Over the last several decades, I’ve had a front row seat to watch the beer industry change, and specifically to witness how locally crafted breweries have emerged, faltered, succeeded, and eventually reshaped the landscape of regional beer forever. I’ve seen bartenders become bar owners, local dives grow into beer bars, and bar owners become brewers. It’s a supportive community with residents who constantly challenge each other and who recognize the importance of producing and consuming quality beer.
On the top of that list of industry icons in these throes is Chris Lohring, founder and brewer of Notch Brewing Co. Simply put, he has delivered on the bold idea that the experience of imbibing can be equal to the beer itself.
“Six years ago,” says Lohring, “no one thought it could be done.”
That was one of Lohring’s opening comments when I interviewed him on the eve of his new brewery opening in Salem. He wasn’t talking about the place itself, but rather about the product, and more specifically the fact that he set out to brew only session beer, and no one took him seriously in the beginning.
Some said the whole concept was a dud. The masses wouldn’t embrace it, they predicted, wrongly. People wouldn’t pay the same price for a pint of lower alcohol beer as they would for a hop bomb IPA. It was all just a marketing gimmick. It isn’t even a style of beer. It’s a vague descriptive notion. That’s what they told him. Lohring didn’t listen.
“Since then, the entire industry has embraced it,” he explains. “Session just needed to be communicated.”
While session beer eludes a hard and fast definition, and is still considered by many to not be an actual style, for Lohring and Notch it means 4.5 percent ABV or less. As for the point of creating a session beer—and specifically a beer brand that only brews session beer—was simply to create beer that was flavorful and drinkable. It was about enjoying the experience of drinking with friends, and about enjoying multiple pours during a “session” without, I’ll just say it, getting shitfaced.
Inspired by the biergartens of Munich and Prague, Lohring wanted to design a brewery that focused as much on its beer as it did on experience. The idea being that people would be hanging out for long periods of time. Showing me around, the proud owner acknowledged the remarkable Czech Bier Tower that serves four of their 14 selections on tap. “The way you pour a Czech pils is just as important as how you brew it,” Lohring says.
It’s one thing to challenge the prevailing wisdom of craft beer styles. It’s another thing altogether to challenge the notion that the way we are experiencing beer in America should be rethought from the brewery up.
Until now, Lohring’s beers were only contract-brewed and available throughout Massachusetts and Maine. But his vision from six years ago begat success, with a brewery and taproom following. In focusing on how people enjoyed beer, not just that they did, Lohring reached his goal of growing an environment where beers are enjoyed in a new and unique way. A way that haters wrote off before the first keg was tapped.
The taproom at the new Notch digs serves three sizes: half and full liters plus a schnitt, which is a one-quarter pint pour. They don’t sell food, but they do have traditional bar snacks like fresh pretzels from Swissbakers in Allston, and will be adding pickled veggies from Maitland Mountain Farm in Salem, as well as authentic Landjaeger from Wisconsin, and perhaps even a spiral radish. There are no TVs but there is an old school skeeball machine, a nod to Lohring’s Salem roots.
No one is going to serve you a beer, bar service only, and once you have your beer Notch has communal tables indoors and outdoors so you’re sure to make friends. The outside area is right on the waterfront and feels like an authentic biergarten setting insofar as one could be dropped in the heart of the old industrial slice of Salem. The building is an old REO showroom and repair shop but it seems to have been destined to be exactly what it is now. Considering that Lohring spent so much time looking for the perfect location to open a brewery, and rejected many along the way, none of this is a surprise. Nothing about his journey has been. Everything about Notch has been thought out, focused, and without compromise. That was the whole point and anything less wasn’t worth doing. Have I mentioned that it’s all about the experience?
Finally, it’s worth noting that Lohring is one of the cofounders of the seminal Boston brand Tremont Brewery, and that this isn’t his first foray into the world of beer. His passion for brewing and beer in general has never been a hobby. At the same time, it’s never been about just the business.After they sold Tremont, he spent five years working outside of the beer industry because the business side of the industry had failed him. Everything from building a brewery in Charlestown, to self-distributing his and other brands, to ultimately handing the brand to a massive distributor who promised the much needed growth for a brand that so desperately needed it, challenged the reason he became a brewer to begin with. Which makes Notch all that more personal.
The whole experience of brewing beer and seeing it consumed is personal to those that brew it and care about the process and the product. That’s not exceptional. It’s a given for most breweries. What is unique about Notch Brewing and where it came from is that the beer was an ends to a means. It was never really just about the beer, or the brewery, or the business. It was about the experience of drinking beer. It was about the session.
Notch Brewery & Taproom
283R Derby Street, Salem, MA
Wed & Thurs, 5pm – 10pm
Fri & Sat, Noon – 11pm
Sun, Noon – 10pm
Closed Mon and Tues