By the time Community Beer Works opened for business this spring, hype surrounding Buffalo’s new nanobrewery had been building for months –– after all, not only would this be Buffalo’s first new brewery since 2000, but the CBW founders, particularly head brewer Rudy Watkins, are well known for their formidable skills and knowledge in the malt, yeast, and hop realm.
Like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, the mysterious brick building on Lafayette Avenue practically begged onlookers to speculate about what wild and wonderful libations might flow forth once its doors opened. Belgian quadrupels? Extra-extra-double-double-India-to-the-Max IPAs? Sours to make you cry for your mother? After all, isn’t that one of the biggest advantages of a nanobrewery –– the ability to make crazy, off-the-wall one-timers with wonky ingredients that would be far too expensive or impractical to work with on a large scale?
So when CBW finally kegged its first deliveries, the debutante brews may have surprised some folks. A pale ale, sure –– every brewery needs a flagship pale ale, and their Frank fits the bill better than anything we could’ve imagined. But a brown ale?
Too often, brown ales are the stuff of camping trip gas station runs and variety pack leftovers; if I had to count off the great brown ales of my lifetime, I’d have a tough time using all my fingers. But I trusted Rudy and the gang and bought one at their release party.
I’ve been drinking it ever since.
Chewy, chocolatey, and hearty, like a meal that sticks to your ribs without weighing you down, The Whale is somehow equally suited to curling up on a rainy day with a good book and flipping burgers on the grill in summer heat. It’s exactly what a brown ale should be, and on first sip I had to ask myself, why aren’t more of them like this?
Turns out Watkins felt the same way. “The Whale was inspired by many things, but primarily Randy Mosher’s book Radical Brewing and my dissatisfaction with most brown ales out there today,” he explains. “There is a paragraph in Radical Brewing gushing about the awesomeness of brown malt that has always stuck in my head.”
One day, Watkins happened to see brown malt at a local homebrew shop, and he snatched it up with a mind to experiment. “I thought about the brown ales that I had loved at one time or another –– Alesmith Nautical Nut Brown, Ithaca Nut Brown, Goose Island Nut Brown, Dogfish Indian Brown Ale –– and what characteristics they shared,” he recalls. “All of those beers are pretty robust so I started toying with my porter recipe, replacing some of the base and specialty malts with brown malt. It took a few iterations but eventually I struck on The Whale.”
That midpalate character that makes the beer feel solid, with muscle that doesn’t come from alcohol, is the work of a great malt profile, and in my opinion it’s what sets The Whale apart. The color alone signifies something rather unusual: where most brown ales are a dirty-blonde to hazelnut color, this one looks like a chunk of bittersweet cocoa. “It has a complex (for me) malt bill,” says Watkins. “Canadian base malt, English brown malt, English and American chocolate malt. I’ve tried a few test batches in an attempt to simplify it or lighten the color but I’ve never been as happy with the results.”
Best of all, The Whale lives up to its name in flavor only: the ABV’s only 5.9%, and I’ve heard multiple first-time drinkers marvel that they could drink it all day. In other words, it’s not a roll in the hay –– it’s a beer you bring home to meet your mother. And what better purpose of a community-oriented brewery than that?
The extreme stuff is coming. Those lucky enough to try Jam #1 Manifest IPA before it sold out know what CBW can do with hops. There will be weird beers, and experiments, and crazy flavors, and lots of fun stuff to try. But I’d venture to say that CBW has already done something pretty cool by making brown ale exciting again.