THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Hometown Brewers

A Toast To Pawtucket's Newest Neighbors

by by Belle Cushing

illustration by by Stella Chung

It started with four soda syrup tanks. Reclaimed from a scrap heap, the tanks showed up and for them to get used, “the whole rest of this had to happen.”

“The whole rest of this,” as Nate Broomfield describes it, is Pawtucket’s newest—and only—nanobrewery. Bucket Brewery is a fully licensed brewery that sells beer to bars and restaurants around Rhode Island, but the operation is no bigger than a broom closet. In fact, just last year, the space was a broom closet. “A big broom closet,” Erik clarifies. Erik Aslaksen and Nate, his buddy and brew partner, are giving me a tour of the brewery, which, given the space, takes about a minute. Nate explains how the two were shown the utility closet as a joke while checking out the spacious studios of Lorraine Mills. But Nate saw something else: “If you can wire this up and patch the holes in the floor, we’ve got ourselves a brewery!”

With a little welding, the syrup tanks became fermenters. Erik, Nate, and the other members of their team, TJ, Ron, and Drew, insulated the brew pots and installed heaters themselves. A pair of freezers were tinkered with for storing kegs, which are washed just a foot away by an original contraption that sounds like freight engine, but costs a fraction of what even a cheap one would have cost retail.

Erik and Nate live four streets apart in Pawtucket. They have known each other for years and used to brew beer together in their backyards. When they decided to expand beyond five-gallon experiments and open a brewery with their friends, the choice of location was obvious. The name followed naturally, after their beloved town: the Bucket.

The closet’s renovation was a welcome addition to the hundred or so tenants, mostly artists, in Lorraine Mills. The bathroom is stocked with artisanal soaps. A woodworker keeps shop around the corner. Dmitry, a screenprinter down the hall, is working on an etching for the brewery’s pint glasses.

Dmitry has just come into the brewhouse, as the former storage closet is now known, to ask about colors for the t-shirts he is printing for them. Mason jar in hand, his timing is perfect: we are just about to taste some Park Loop Porter.

The porter is, in Erik’s words, “a big boy,” with seven percent alcohol content and “a little bit of a bite to it.” It is named for the loops of Warwick City Park made by runners in the Rhode Island 6-Hour Ultramarathon and Relay, a race the brewery sponsored. The race director requested a porter, and though they had never made a porter before, they did some research, tried some out, and the beer has since gained a spot on the permanent roster.

Although Nate and Erik spearhead recipe development and the brewing process, the door is open for any one of the five partners to come up with a beer. Erik takes particular pride in the Rhode Scholar, a subtle, kölsch-inspired beer designed to woo those stubborn drinkers of Bud Light. As Erik opens the keg to fill my glass, a harsh suction sound reverberates off the close walls. At any point in the tiny room, there might be one guy washing kegs, another making beer, someone scrubbing tanks, with everyone fighting over floor drain. Dmitry is probably in having a beer. I understand what Nate means when he says it can get a bit claustrophobic.

“And filled with CO2!” Erik chimes in.

“We released a lot of CO2 yesterday when we were working,” recalls Nate, “and we both had to sort of run out of the room.”

Next, Erik fills a glass of Thirteenth Original Maple Stout directly from the fermenter. It is still warm, only halfway through the fermenting process. The recipes for the stout and their Pawtucket Pail Ale have been in the works for years, but sometimes, a good beer just happens. One day, TJ was following Erik’s recipe for the Thirteenth Original Stout. Erik had called for 2 lbs 8 oz barley, except TJ read it as 21 instead. But upon coming in and seeing that something just wasn’t right, Erik didn’t write off the expensive batch as a lost cause. He left, came back, and dumped in a heap of unsweetened chocolate, zested a bushel of oranges over the pot, and the chocolate orange stout was born. As I sip the rescued beer, which I never would have guessed was a fluke, Nate takes advantage of Erik’s brief absence to sing his buddy’s praises. “He’s a phenomenal brewer,” he professes. “He has an amazing palette. It’s pretty impressive what he can do.” Nate claims to be the more methodical one, though in the end, “We both end up with good products.”

When I asked the guys what they did before they became brewers, they exchanged glances and laughed: “We’re still doing it!”

Nate is in IT, Erik is an architect, and the other partners work in restaurant management, health care, and corporate accounting, the latter coming in especially handy. The brewing happens on when the day job stops, and brewnights are not just drinks with the bros. “My wife, that’s what she expects,” jokes Erik. “Every time I say, I’m going to the brewery, it’s ‘Oh, he’s drinking with his buddies.’ But it’s work! I actually gotta get stuff done!”

Dmitry suggests that Erik have his wife clean a couple of kegs, and she’ll understand. But chances are, she already understands what it means to run a completely self-financed business on the side. “The thing is,” Nate admits, “it is a lot of work. We don’t make any money out of this. We get the occasional t-shirt, we get to have beer when we’re here, but we don’t even get free kegs-we have to buy our own kegs if we want to take a keg home. We’re raising families, we’re doing our day jobs, and coming here for no pay. So it’s a bit exhausting. We’re very much looking forward to a day when it all pays off and becomes our job.”

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Just down the street, tucked between a transfer station and a lot filled with trucks, more beer is being brewed. Foolproof Brewing Co., Pawtucket’s other newly-opened brewery, boasts five towering fermenting tanks filling one of those cavernous vacants the city has to spare. Here, founder Nick Garrison makes, not just beer, but “experiences”—in sleek, attractively designed packages. Sitting at the gleaming wood bar in a brand new tasting room, where carved tap handles promise stylish beer, I am impressed.

The IPA I am drinking is from their first ever batch, brewed December 7. Nick calls it “Backyahd,” and, according to official tasting notes, the experience contained in the pretty green can is “Guaranteed to deliver an unspoken zen with a spatula in your other hand...” Barstool golden ale, Foolproof’s flagship ale, is for that “sacred drinking experience” of sitting with your buddies at the neighborhood bar.

“Looking at it objectively,” Nick says, pouring some Raincloud Porter (experience: “It’s pouring outside, so pour yourself something inside...”) into a glass emblazoned with the signature jester logo, “this is probably the best of the three.” But judging by the response from Rhode Island drinkers after just a few weeks, the other beers are not far behind, and the near 100,000 gallons of beer that Foolproof can produce in a year will not go to waste.

The brewing process starts with a scenario. Nick thinks up a beer-drinking scene and works with his designer, friend and RISD graduate Liz Weinberg, to develop the pen and ink drawings and lyrical briefs that accompany each beer. He then works with his brewmaster, Damase Olssen, to translate the experience into alcohol and grain. “We met on the Internet,” Nick says with a laugh, on ProBrew, the “Facebook for brewers.” They clicked immediately. Together they tackle the full-scale operation-small by most brewery standards but a giant compared to the guys down the road-which leads from grinding grain, about 2,000 pounds per batch, up a flight of stairs to the platform where the barley gets boiled. After more tanks, a complicated rake system, and a water heater “like a fighter jet engine,” it’s back down to “tank row,” where in more tanks outfitted with big orange tubes, they finish the process. While Nick pours me some golden ale, Damase is shifting boxes somewhere overhead. The cans will arrive the next day, to be packed on an in-house canning line.

The local inflection in his IPA shows Nick’s affinity for his adopted town. It was after moving to Pawtucket that Nick first started brewing beer, when he still worked in communications in the aerospace industry. He got more and more ambitious and eventually brewed all the beer for his wedding. But it was in Quebec City during his honeymoon, sitting at a brewpub when— “She actually said this, not me,” Nick admits—his bride mused about how cool it would be to own a place like this. “And it was that exact moment I knew,” he remembers, “that I was going to open a brewery.”

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The breweries have filled a welcome niche in a community that, with its year round farmers market, high-end restaurants, farms and food trucks galore, seemingly only needed this influx of breweries to complete its edible obsession. Pawtucket’s New Urban Farmers recycle Foolproof’s used barley on their farm and will soon begin growing some hops especially for the brewery.

For Bucket, also committed to the marriage of good food and beer, the ultimate pairing would be with Chez Pascal, who not only offer beer on tap, but also source their pigs from some farms that recycle the brewery’s spent grain: a beer to drink with the pig that ate the grain that made the beer. “It’s either sick or brilliant,” laughs Nate. “We’ll really be able to gauge our audience.”

The brewers are taking advantage of the already burgeoning food culture, what Erik refers to vaguely as “the whole foodie thing,” but its the bars and backyards of Pawtucket that they hold dear. At least Erik and Nate seem genuinely surprised by the happy alignment of these stars. They opened the brewery, and “all of a sudden Rhode Island beer is a local news story.”

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Despite the overwhelmingly positive response from restaurants, bars, and plain old drinkers, Rhode Island law does not make the process easy. Obtaining a license requires months of paperwork, inspections, questioning contradictions, and squeezing through loopholes—even the purchase of a Bucket Brewery truck (no, they can’t deliver their own beer, but they are nonetheless required to have a truck). For years, Newport Storm was the only craft brewery in the state, but with the sudden increase in entrepreneurs, it seems that the state had a learning curve of its own in terms of what these post-Prohibition era laws really mean.

Both would like to be able to sell beer out of their facilities, filling up growlers for visitors to the brewery to take home. While this would be possible across the border in Fall River, in Rhode Island, all beer must go through a distributor first. A law enabling breweries to sell beer on the premises is currently up for review, and is supported by the recently reinvigorated Rhode Island Brewers Guild.

The Guild was founded in 2010 by Sean Larkin, brewer at Trinity, Narragansett and, recently, his own label, Revival, but at that point, there were hardly any brewers to be members. Today, as Larkin and Newport Storm, brewing since 1999, are joined by the Pawtucket breweries, plus newly opened Ravenous in Woonsocket, Whalers in Wakefield, and Grey Sail in Westerly, the group meets regularly. They plan on acting as a single entity in support of laws that would make Rhode Island a friendlier state for small breweries, with the goal of carving out a little more space for this kind of beer. “You look at the fact that craft beer is about seven percent of the overall market,” says Nick, “there’s still that other 90 percent to possibly capture.”

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And that 90 percent is not easily giving way to the little guys. On January 31, the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit to block the takeover by Anheuser-Busch InBev, America’s largest beer company, of Grupo Modelo, maker of Corona and the country’s third largest. Together, they control 46 percent of annual beer sales. According to a DoJ press release, the $20.1 billion takeover would “substantially lessen competition in the market for beer in the United States as a whole and in 26 metropolitan areas across the United States, resulting in consumers paying more for beer and having fewer new products from which to choose.”

The suit is being cheered by craft breweries, an industry that has come a long way since Sam Adams was the only craft brewery around. “The first time I had it,” Nate marvels, “it blew me away! I didn’t know beer could be that good!” Since then, the craft beer industry has only gotten bigger and better.

The Ocean State, however, has been relatively slow to get on board. Rhode Islanders are notoriously proud of their local products, but defending coffee milk and stuffies is different from heralding artisanal beer, and the state has long held out against anything that borders on the refined. In the 1990s, as craft beer was sweeping the rest of the country, a brewery in Warwick opened serving cask-conditioned ales, a technique Bucket brewers have expressed interest in adding to their repertoire, and quickly closed due to lack of interest in the specialty beer.

What these new Pawtucket breweries are trying to do, however, is convince locals that a small brewery with carefully made beer doesn’t necessarily entail pretention. And judging by the beers’ positive reception, Rhode Islanders tend to agree.

“Rhode Island takes pride in its own,” as Erik says, and the Pawtucket breweries find a common cause in craft beer. “The prevailing attitude is we kind of work together and get people drinking better beer,” says Nick. While Erik acknowledges that they’re not all sharing trade secrets, he’s firm in his belief that competition among Rhode Island beers is not the main concern. “I think that’s a little different than other industries. There is some sort of bonding about it.”

“Yeah,” Nate agrees, “‘cause we meet over drinks.”

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As they move forward, both breweries have hopes of expansion. Beyond the experiences he’s keeping on deck—a Saison for spring, a summer double IPA, a Belgian-style double for fall—Nick sees Foolproof becoming one of the larger craft breweries in the nation. His tight branding just might set him apart from all the other craft breweries popping up in one of the few industries experiencing consistent growth. As for the Bucket boys, they plan on using the initial success of their beer to attract some investors, increase their barrel capacity and eventually begin selling retail—hopefully from a space slightly bigger than a broom closet. No matter how much they expand, however, the brewery will always be a Pawtucket brewery, and their beer, as Erik and their clients see it, “hometown beer.”

For now, though, Nate is excited about the prospect of his beer on tap at his favorite bar. To have the tap handles—each one unique and made of a reclaimed chair leg topped with a tin bucket—displayed at his regular spots is a sign of homemade success. “It’s one of the neat things about doing this,” he says. “We’re technically professionals, but really we’re just enthusiasts and still get a little giddy about seeing our tap handles with the bucket on it.”

BELLE CUSHING B’13 is only halfway through the fermenting process.