I remember a time when French presses were the rage among serious java heads. On the heels of coffee’s second wave, this made sense. These presses, which were invented in Italy, not France, did a remarkable job of extracting all the best that darker roasts had to offer. They produce a cup with silky mouthfeel and rich body.
With the rise of the third wave and specialty coffee, the popularity of the French press took a hit. The French press was often was seen as a shotgun when compared with the sniper rifle accuracy of newer brewing methods.
I have never given up on using French presses, particularly stainless steel models, which hold heat better than their glass counterparts. My 36-ounce Frieling ($100 on Amazon) is a tank. It’s easy to clean and well-engineered. All standard French presses produce sediment, but that never takes away from my enjoyment. It’s a writer’s brewer: classic and dependable. I suspect my daughters will one day inherit my Frieling — it looks as good today as it did when I bought it over a decade ago.
Another beautiful and dependable model is the 27-ounce press from Le Creuset ($70 on Amazon). If you’re like me and admire the way the colors of their signature stoneware deepen with age, this is a great choice. I know of no other model worth using that’s available in so many colors. Plus, there’s also something to be said for a French press that’s French.
The final gadget I experimented with is a new one. It is marketed as an American press ($80 at ItsAmericanPress.com). Though it resembles a French press, there are some notable differences. The American press uses a pod instead of a single filter attached to a plunger. This pod contains a 100 micron filter on both sides — you extract coffee with both downward and upward motions.
The most immediately striking aspect of the American press is visual. The coffee seems to appear, as if by magic, from the top down. Theatrics aside, and despite its appearance, the American press produces a different type of cup than its French counterpart. This might seem a drawback or one of its greatest assets, depending on your perspective. I find the French press to be a forgiving way to brew coffee. You can use average beans and get above-average results — it is a method that emphasizes mouthfeel and body over nuance.
The American press, in contrast, brews with greater precision and therefore doesn’t mask imperfect beans. It has a number of admirable qualities beyond its ability to produce a clean cup. It’s durable but lightweight; it’s aesthetically pleasing, unlike other press coffee makers it superficially resembles; and it is easy to maintain. It will no doubt find its way into my backpack for hiking trips when the weather turns warm again.
The French press’ nearly century-old design has remained durable for a reason. Even if innovators discover ways of modifying its basic components, it remains, after all, a filter attached to a plunger. Anything so simple yet effective deserves a place in every coffee lover’s cabinet.
When an ocean engineer and his science teacher wife take on a project, some type of new instrument for marine biologists might be the presumed result. For Dan and Deb Clapp, however, the outcome isn’t something Edmund Scientific will ever feature in its catalog.
After moving to New England from Oregon for graduate school, the Clapps ultimately chose to settle in Ipswich. Dan discovered extensive familial ties to the area while inspecting an aunt’s family wheel, including kinship with Col. John Choate, whose name adorns the historic bridge in town. That spawned deeper interest in genealogy and eventually led to a trip to Denmark to uncover additional lineage. A fateful choice of a souvenir for Deb would eventually change the course of their lives — a bottle of Klapostjer Mjod (mead in Danish), a beverage consisting of fermented honey, hops and schnapps made by the Dansk Mjod in Billund.
Dan knew nothing about mead at the time, buying it because of its “cool ceramic bottle” and the label’s Viking mascot. Although she appreciated her husband’s thoughtfulness, the bottle sat on the bottom shelf of the liquor cabinet for two years. One evening at a dinner party they were hosting, they broke it out on a whim, and all who tasted it were pleasantly surprised. Knowing Dan was experienced at brewing his own beer, his guests encouraged him to try to make this “new” libation.
First he needed to gain a deeper understanding of the product itself, so he began doing research that befit his engineering background. He discovered that mead is the oldest referenced fermented beverage in history. Its earliest known mention was in the ancient Indian Vedas.
Mead is sometimes called “honey wine,” the foundational ingredients being honey, water and yeast. There are many varieties, but the most popular are metheglins, brewed with herbs and/or spices; melomels, which contain fruit additives; and cysers, which are apple cider/mead hybrids.
Mead production flourished with the science of apiculture’s spread to northern Europe in the Middle Ages; it became equated with Viking culture, getting regular mentions in the sagas, Eddas and other sources as the preferred drink of the Norse gods.
As Dan experimented with recipes, friends and neighbors recommended that he begin commercial sales of his concoctions. Their advice piqued his interest, so he started researching artisanal meaderies and “noticed a huge uptick of interest on the internet.” It was an emboldening revelation, before which he’d been concerned that American familiarity with mead was too limited to make a business viable.
According to the American Mead Makers Association, “The world’s most popular beverage throughout most of recorded history nearly died out [but is now the] fastest growing segment of the American alcohol beverage industry.”
The final motive to go professional came when the Clapps noticed a “for rent” sign on a Short Street storefront while driving in downtown Ipswich. They had reached a crossroads both literally and figuratively, supposing such a perfect opportunity may not occur again.
After a year of wading through state, federal and local permitting bureaucracy, 1634 Meadery opened its doors to the public in April of 2015.
The business’ name is an acknowledgment of the year Ipswich was incorporated into the commonwealth, important because the community is a big part of 1634’s business plan. “When we held our grand opening,” Dan says, “they really rose to the occasion.” Using all local ingredients is his way of returning the favor.
Currently, 1634 is working toward doubling production capacity. There are also hopes of expanding the tasting room because, as Dan explains, “it’s integral for education and events, both still necessary in the mead market despite the huge market growth.”
Though it’s not at all evident while sipping his meads, such as Orange Elation, Citrus Breeze, and Blueberry Dream, Dan says humbly: “I’m still learning as I go.”
[Update may 5, 2020: 1634 Meadery is offering special takeout services in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Please call or visit their website for updates.]
The Renaissance of Craft Beers in the Merrimack Valley.
Craft beers have consistently held a respectable segment of the market share, but currently they are experiencing a renaissance of proportions unseen since the mid-90s “microbrewery boom.” According to Paul Gatza, director of the Boulder, Colo.-based Brewers Association, the number of U.S. breweries has shot up in past years. The Merrimack Valley is a hotbed of activity in the resurgence.
Bob Johnson of Lowell’s Navigation Brewing, partially attributes the growing number of small breweries to the popularity of the locavore movement, which places the utmost importance on food products being grown, raised and/or produced locally. “We’re no longer considered just microbreweries, but rather local, artisan, farmer breweries,” he says.
Steve Sanderson, head brewer and founder of Newburyport’s RiverWalk Brewing Co., takes great pride in offering beer that is “extremely fresh and extremely local.” Sanderson views the emergence of so many new breweries as auspicious, but he does see an eventual “tipping point.”
“Although craft beer is not solely a commodity, and we’re not all trying to do the same thing, there are a finite number of draft lines and shelf space that we’ll end up competing over,” he says. “Growth can’t go on forever without consequence.”
Do not mistake Sanderson’s realism for some kind of dog-eat-dog market rivalry. In RiverWalk’s early days, the business amicably shared a space with Cody Brewing Co. of Amesbury, exemplifying a symbiotic relationship that would be taboo in other commercial enterprises.
A participant on History channel’s “History on Tap,” a craft-brewing, reality television show that aired in December 2010, Sanderson has witnessed local breweries supporting one another on multiple occasions. “I can’t tell you how many times we’ve run out of something and called around to find someone who could help us out in a pinch, and then [they] come through for us,” he says.
Johnson, the recipient of a gold medal in the American Homebrewers Association’s 1998 National Homebrew Competition, feels a rising tide lifts all boats. He and son-in-law/business partner P.J. Mercier believe that putting out a superb product and being “part of the neighborhood” will solve any competitive obstacles.
Newburyport residents Chris Webb and Bill Fisher, co-founders of Newburyport Brewing Company, believe there’s a need for more great craft breweries in this country. “We’re in the middle of a craft-brewing revolution,” Webb says, “and America’s innovating, big time. The better educated about great beer we can make the average consumer, the more we all benefit.”
Webb’s “the more, the merrier” philosophy stems from his belief that while the beer market used to be somewhat divided along class lines, these days a wider variety of consumers is now seeking high quality beer. “The blue collar and college-aged are vastly growing market segments for craft brewing,” says Webb, who feels there will be more than enough demand to support a multitude of breweries.
Fisher and Webb also believe that locals will buy their respective region’s products. Webb says, “People have roots that stir memories. Local pride makes communities and their businesses strong. Newburyport is a trademark unto itself, for example.”
The partners have focused heavily on lifestyle branding to help boost NBPT’s visibility among its peers. “Music is a major part of who we are,” Webb says. “We sponsor bands and festivals, have local musicians play the tasting room and include a guitar pick in every six-pack. We also feature local artists’ work on the walls of the public area. We’re in the business of making people happy and having fun, with beer being the vehicle.”
A relative newcomer on the scene is Lowell’s Merrimack Ales. Founder Adam Pearson formed the LLC in January 2014 and spent over a year finding a location and sourcing the equipment. The 10 barrel brewery became operational this past Thanksgiving. All of the city permits were in place by September and Pearson brought head brewer Pat Auclair (formerly of Do Can Brewery) aboard.
The brewery specializes in a menu of beers based on a mix of English/American/Belgian styles. Having a background in engineering and running designed experiments, Pearson is meticulous about getting the recipes right. “Trial and error is a time tested way to tinker, but it’s horrible for actually learning how to make things better or to get them right quickly,” he says.
With disparate offerings such as maple cream porter, chocolate oatmeal stout, honey-tinged white ale, and dry-hopped rye IPA, there’s something at Merrimack Ales to please just about every beer lover. Upcoming offerings include “Shock Value,” an imperial Belgian IPA for which the recipe was guided using direct customer feedback, “Obligatory,” a cascade-hop forward pale ale, and “Horrorshow,” a citrusy American-style IPA, the name of which means “excellent” in the vernacular of the Anthony Burgess dystopian novel “A Clockwork Orange.”
The present is propitious and the future is full of hope in the burgeoning Merrimack Valley craft-brewing crusade.
Newburyport Brewing Co.
RiverWalk Brewing Co.
Amesbury’s House Bear Brewing Makes an Ancient Beverage with a Modern Twist.
When a product wins an international competition before it’s been introduced in the marketplace, it must be something special. Beth Borges and Carl Hirschfeld are banking on it. In 2013 the pair founded House Bear Brewing in Amesbury. Their specialty: mead, once a fabulously popular alcoholic beverage that now has cult status.
Borges and Hirschfeld hope to change that, and they’ve certainly started on a high note. Before any of their craft meads were available to the public, they won the gold medal at the 2014 Mead Free or Die international competition held in Londonderry, N.H.
The winner was House Bear Brewing’s “Show Bear,” a traditional mead that’s made with blueberry honey — one of several flavored meads produced by the pair in their downtown “meadery,” a onetime mill brewery space not much larger than a nice loft apartment.
Borges had toyed with home brewing while she was a student at Babson College in Wellesley, and when she decided she didn’t want a career in finance, she thought: “There could be a niche market for mead” in a beverage world that had suddenly gone craft beer crazy.
And that is the target market for their product: the craft beer crowd. But Borges admits, “When I decided to start a meadery, I didn’t know if anybody did this.” She convinced best friend Hirschfeld, who was tired of working in the computer industry, to join her.
“It’s easy to make mead,” Borges says. After all, it’s really just honey, water and yeast with the various flavors added along the way in the three-month process. “But it’s very hard to make good mead.”
Borges and Hirschfeld make their mead in 55-gallon plastic drums that once contained Pepsi syrup. Each drum can churn out about 20 cases of mead, a good way to maintain quality control.
The first bottles hit local liquor stores last September, and House Bear Brewing products are now available in nearly 20 stores in the Bay State. They are also served at Crave, a wine bar in Amesbury.
The average person usually expects mead to be thick and sweet, something to be imbibed out of a container with Viking horns. None of that is true.
Here are six things you should know about mead:
1. It can be served at any temperature. Borges and Hirschfeld believe the best flavors are discovered at room temperature. But chilled or served on ice mixed with other beverages? Not a problem.
2. It’s usually not carbonated or effervescent. Don’t expect a lot of bubbles or a nice, foamy head. You really must get over your beer prejudices. It isn’t beer.
It isn’t near beer. It’s mead.
3. It can have an alcoholic content of between 8 percent and 18 percent. So it carries more of an alcoholic kick than an average bottle (7 percent) of that other beverage it’s always confused with.
4. It is made with fermented honey, not grain. And that’s why it once was the beverage of royalty and the well-to-do. Honey wasn’t easy to come by in the old days. When people learned that they could make a cheap alcoholic beverage out of a grain like barley, which was easily grown in large fields, mead was a goner. Beer for everyone!
5. It can be made in a wild variety of flavors. No matter what kind of beer you sample, there is always a … well … beeriness to it. House Bear Brewing offers mead in flavors that include strawberry/basil, passion fruit, lemonade, chocolate hot pepper and more.
6. The earliest archaeological evidence of mead in Europe dates back about 4,000 years. It was considered the alcoholic beverage of choice during the Golden Age of Greece. And we all know what party animals those Greeks were.
It’s springtime. It’s getting warm and sunny after a miserable winter. What better way to celebrate than with a glass of liquid sunshine, the beverage of kings made from fermented honey. Why not feel the need for mead?
House Bear Brewing