Enlightenment Ales

From the Source by | Oct 2013 | Issue #81

Ben Howe wants to brew beers that transport the drinker. Take Cosmos, his Robust Export Stout. He wanted to convey with it the experience he had one autumn stargazing with friends while passing around a jug of cold Porter. They had felt something wondrous about the immensity of the cosmos, but the dark beer had kept them rooted.

“The beer grounded us while we were watching the stars,” says Howe. “I wanted to brew a Stout that warms you up, gives you something sturdy with a little bit of alcohol heat, but at the same time is dry.”

He and his friend, Liz Jacobs—an artist who paints the images on all of Enlightenment’s labels, and who had also been stargazing that night—talked about how they could express the feeling in a beer and on the bottle. “Before a new beer is released, we sit down and talk about it,” Howe explains. “The goal of the bottle design is to put on an art show together: on the bottle and in the bottle, cheesy as that sounds.”

The final product is a jet-black, 7.5 percent Stout with tones of chocolate and coffee, but also a dry, light nuttiness that draws you back for more. Adorning the label is a painting of a hazy constellation, and treetops quivering like green flames and reaching for the stars.

Howe and Jacobs met while working at Cambridge Brewing Company in Cambridge, Mass. “Ben and I would just hang out,” recalls Jacobs, saying they would discuss the intricacies of brewing. “The idea for Enlightenment Ales was born out of conversations we had about art and the creative process, and about putting your own individuality into it.”

Howe opened Enlightenment Ales in Lowell, Mass., in October 2011 with the idea of brewing not an Export Stout, but rather one very special beer style. He had been introduced to it by other brewers while making beer for four years at CBC. It was Bière de Champagne, a style so painstaking and time consuming in its preparation that most brewers have never attempted it. After a few tries homebrewing the style, Howe fell in love.

As the name implies, Bière de Champagne has very much to do with Champagne wine and employs the same process—the méthode champenoise. It’s been used in Champagne winemaking since the mid-1600s, which is why, when he started, Howe went to a local winemaker for advice. Bill Russell—who’s been making wine at Westport Rivers Winery since 1989 in Westport, Mass.—taught him the method. The Bière de Champagne has become Howe’s flagship beer, the Enlightenment Brut.

The Méthode Champenoise
First, Howe brews a Belgian Strong Golden Ale. He adds a fair amount of sugar in the kettle and some champagne yeast at the end to get it as dry as he can. He’s aiming for an 11-percent beer with higher-than-normal carbonation and a crisp finish.

“Then I transfer it to a brite tank, crash it cold and add some finings to drop the yeast out,” explains Howe. He lets it sit for two weeks before bottling it with twice the amount of priming sugar (for sparkling carbonation), more champagne yeast because of its aggressiveness and tolerance for high alcohol, and bentonite—a riddling agent used in winemaking that helps pull the yeast out of suspension. This is key to the final stages of the méthode champenoise—often credited to a monk named Dom Pérignon, though actually hammered out by a French businesswoman and wine wizard named Madame Clicquot.

“For Champagnes, the storage time is a minimum of three years. For me, it’s two weeks,” says Howe. “I store the bottles in cases right-side up for two weeks, and the beer referments and creates the carbonation that I want. Then I take one bottle in each hand and shake them up real good, and put them upside down at 45 degrees in a rack so the necks are pointing down.”

This is the stage known as riddling, which is the slow process of “coaxing” the yeast down the neck of the bottle, where it’s collected in a small plastic thimble called a bedule. Over the next four weeks, Howe turns them once every 24 hours with a firm twist. This helps pull the yeast out of suspension and allows it to settle down under the cap.

“It’s important to note that at this point of the process, the bottles don’t have corks in them, but rather a regular crown bottle cap and a bedule,” he explains. “After four weeks, I put them all back in cases but upside down, and put them in my chest freezer overnight. Once they’re cold, I take them out one bottle at a time and submerge the first inch of the neck in grain alcohol and dry ice, which is around negative 80 Fahrenheit.”

After 60 seconds, the yeast has frozen into a yeast ice cube, and Howe flips the bottle over and pops open the crown, sending the yeast shooting out; this is called degorgement.

“The pressure inside the bottle blasts out the frozen yeast and the bedule,” Howe says. “It’s pretty cool.” Howe quickly cleans out the inside of the bottleneck, and hand-corks and twists a cage shut on the beer. Voilà, Bière de Champagne, a highly carbonated, super-dry, 11 percent beer with superb clarity that is devoid of yeast sediment.

Sounds Expensive
Howe retails his Enlightenment Brut under $20 a bottle, a bargain compared with Belgian Bière de Champagne DeuS, which goes for over $30 a bottle. But when Enlightenment launched, Howe admits that people were reluctant to shell out for a style and a brewery they’d never heard of. “After a few months, I started to really panic and released Illumination: Farmhouse IPA at half the price of the Brut. This changed everything.”

Word spread, and now, Howe’s bottles are served at upscale Boston venues like Deep Ellum, Eastern Standard and L’Espalier, but he does very little draft (“I only own six 5-gallon logs I bought from Dann and Martha!” he jokes, speaking, of course, of the Paquettes from Pretty Things Beer & Ale Project). But even without draft, he’s struggling to meet demand from his accounts, which hover around 30.

“That’s where I need help,” Howe admits. “I could use a partner with some business sense.” Once he strikes a partnership, Howe hopes to upgrade his brewhouse and ramp up production.

The Age of Enlightenment
Howe likes to look at beer as a series of cultural movements. Once upon a time, he says, beer was in the Dark Ages. These were the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s in America, when the tradition of craft brewing was forgotten, and everyone was drinking uninspired light beers with little incentive to create anything new.

It wasn’t until the Renaissance of beer in the ’80s and ’90s, when the knowledge of brewing was rediscovered, that we started resurrecting the styles that had been overshadowed by the American Adjunct Lager, points out Howe. “Now we’re in the Enlightenment phase,” he says, inventing ways for beers “to create new expressions of things.”

This Enlightenment stage of brewing is the inspiration for the brewery’s name and for brewing a style as meticulous as Bière de Champagne.

Though painstaking, the lengthy storage times and messy yeast removal process have paid off for Champagne for two reasons, says winemaker Bill Russell. “To carbonate, and to get a flavor and aroma that’s beautiful and significant.” Those characteristics catapulted the style from what was seen as a grotesque fad when invented to what it stands for today: the embodiment of class. So, does it work for beer? Russell admits it’s a whole lot of work for beer in a world where people are used to bottle conditioning and yeast floating around in their beer. “But I’ve had Ben’s beers, and they’re great.”

While plans for a partnership come together, Howe has yet to take a profit from Enlightenment; he still works part-time at CBC. Howe raves about his coworkers, the beer and working for Will Meyers, but “balance wise? It sucks,” he says. “I often find myself closing the bar, racing home to get three or four hours of sleep, and then driving up to the brewery for a double brew day.”

It’s hard work keeping New England supplied with beers for every occasion—from the Brut for a wedding, or the Cosmos for a night in the woods.

1.5-barrel brewhouse
3 3-bbl fermentors
2 3-bbl brite tanks
1 9-bbl multipurpose tank

What’s On Tap
Enlightenment Brut: An American Bière de Champagne brewed as a Belgian Strong Golden Ale using the methode champenoise, with multiple fermentations and bottle conditioning. 11% ABV
Illumination Farmhouse IPA: An American Saison with plenty of hops makes this beer a marriage of Farmhouse Ales and West Coast IPAs. 6.8% ABV
Cosmos Stout: A Foreign Export Stout brewed with robust dark malts and oats. 7.5% ABV
Rite of Spring: A rustic Saison brewed with 10% Massachusetts wildflower honey, and fermented with wild yeast. 6.8% ABV
Day Trip: An Extra Hoppy Golden Ale with a fruity nose and dry finish. 4.7% ABV
Transcendence: An American Saison brewed with Brett. 6.0% ABV