Buttonwoods Brewery | Rustic Industrial Ales
If you were to ask a random person to name something unique or distinctive about Rhode Island, chances are good that “Family Guy” would be the first thing they would offer. That is, of course, assuming that they didn’t mistake it for Long Island, or believe that it was a part of Massachusetts, or confuse it with the similarly named Isle of Rhodes in Greece. Such is the fate of being the smallest state in the country, with a population smaller than many large cities in the U.S.
Its tiny stature, however, belies a rich and interesting culture that is somehow both informed by and completely unique from its neighboring states. Rhode Island is the home of its own version of clam chowder, coffee milk, frozen lemonade and stuffed quahogs. It was the first of the British colonies to declare its independence, and the last to ratify the Constitution. The Ocean State has its own unique accent, dialect and traditions despite any point within it being no more than a half-hour drive to Massachusetts or Connecticut. It is also the home of Buttonwoods Brewery, one of the best-kept secrets in New England’s craft beer scene.
Located in the town of Cranston, named after a neighborhood in nearby Warwick and founded by a Virginian, Buttonwoods is as idiosyncratic as the state in which it resides. Owner Morgan Snyder is perhaps best known for his IPAs, which cross the boundaries of style and coast and technique. However, a look at their taplist at any given moment will reveal a surprising diversity of styles, and each is formulated and brewed with as much care and creativity as the others. Perhaps most notable is a sour program that has come to be regarded as among the best on the East Coast. For Morgan, the focus is clearly on quality above all, and it takes only a single sip to see that he lives up to that aspiration.
Two recent releases, both a part of their “Rustic Industrial Ale” series, have especially stood out. We Will Become Silhouettes and Sense of Place are representative of Buttonwoods’ ethos that even breweries in more urban settings can and should have a sense of place, as well as a relationship with their local agriculture and ingredients. Both using the same sour base beer, they diverge wildly in their brewing processes and final expression. Still, their differences only further illustrate just how much range even locally-sourced ingredients can provide the modern brewer in making truly unique concoctions.
The first, We Will Become Silhouettes, was made with nearly 120 pounds of fresh strawberries from a nearby farm, showcasing a fruit that is rarely grown in the Northeast. Once harvested, they were carbonically macerated at the brewery, a technique more common in wine-making, wherein the fruit is held in a carbon dioxide-rich environment to begin fermentation and to create intensely fresh and unique flavors unachievable by other methods. After 10 days of this process, the sour base beer was racked into the tank to age together for another six weeks before bottling. As part of a drive toward using more herbal additions in his beer, Morgan also added local lemon verbena, an ingredient with a perfumy citrus aroma that is most often used for tea and in cooking.
The beer itself has bracing acidity, accentuated by the fruit and lemony aromatics of the verbena. This is no entry-level sour, but neither was it intended to be. Rather, it is the taste of spring made manifest, with a refreshing bite that reminds you that warmer weather will be soon to arrive. Perhaps most impressive are how well-preserved the strawberry notes are, given how notoriously delicate and evanescent they tend to be in most beers. Instead, they are the star of the show here, as bright and as floral as they would be freshly picked. It is not a beer with layered subtleties but acts rather as a brilliant showcase for ingredients that so often get lost or overpowered when seen in other contexts.
The second, Sense of Place, shows more restraint in its expression but is perhaps even more interesting for it. The beer itself is made with Rhode Island-grown peaches, which are a rare enough ingredient by themselves. These peaches were utilized first in the making of an entirely different beer, before being used in this one. While it may seem an odd choice to many, the popularity of “second use fruit” has been increasing significantly in the brewing world as of late, as they not only allow for less waste but also tend to impart a more delicate and refined fruit character to the finished product. In this particular instance, the beer was aged for a year in barrels sourced from Cambridge Brewing Company in Massachusetts, before being blended with 200 pounds of carbonically macerated peaches to add freshness and vitality to the finished product.
This long, intricate brewing process was absolutely worth the time and effort. Sense of Place has a delicate nose, with peach blossom being more evident than the fruit itself, complemented by a lactic hint of acidity and a wisp of vanilla. The taste is not far from this, but the fruit comes through more assertively, without overpowering. Additionally, the faint vanilla reads slightly nutty, not dissimilar to what one would expect in a fine Champagne. That comparison is apt, as this would be an ideal beer for celebrating any occasion.
Rhode Island is not a state whose name comes immediately to mind when discussing the great beer centers of America, but perhaps it should be. Buttonwoods has shown through these two examples, and through so much of what they make, that any place can create truly world-class beer when they dedicate their time and their energy to it. Every place has a story, and every place has ingredients, styles, culture and people completely unique to it as well. When beer can act as a medium for exploring those artifacts, we all benefit.