Our first of many trips into the Pioneer Valley microbrew scene
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We’re going to be writing quite a bit about Western Mass and its beautiful vice trade over the next couple of months. First there is New England Treatment Access (NETA) Northampton, which is slated to be the first or at least one of the first legal dispensaries to open in Mass, allegedly sometime later this month, and of course the new MGM Springfield, built across I-91 from the Basketball Hall of Fame. I look forward to losing a few dollars there.
While the Berkshires and Pioneer Valley are ripe for all kinds of coverage that readers in Boston can likely appreciate, since both are a relatively short car or bus ride away and offer significant party and culture opps across the board, this week we’re starting with their beers because, well, they do them well in Western Mass.
There are far too many breweries and destinations to name in a column (or a book, for that matter), but an obvious starting point is Fort Hill Brewery in Easthampton, which, in addition to having a facility and tasting room fit for a wedding or simply a quick sudsy stop-in, pumps out some of the most breathtaking pints and cans anywhere. Fort Hill’s flagship Fresh Pick is a staple you can fortunately find in almost any beer store west of Worcester, and I’m hoping that more of the perfect 7 percent citra magic makes its way here soon.
I also grabbed a four-pack of the devilishly labeled Sinshine, a delicious but antagonistic New England IPA from Bay State Brewing Co. in Leicester. Sure, Leicester’s not exactly Western Mass—not by the standards of any self-respecting Pioneer Valley or Berkshires native (I got a serious talking-to about this last weekend)—but I saw a lot of it out there, so here goes…
We’re working with a cloudy citrus nectar that could almost pass for fruit juice in appearance. There’s a bit of leather in its bite; despite the peach, melon, and tangerine notes—or perhaps because of them, as those and other flavors packed in here are as well known for bitterness as they are for their sweetness—the first few sips of Sinshine go down like a Sweet Tart. I mean that in a deep, positive, spiritual way; even up to about half an hour after banging back a couple of these ones, there were noticeable traces on my tonsils. It’s New England haze at its most daring and aggressive, as well as a canned treat that will get you shellacked at 6.9 percent ABV.
If you’re in the area and want the full experience, I recommend Fitzwilly’s and the adjoining Toasted Owl Tavern in Northampton as a proper starting place for evening fun. Serious beer snobs may dislike that their taps are actually cold, but for my money, the IPA, an easy West Coast classic with an ideal citrus kick from BLDG 8 Brewing in Northampton, made for perfect memories. I’m craving one right now.
Finally, while there are a lot more options to taste and bars to visit—I really want to check out Northampton’s internationally propped Tunnel Bar, though I understand it’s much more of a cocktail haven—no first trip to the area, I was told, can be complete without a visit to the Beer Can Museum at the vaunted Ye Ol’ Watering Hole.
By the time I made it there after the Northampton Brewery, I didn’t have much stamina left in me for more sampling, but I did spend roughly half an hour ogling the nearly 4,000 old cans they have on display. Looking back, I wonder if they have any old rusted joints for sale—perhaps there are some silver bullets in the basement for the tourists. I didn’t bother asking, though, since my trunk back at the hotel was already stuffed with plenty of contemporary product to bring back to Boston, review, and share with my drunken associates.
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.