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In Sheffield, Big Elm Brewing Branches Out

Rural Intelligence Food

Christine and Bill Heaton

For hundreds of years, Sheffield’s festivals and town meetings were held at an elm tree so large that 300 people could fit beneath its boughs. Now there’s a new gathering spot where the tree once thrived. Big Elm Brewing, which opened in October on the corner of Route 7 and Silver Street, aims to bring beer enthusiasts together.

Each Saturday from noon to 4 p.m., owners Christine and Bill Heaton and their partners Jen and Russell Jaehnig open the airy warehouse to the public, offering free tastings and tours. On a recent afternoon, a steady stream of passersby sallied up to a small wooden bar to purchase growlers and sample more than a half-dozen microbrews. Among the day’s offerings were hickory-smoked Route 7 Rauschbier and the springy 413 Farmhouse Ale, flavored with lemon zest, chamomile, Bear Meadow Apiary’s honey, and pink peppercorns from Himala Salt.

When the assembly reached a critical mass, Russell led the crowd to the 30-barrel metal vats in the back room, detailing the process that transforms humble grains of barley into hearty ales. Barrels of recently brewed Gerry Dog Stout, currently soaking up flavors of oak and bourbon, drew plenty of yearning looks.

Rural Intelligence Food All this is just the beginning of the community-oriented endeavor that the Big Elm crew envisions for their brewery. “I’d love to have a vegetable garden,” Christine says, her eyes gleaming with enthusiasm. “We could grow our own hops, and have rows of carrots by some picnic tables.” She imagines clearing out the brewery’s three acres of land to host beer festivals, town gatherings, and private parties. And when Big Elm starts running its canning machinery next month, they’ll be able to expand their reach even further.

Christine’s excitement is contagious. That’s because Big Elm’s story is about people following their passion — and figuring out where their passions lay in the first place.

Neither Christine nor Bill planned on a career in beer. After graduating from Millersville University with a degree in chemistry, Christine tried out life in laboratories and in Niger as a Peace Corps volunteer. When she returned stateside, she set her sights on working at a brewpub. But it wasn’t until she got a scholarship to train at the Siebel Institute of Technology in Chicago and Doemens Academy in Munich that she got her big break. “As a female brewer it’s sometimes harder,” she says. “It’s a very male-dominated industry, although that’s changing now.”

The scholarship helped her score a position with Victory Brewing Company in Pennsylvania. There, she met the man she would marry. Bill was a former photographer who’d grown tired of wedding and advertising shoots. Ready for a change, he penned a heartfelt letter about his desire to make beer and sent it out to 16 breweries.  “He started out cleaning kegs and worked his way up to head brewer at Victory,” Christine says. “It’s the quintessential home brewer’s dream.”

Rural Intelligence Food

Russell and Jen Jaehnig

In 2005, the couple moved to the Berkshires and opened the brewpub Pittsfield Brew Works. But the stressful restaurant racket showed them that their hearts were really in brewing. They closed Brew Works in 2010 — and found partners for their new business in friends Jen, a history teacher at Pittsfield’s Herbert Middle School, and Russell, an executive chef at the catering company A Taste of Nantucket.

With four young children between the two couples, it’s no surprise that Big Elm is a family affair. Toy cars are scattered throughout the warehouse, and small children play peekaboo behind metal kegs. Other family members are getting in on the act, too. Jen’s father gathers fallen branches on his hikes, then sands them into one-of-a-kind tap handles. Even Christine and Bill’s beagle mix has a role to play: His furry mug graces the label of Gerry Dog Stout.

Rural Intelligence Food While Big Elm has only been open for a few months, it’s already making big waves in the local culinary scene. Their beers are available at more than 30 distributors, from retail stores like Domaney’s to the Red Lion Inn. They’ve collaborated extensively with Route 7 Grill, using the restaurant’s smoker to create its namesake beer and teaming up for a December dinner menu that offered delicacies like Big Elm stout-braised beef short ribs. And on Saturday, January 26, Elm Street Market in Stockbridge is hosting a tasting from 4:30 to 6 pm.

In the midst of all that hubbub, Christine says the Big Elm team is riding high. “On brew days,” she says, “I’m back to my old self.” It’s a feeling that bears out the mandate emblazoned on each of Big Elm’s bottles: Get back to your roots. —Sarah Todd

Big Elm Brewing
65 Silver Street
Sheffield, MA 01257
(413) 229-2348
Free tastings and tours each Saturday, noon to 4 p.m.

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Posted by Sarah Todd on 01/22/13 at 10:48 AM • Permalink