Wild For Mild

In July, Heavyweight Tom Baker, who likes to "make beers nobody else is making," turned his attention to creating flavorful low-alcohol brews

by Jack Curtin
Atlantic Ale Trail
Aug/Sept 2005

It was probably inevitable that Tom Baker, who's held onto to his homebrewing soul and spirit as well as any turned-pro beer geek I know, would eventually become disenchanted with the current trend of producing bigger, bolder, Imperial/Double/lord-knows-what's-next beers. Baker, founder (with wife and invaluable asset, Peggy) of New Jersey's small, eclectic and wonderful Heavyweight Brewing Company, made his bones creating "BIG beers in small batches" as the brewery's website proudly claims, but that homebrewer's heart was destined to eventually push him toward new ground when everybody began to crowd over to where he'd been standing all along.

"I love big beers," Baker says. "I love to make them and I love to drink them. But let's face it, making big beers is easy. Put in a lot of ingredients and ramp up the alcohol, you're guaranteed to have a lot of flavor. Yeah, you have to do it right, but coming up with an over-the-top beer that people will talk about isn't all that difficult. What's difficult is making something like a 3.4% beer which has a great mouth feel and a lot of flavor. I love beers like that too, classic Milds you can drink all day long. It's a style that's under-appreciated and nobody's making. I like to make beers nobody else is making."

Baker eased his way toward the Mild side by doing a series of four 6% farmhouse ales, brewed and bottles January through April. Only 60 cases each of Golden, Dark, Hoppy and Spicy Saison were produced. This was the 2005 version of Heavyweight's highly mutable, One Time, One Place program, an annual adventure which was begun in 2003 to create beers which were distributed one each to single outlets in each Heavyweight market and this year became one of creating bottled beers which were to be only sold at the brewery itself, and which eventually, albeit to only a limited degree, resulted in their being available through standard retail outlets, or at least the better ones. Whatever, y'know?

The first beer in the four-beer, draft-only Mild series was brewed the week of July 4, a pale version using Baker's own recipe. "Unlike most of the beers I do, which improve with age, a Mild is meant to be drunk fresh," he explained. "This one was fined in the fermenter to drop out most of the yeast and then racked directly into casks and kegs. This is a very, very fresh beer." Next in line was a Scottish-style Mild, based upon a recipe of, and brewed with, local homebrewer Dean Brown, who also helps out with tours at Yards Brewing. "This one had some peat malt and some chocolate," said Baker, "another very familiar take on the style." New York's Nick Hankin, former brewer and founder of the late, lamented Highlander Brewery & Restaurant in New York City's Union Square, was the collaborator on the third in the series, which Baker described as "a traditional dark Mild."

Those three beers all came in around 3.4%, but the last in the series, which should be coming out of the tanks about the time this issue arrives at your favorite venue, showed that Baker hasn't entirely abandoned his big beer roots. It was brewed with Jeff Charnik, who was head brewer at the now closed Commonwealth Brewery in Massachusetts, and "is what they call a 'throwback,' a beer similar to Sarah Hughes Ruby Mild," Baker said. Strong Black Country Milds, 6% versions of the style, were in fashion in the 1920s and Sarah Hughes Ruby Mild, made in an old Victorian Brewhouse behind The Beacon Hotel pub in Sedgley, in the West Midlands, is the classic modern reinterpretation of the style.

Blame it on Mahar's. "Jim Mahar is as much the reason I've done this Mild series as anything," Baker admits. "He's been bugging me to do it for years now." And Mahar's Public Bar in Albany, NY, a major outlet for Heavyweight beers in the Empire State, is pouring the Heavyweight Mild series in a fashion no one else can match. "They've committed to five or six firkins of each one," Baker says, "and what I'm doing is cask-condition each one using a different sugar-Belgian candi, regular sugar, demerara, some syrups-each firkin will be somewhat different, some significantly different, from all the others."

Mahar's is a place I've never been but which, I swear, I'll get to one day even if it means just getting in the car and driving the six or seven hours necessary to do it. From all I've heard, this just might be the "purest" beer bar in the country (I'll hear, and treat with deference, arguments for San Francisco's Toranado), with 26 taps, hundreds of bottles and a computerized system that keeps track of every beer you've had and tells you what's available that you haven't had every time you walk in to the door. I've met owner Jim Mahar briefly a couple of times (in circumstances and places best left unrevealed), but never really introduced myself, so I'll be going in cold. By all reports, he doesn't suffer fools gladly, which is both encouraging and a bit frightening. Still, faint heart and all that….

Rochefort relaunch. The simple fact is that Tom Peters in particular and Philadelphia's Monk's Café, which he and partner Fergus Carey founded in 1997, in general are ground zero for the Belgian beer explosion in the U.S., so it was fitting and proper that Merchant du Vin chose the legendary rear bar at Monk's for the "official welcome" which marked the July launching of the Trappist ales of Abbey St-Remy in Rochefort, Belgium, under a single U.S. importer for the first time ever, even though it may be a while before Rochefort 8 and 10 get to Pennsylvania. Merchant du Vin president Rich Hamilton was on hand, along with Rochefort brewer Gumer Santos and export manager Alfons Vandermolen, Belgian Consul General Renilde Loeckx and Wallonia Trade Commissioner Gerard Seghers.

Lace on the glass. The Ninth Annual Garden State Craft Brewers Conference was held on the pier at the Battleship New Jersey Museum and Memorial on the Camden waterfront on June 25. The spectacular setting, including a view of the Philadelphia skyline across the Delaware River, attracted an estimated 1,000 visitors to tour the ship and taste the beers of the 16 members of the Garden State Craft Brewers Guild, a not-for-profit group of small NJ breweries.

It's pretty damned impressive to have your flagship beer selected as the "World's Best Pilsner." But what if the same judging panel also calls it the "Best Beer on the North American Continent"? Whoa! Those were the accolades lauded on Victory Brewing's Prima Pils in June in the second annual Men's Journal judging of "The 50 Best Beers in the World." Stoudt's Pils, which is brewed about half an hour up the road from Victory, won an honorable mention in the same Lagers & Pilsners category. This is Lager Country, folks.

A slew of East Coast breweries came into existence in 1995, so we're seeing 10th anniversary celebrations and anniversary beers all over the place. One of them, Easton's Weyerbacher Brewing, which opened in August of that year, has been getting a lot of attention for its three successful bourbon barrel-aged beers which were released in recent months. Weyerbacher celebrated its founding with the release of Decadence, a strong (13% abv) amber ale one-off brewed with a mystery spice and botanical. His brewery is on track to surpass $1 million in sales this year, says founder Dan Weirback. "We are 28% percent ahead of last year for the first six months and in the fourth consecutive year of double-digit growth." Looking back over the highlights of the past decade, Weirback expressed particular pride in the fact that "we were the first brewery outside the Benelux countries to brew and production-bottle a Belgian-style Quadruple (2000)."

A somewhat sadder 10th anniversary moment came when the oldest brewpub extant in the Philadelphia area, Valley Forge Brewing Company, which opened its doors in May 1995, closed them forever in May 2005. It had been struggling for some time. The closure leaves Sly Fox Brewhouse and Eatery in Phoenixville (December 1995) and Victory Brewing Company (February 1996) as the oldest brewpubs in the area. Both are doing just fine, thank you, and we're very happy campers out here in the western suburbs.

Copyright (c) 2005 Jack Curtin

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