Chatham’s Back Alley Nano-Brewery
by Christopher Matthews
We all know that size matters, and that bigger isn’t always better. This is especially true with breweries and beer. A local case in point is Chatham Brewing, located in a back alley off Main Street in the Village of Chatham, NY. Don’t call it a microbrewery – it’s not big enough – rather, it’s a four year-old “nano-brewery”, diminutive by design, that turns out a proportionately large selection of flavorful, artisanal ales.
Small, but Smart
Home brewing enthusiasts who both worked in bona fide breweries in their twenties, CB owners Tom Crowell and Jake Cunningham, now in their mid-forties, met via their wives and kids in the Chatham area. (A third original partner, Chris Ferrone, is no longer associated). While they both longed to brew on a more professional scale, serious day jobs and family obligations presented major constraints. They had also observed the micro-brew craze in the mid-to-late 1990s—and the ensuing shakeout—and wanted to avoid similar miscalculation. So, to proceed, they needed to find a smaller scale brewing system, and to start out modestly, in test market fashion.
Fortune soon smiled on them. Through their home-brewing network, they heard of a bankrupt brew pub in Albany selling off its brewing assets. The system’s capacity—and price—fit the plan. So, with lots of local good will, including professional help to haul the brewing system from Albany, and to establish the refrigeration system in the back alley location, Chatham Brewing hung out its shingle in February 2007. “It’s amazing what people will do for beer,” said Crowell.
The last piece of the current three-man operation was brewer Matt Perry (right), a home brewing aficionado who wanted to craft ales on a (slightly) bigger stage. CB tapped Perry to come on board after a year with a part-time brewer that was marked by inconsistency between ale batches. Perry has been guiding production ever since. To maintain their eight-beer (or-so) product line, CB uses three open-top fermenters to brew English style (open-vat ales largely patterned after English brewing traditions—Porter, Amber, India Pale Ale, Scotch Ale, etc.) about four days a week. To create the different ales, CB starts each with the same versatile, English ale top-fermenting yeast then customizes the blend using a palette of eight-plus different roasted malts and six types of hops (along with other occasional ingredients, such as local maple syrup). And no expensive bottling line here—reusable kegs are the only option.
Ales to Go
I’d heard good things about CB, but a road trip to Chatham beckoned when I saw on their website that you can fill up a half-gallon “growler” jug for $12.00 during “growler hours,” which take place at the brewery every Saturday.
Rolling into the village on 66 North, which turns into Main Street, the alley is on the left, well-marked by a yellow placard with CB’s railroad-inspired logo, designed by a local graphic artist. (Back in the day, Chatham was a railroad town, where five different lines converged.)
Even in January, business was brisk. Outside the garage-like production facility, a small line formed. Between growler fills, Matt patiently poured samples; I found a lot to like, especially the seasonally popular Porter. An opaque, dark black-brown, it has a creamy tan head, and complex, smoky notes of roasted coffee and cocoa. Balanced with a touch of mid-palate sweetness and a lively mouth feel, this is a highly drinkable take on an under-appreciated style.
The OC Blonde is a Belgian-style blonde ale flavored subtly with orange peel and coriander. While the beer isn’t really “light,” it would still be an excellent summer refresher, with its pleasingly clean, bitter finish.
The India Pale Ale (IPA), CB’s biggest overall seller, has been tweaked to a more “American” version—hoppier than the original English model. Unlike many US microbrew IPAs, though, CB’s version isn’t over-the top, but rather nicely balanced and sessionable (definition: not too high in alcohol, and with a subtle flavor that doesn’t pall after a glass or two). If bigger, bolder IPA’s are your thing, then the Eight Barrel IPA, a palate-rocking mouthful, with beaucoup malts, hops and alcohol (a whopping 8%), may be the ticket.
Ironically, CB’s biggest single account is the Dive Bar in Manhattan (with three locations), for which Chatham brews a private label Dive Bar Unfiltered Amber Ale, similar to its toasty, easy-drinking Amber. Still, CB’s home turf of Columbia County is the business’ bulwark, especially in Chatham itself (at Blue Plate, Lippera’s Chatham HouseRestaurant, Peint O Gwrw, one of only four Welsh-style pubs in the US), and in Old Chatham Jackson’s; in Hudson (at Club Helsinki, Mexican Radio, American Glory BBQ, Swoon Kitchenbar, The Cascades and, on occasion, at The Spotty Dog Books and Ale); at the Copake Country Club; and other spots, such as Local 111 in Philmont.
A major challenge for nano-breweries like CB is distribution. Due to its smallish production, CB must self-distribute, an onerous task that puts RI’s Massachusetts’ territory off-limits; self-distribution is sadly prohibited in The Bay State.
Nevertheless, CB is currently brewing at capacity—and contemplating growth. The Albany region and Dutchess County, particularly Rhinebeck (where it already appears periodically at Terrapin and Gigi Trattoria), would be the obvious targets, but, even that would require that they get additional fermenters. Looking forward, CB will soon release its first ESB (Extra Special Bitter). It also aims to introduce more seasonal beers into its repertoire.
Next time you’re in Chatham on Saturday, don’t forget that growler.
In the alley between 20 & 22 Main Street
Chatham; Saturday 11 a.m. - 2 p.m.
Growlers available on site for a $3.00 deposit.