As any craft brewer knows, first impressions mean a lot. With craft beer you might get just one chance at convincing a consumer that your beer merits their bucks. So when you contract brew your beer at an ever-changing number of breweries and you have distributors and retailers all across the eastern United States, it is very hard to control that first impression. If poor quality control or bad handling ruins the experience of a new customer, it takes a lot of work to get that customer to give your beer a second chance. But doing so can be worth the effort, especially when that customer is a know-it-all beer geek.
A couple years ago we celebrated my father’s 75th birthday with a big family reunion. I wanted to bring beer that upped the ante from the usual BudMillerCoors but could please a very mixed crowd. Hook and Ladder seemed perfect, some lighter beers that wouldn’t be too challenging but were probably a lot more flavorful than light industrial lagers, plus they have a cool story about donating money to burn victims. So I picked up a couple cases of Lighter and Golden Ale and hit the road for the reunion.
Socializing with the extended family, we opened a few beers. They gushed. We opened a few more. They gushed. We let them settle out in a pitcher and then tasted them. They were as undrinkable as they were unpourable. We abandoned them and sought out a local beer store for replacements. Being the beer-know-it-all of the family, I was embarrassed about my beer faux pas.
In retrospect, I’m not sure if the problem was over-carbonation, oxidation, infection, or a combination thereof. Suffice to say my first impression was bad – a contract brewed-beer company that was all firefighting hype and apparently paid no attention to making beer. There are many tales of contract beers that were all marketing and no beer, so I quickly judged Hook and Ladder as one such case and never drank their beers again – even though their offices are literally up the street from my home.
As it happens, one of my sisters has a friend who works for Hook and Ladder. They were having dinner together recently and my name came up due to our mutual interests in beer. As a result, John Timson, VP of Marketing and Sales, contacted me and last night I sat down with him for a tasting at their Silver Spring, Maryland digs.
John Timson, VP of Marketing and Sales, points to Hook and Ladder Brewing Company's "World Domination Plan."
It’s kind of funny. I travel all over the world for beer and here’s a beer company literally four blocks away from my home that I’ve never visited. So I was happy for the invitation and eager to give these beers a second try in hopes that my first impression might have been a fluke.
The good news is that fresh beer on draft did make a much better impression than the family reunion snafu. The Golden Ale (5.5% ABV) is a medium-bodied table beer on the sweeter side of malty. It’s understated, not particularly wild or exciting, but flavorful and easy to drink for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. The new Irish Red Ale, called Pipe and Drum (5.1% ABV), is also malt-forward with pronounced caramel, and lightly toasty undertones. When they are packaged, stored and served properly these are both good sessionable ales and after last night’s tasting I am happy to drink them again.
Hook and Ladder has moved their contracts through several different breweries and I suspect this is the root cause of the quality control issue I encountered back at the family reunion. At the moment, they are brewed by High Falls Brewing Company in Rochester, New York, makers of Genesee Cream Ale and Dundee’s Honey Brown, among several other beers. This kind of brewery-hopping is one of the potential pitfalls of contract-brewed beers. But as long as the beers taste like they did last night, I’ll be happy to support my neighborhood contract-brewed beer company.
Speaking of beer in the neighborhood, for close to two years now Hook and Ladder has been planning to open a brewpub in an old firehouse on Georgia Avenue in downtown Silver Spring, Maryland. Ever since, I’ve been fantasizing about being able to roll home from a brewpub located just up the hill from me! But alas, delays have been interminable. John tells me they are now aiming to break ground in mid-July with hopes of being open by Christmas. The bad news is that its not planned to be a brewpub afterall, but rather a taphouse with Hook and Ladder beers. If all goes well, they might eventually buy an additional property next door to the firehouse and install a brewing system there.
I’m disappointed that they are not planning to brew on premise any time soon, but this fits with the contract-brewed approach. In essence, Hook and Ladder is not a brewery but a beer marketing company. As long as the beers are good, I’m perfectly okay with contract beers. Actually, two of my all-time favorite beers, Tuppers Hop Pocket Ale and Pils, are contract brewed. Coincidentally, they both have a charity hook as well, Tuppers gives a percentage of proceeds to the Childrens Hospital, and Hook and Ladder gives “a penny in every pint” and a “quarter in every case” to the Hook and Ladder Foundation in support of fire burn victims.
Luckily, my first impression of Hook and Ladder was not my last and now I’m looking forward to trying their new pale ale scheduled for release this fall.