It’s hard not to get behind a love story, especially when that love story is set in a brewery. In this case, the brewery was Victory Brewing Company in Dowingtown, PA, and the story, between brewers Bill and Christine Heaton. The pair met in their workplace in 2003, ended up getting married, and had a few kids to top it off, too.
Why are we telling you this story? Because in addition to marrying each other, the Heatons also married together their beer-making chops and, nearly a decade later, opened their own brewery, Big Elm Brewing, in Sheffield, Mass.Named after the beloved “Big Elm" of Sheffield, a massive tree that had once stood as a cultural and governmental center for the Massachusetts town’s citizens, Big Elm (the brewery) is now a gathering place for family and friends seeking fresh craft beer in the heart of the Berkshires.
Big Elm came shortly after another venture of the Heatons, a Pennsylvania-based brewpub the couple launched in 2005 called Pittsfield Brew Works. At Pittsfield, the lovebirds dished out tasty wings and brewed craft beer in their basement, but after what the pair describe as “five years of fun,” they closed the brewpub down to dedicate their time and skill to more serious beer production, eventually establishing Big Elm in 2012.
Three years after its creation, Big Elm today offers a handful of varying year-round beer styles, along with several more taproom-only pours. We picked up a full spectrum of the colorfully-canned beers available for sale and tried everything from a classic lager to a fierce imperial stout. How are the fruits of Big Elm’s labor? Keep reading and find out.
The lightest of our tasting by a large margin, the American Lager pours as pale as the corn it is brewed with and crystal clear. Big Elm’s most crushable offering, the American lager wears its corn origins proudly in its aroma, with notes of tortilla chips and cornmeal greeting any approaching nose. The beer is true easy drinking, with a clean, light flavor one taster described as “corn and rain” — fresh, crisp and smooth. Dressed up in red, white and blue, the American lager looks much like the iconic Pabst Blue Ribbon, and drinkers may wonder if that was intentional, since BIg Elm’s offering could best be dubbed a “more refined PBR.” We can never be certain, but what is certain is this: the American lager is made for the summer, and deserves a poolside spot all over the nation.
When we cracked the can of this Belgian-style ale — and finally got our noses on it — we couldn’t help but say “whoa” over its banana-meets-chamomile tea aroma. Pouring a hazy gold and sporting a shallow, oily head, this beer oozes huge fruit notes, with banana, bitter orange and lemon coming to the front. Notes of tea, thanks to the beer being brewed with chamomile, lurk quietly behind this candied wave, mingling with subtle, yet delightfully odd, hints of leather and earth. When tasted, the once-shy chamomile rushes to the forefront, bringing with it black pepper and more of that saddle-y leather. It’s smooth, light and yet still earthy and substantial — a beer made for dock-side cigars or dry-rub ribs. One last thing: Remember that boisterous blast of fruit? It has since settled down, showing itself on the tail end of the sip in the form of a tangy, lingering juiciness that practically forces drinkers to crack another.
Just a few shades lighter than honey — one taster dubbing it “deep dandelion” — Big Elm’s West Coast-style IPA wears a tight, stubborn head until its very last minutes. It’s a handsome drink, elegantly lacing the edges of the glass after each and every sip. Even better, it’s beauty isn’t just “suds deep.” On first whiff, it becomes obvious to drinkers: this simply-named IPA is far from simple. Instead, it’s a hoppy, citrus-filled beer, and it has a serious attitude problem. Full of pine, sour green apple and citrus, Big Elm’s IPA is punchy and excited, blasting IPA lovers with some uninhibited bitterness. It would seem the young brewery has made one of the angriest IPAs you can find in a can, packing a wallop of bitter flavor that will leave even the most discriminating hop-hunters happy.
Named after Gerry, Big Elm’s loyal canine, this oatmeal stout pours a deep, root beer brown and quickly sprouts a generous head of suds. The head, all tiny bubbles, is a pillowy plume that leaves its lacy tracks on the glass as it slowly, yet surely, recedes. On the nose, Gerry Dog performs as a stout should: hazelnut, vanilla, sundae cherries and coffee are out in force, promising the heavy, mocha-filled punch that fans of the stout love so much. Thankfully, this beer keeps its promises: it’s full of coffee flavor, with a strong bite of char that may catch drinkers by surprise. Overall, Gerry Dog is a surprising stout: It tastes darker than it is, with milk chocolate, cocoa and cherry making for a decadent beer that resembles one a few percent higher in its ABV. It's by no means crushable, but Gerry Dog could make you consider bringing a few stouts to that picnic.
Looking more like molten tires than a beer, this Russian Imperial Stout is a sight to see: It’s an opaque, impenetrable black that, even when held to a light, maintains a baffling — and daunting — darkness. It could be squid ink, or motor oil. Dip a quill in it, write a letter. We’re serious: This was one of the darkest beers we’ve seen a while, and with a boozy 10.5% punch, we were happy — and a bit scared — to crack open a bottle. Thankfully, we mustered the courage.
Once in a glass — as if matching its fierce looks — the Dead of Winter Stout broods, sporting a quiet, and quickly vanishing, head of tan suds. Once those dissipate, it's an entirely still oil slick of a beer that asks, “What are you waiting for?”
On the nose, there's a sultry and decadent medley of dark chocolate, raw cocoa, coffee and sherry, landing somewhere between burnt, black coffee and red wine. On big inhales, drinkers will pick up powerful smoked wood and ash as well. It’s bold and delicious, foreshadowing the beer’s absolutely absurd flavor: huge, angry, bitter chocolate. Sweet cocoa, burned wood and ash coat the tongue, as a obvious-though-enjoyable booziness warms the chest. All of this, along with a bit of sherry wine, make for a sweet and savory stout. Commendably, Big Elm has managed to turn this supremely dark brew into something easily drinkable, yet powerfully flavorful. Stout fans, this is a must-have.
We make all-grain beer brewing kits that make it easy to make beer at home. Whether it's your first batch or your hundredth.