get in and out without any hassle.”
As I hail from a town outside of Worcester, I’ve always wanted to write about the city and its beer scene. And as The Festival is set to descend on the city, bringing with it hordes of beer geeks and brewers, now seems like an excuse to make it relevant.
Worcester’s only brewery, Wormtown Brewery, touches on the city’s DIY attitude with its name. The “Wormtown” moniker was first used by a local DJ, L.B. Worm, who allegedly said, “This scene is so dead, maybe I should call it Wormtown.” He started an underground music zine in 1978, The Wormtown Punk Press, and the DIY and punk community, and later the entire city, adopted the somewhat derogatory name.
When Wormtown brewmaster Ben Roesch and his business partner were discussing names for the brewery they tossed a few around, like Worcester or Seven Hills Brewing Company, but they kept coming back to Wormtown.
“Sometimes the nickname can be slightly derogatory, but people from Worcester nowadays don’t think like that.”
Roesch was born outside of the city and has lived in Worcester on and off for his entire life and after working for Cambridge Brewing Company and Wachusett Brewing Company, he came back to the city to open a brewery.
“Ever since I’ve been homebrewing I’ve wanted to open a brewery in Worcester.”
Almost all of his beers are named for the city—Turtle Boy Blueberry Ale (go ahead and google image search “Turtle Boy Statue,” by the way), Seven Hills Pale Ale, Elm Park Amber Ale—and every beer at Wormtown is brewed with at least one Massachusetts ingredient.
Roesch hopes now that someone else will take advantage of cheap real estate (or cheaper, at least, compared to Boston) in Worcester and open another brewery.
“I’m waiting there for to be more. We’re still the only brewery in Worcester and having a couple more breweries in town would make it more of a draw.”
He is working on expanding his space and moving the brewery to Union Station in downtown Worcester, where he would have room for a 30-barrel brewing system and a tasting room.
Lopez worked at the Dive Bar when it first opened in 1995, then a small neighborhood joint with cheap pitchers and a giant sound system that could get a little rough at night. Several years later, Lopez became half-owner and started adding craft beer lines and creating the kind of bar that he wanted to own: an unpretentious, comfortable craft beer bar that’s still a neighborhood kind of joint. It took awhile for Worcester to adjust though.
“When we converted The Dive Bar, I became a leper. Other bar owners thought I was elitist and for a couple years no one would even talk to me. Then phone calls started coming in, people asking for advice on what craft beer they should put in their place. … It created this wave.”
Four years ago, when The Dive Bar was bursting at the seams, Lopez and Sadowski opened the Armsby Abbey, a restaurant and bar that boasts a bottle list beer geeks dream of, a formidable cocktail menu, and farmstead cheese and cuisine.
Food was only supposed to be about 20 percent of the sales, but two months in, they were doing 50-55 percent in food sales every month, and found that Worcester was waiting for a place like the Abbey to open.
“It’s been an amazing and very weird journey. We built it to cater to beer geeks, but in the end it caters to beer, food, and spirit geeks, and everyone in between.”
They’re continuing to expand, adding 35 seats in the Armsby restaurant and another 16 on the sidewalk, and commandeering the kitchen across the hall. The Dive will be getting a clean-up too--a new floor, new barstools, and new tables from reclaimed wood--but it will still have the same Dive charm, Lopez assures me. They’re also continuing to look for a spot for a second Armsby location, possibly north of Boston.
The Abbey and the Dive (and the Dive’s expansive beer garden) will be home to fest-goers and brewers throughout The Festival weekend and will be pouring only Festival beers. Lopez is understandably psyched for the fest.
“At the end of the day, it really is elitist. It’s not a four-letter word, it’s a beautiful word. They’re at the top of the mountain for beer, and not only are they going to be in the same place at the same time, but that it’s going to be in the Worcester, it’s the punch line,” he said. ”I’ve spent an exorbitant amount of money and time and travel to these brewers who are going to be two blocks from me.”
I asked one of the Arsmby Abbey bartenders, Kyle Warren, if he had any advice for the crowds that were going to descend on the city for The Festival. He offered this:
“Prepare your liver. It’s a drinking town.”
SAT 6.3.12-SUN 6.24.12
321 MAIN ST.
$60 DAY; $160 WEEKEND PASS