Beer Culture Shift: Mystic Brewery Relishes the New and the Old

Mystic1

By Steve Holt / Photos by Michael Piazza

Kneeling in front of an open mini-fridge, Bryan Greenhagen pushes aside several clear glass jars until he finds the one he wants. He pulls it out and glances at the label on the foil cover before lifting the foil and sticking his nose into the jar.

“These are the Maine low bush blueberries,” says Greenhagen, a shock of blond hair popping out from under his driver’s cap.

Glad he could tell. By smell or appearance, I certainly wouldn’t have been able to recognize the brownish, decaying matter as blueberries—let alone a starter for one of the best new beers around. Nearby sits a microscope, a rarity in craft brewing, which will be used to study and isolate yeast strains for Mystic Brewery’s line of Belgian-style ales. The brownish substance in the jar is the science experiment that yielded Greenhagen and his Chelsea-based brewery the indigenous Norridgewock strain of yeast and, eventually, a farmhouse ale known as Vinland Two—which earned a gold medal for “Indigenous Beer” at the 2013 Great American Beer Festival.

Vinland Two is no blueberry-flavored beer, though. The yeast that grows on the blueberries (which were harvested by hand from a Norridgewock, Maine, farm) is the real star of a brew that garnered a distinction of “very good” from the respected tasters at Beer Advocate. Surrounded by craft brewers that almost always buy their ingredients off-shelf from large distributors, Mystic is almost alone in doing what it does with the yeast in several of its beers: harvesting the sugar-eating molecules from wild local fruit, isolating indigenous strains, and breeding them to produce truly unique-tasting brews.

It all sounds really scientific, but Greenhagen didn’t set out to brew the space-age beer of the future. In fact, you might even say Greenhagen is trying to recreate a piece of the Belgian countryside in a gritty warehouse park in blue-collar Chelsea, and most of the styles Mystic is brewing are really, really old.

As Mark Denny writes in Froth: The Science of Beer, “the brewing of beer, in one form or another, is as old as the baking of bread.” Ten-thousand years ago, making beer may have been as simple as leaving a loaf of bread in the rain and having the yeast ferment the water into alcohol.

One can’t drink a loaf of bread, of course, so the brewing process became more sophisticated. But the fundamental ingredients of beer remained the same: water, yeast, and grain. The hop, a central ingredient in modern beer, would remain absent from most brews until the 1500s, when Europeans began adding hops to beer for their ability to preserve beer during trade. Here in New England, where hops do not grow well, most colonial farmers and tavern owners prior to the Industrial Revolution exclusively brewed ales (the technical term for a beer brewed with extremely low or no hops) using local grains and yeast often cultivated naturally from the flora on the farm’s edges. “Hoppy” would not have been how one would have described the suds at a tavern in Boston or on a farm in Concord.

Mystic2

Beer has gone in a decidedly different direction since then, relying on hops for flavor and preservation and satisfying modern drinkers’ narrow definition of what beer is supposed to taste like.

Well, Greenhagen doesn’t much care what you think beer is supposed to taste like. He really doesn’t care much what styles of beer are “hot” in the industry. He’s set out to brew closer to the way humans did it for thousands of years—locally, with native yeasts, in wood barrels, unfiltered, and able to be paired with food (and, he says, by “not putting weird shit in the beer”).

“The idea is to brew something original, in the truest sense of the word—get at the origins and get something unique out of that,” he explains. “The real intent of the brewery is to focus on more ancient, pre-classic styles of beer. The kind of beer that was made for about 8,000, 9,000 years before modern beer.”

Greenhagen waxes nostalgic about his desire to rediscover New England’s beer origins. He comes about it honestly, as his lineage in the Mystic Valley runs deep. He and his family recently moved into their new home in Melrose, where he says his grandmother’s family goes back five generations. Greenhagen named Mystic’s Wigglesworth series of English ales after a family that settled in the Mystic Valley in 1631 and to whom he is distantly related. The family’s colonial patriarch, Rev. Michael Wigglesworth, ministered for years in the area and is credited with writing the best-selling Puritan poem before the Revolutionary War. Greenhagen revived the historic poem, “Day of Doom,” by naming Mystic’s quadruple ale after it.

Some of the brewery’s styles date back to the Dark Ages or before—and people are drinking it up. In January, an all-day event at Mystic celebrating the European Gruit—a centuries-old, little-known style of beer brewed with dozens of herbs instead of hops—drew huge crowds of locals eager to taste the seven rare Gruits Mystic had on tap. (“It was our best single day in the tap room,” he says.) For Rob Martin, president of the Massachusetts Brewers’ Guild, this experience squares with what he sees as a rapidly diversifying beer region with some of the nation’s most savvy drinkers.

“We have beer for every person and a person for every beer,” he says. “Without trying to push the limit in different directions, craft beer industry becomes stagnant and boring.”

Mystic3

Indeed, the craft brewing atmosphere in which Greenhagen started Mystic is on the rise, and in it he has carved out his own specialized niche. But it took him a while to get there. And naturally, the journey toward Mystic started in a bar.

Several years after dropping out of film school (he says he found life on set “too tedious”), Greenhagen—then an undergraduate at the University of Kentucky studying biology— struck up a conversation with PhD candidate Timothy Devarenne at a pool hall about science and his future. Over beers, Devarenne convinced the undergraduate to join his lab studying how plants interact with each other and their environments. More importantly, though, Devarenne taught Greenhagen how to brew beer.

The two spent their weekdays researching terpenes—flavors and fragrances in plants—and their weekends home brewing. By 2003, Greenhagen had racked up thousands of hours in the lab, completed a Bachelor of Science degree and a PhD in Plant Biochemistry and made a lot of beer.

Greenhagen couldn’t shake his brewing dream. Even after accepting a postdoctoral research post at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the newly minted “doctor of fermentation” would sneak off to audit business courses at MIT’s Sloan School.

After less than a year, though, he was asked to come back to Kentucky to help start a business that uses yeast as alternatives to synthetic, chemical flavors and fragrances for products. A few years and a couple companies later, Greenhagen had met his wife—Emily, also a fermentation specialist—but still wondered about the implications of his microbial research on an even older passion: beer. Could yeast strains procured in New England’s various microclimates, yield truly unique-tasting ales? In other words, what if yeast was the star rather than hops?

A beer honeymoon in Belgium further stoked that passion, and in 2009, Greenhagen was back in Boston, where he founded and began to build a beer company with a business plan he’d written at MIT several years earlier. In 2011, Mystic Brewery opened its doors in a Chelsea warehouse practically underneath the Tobin Bridge. Almost three years later, Greenhagen has assembled an all-star team—including Alastair Hewitt, once ranked the No. 1 home brewer in the world, on research and development—to help him brew beers that wow drinkers, and one of his beers has already won gold at America’s most prestigious festival.

Not too shabby for a film school dropout.

Mystic4

"Yeast in its natural state can be found everywhere—on fruits, animals, etc." — Father Theodore, Master Brewer, Chimay

To understand these words from one of the great Belgian Trappist brew masters is to understand Mystic Brewery.

Before Columbus, the Vikings visited our region and nicknamed it “Vinland” because wine-making fruits seemed to grow everywhere. So, naturally, Greenhagen named Mystic’s native series Vinland, starting his Vinland I brew with yeast from plums found at the farmer’s market in Belmont, Mass. Vinland II came from the yeast from low bush Maine blueberries. Eventually, Greenhagen wants to have installations to Mystic’s Vinland series made from single strains from all six New England states—“but we could probably make hundreds,” he says.

After it’s collected, the fruit is taken back to Chelsea and combined with small batches of wort (grain, water, and hops) and allowed to ferment naturally for a few weeks. This is where Greenhagen gets to geek out with yeast, by isolating, stabilizing, and even breeding a strain until he gets a consistently interesting beer.

“We’re patient,” Greenhagen says. “We’ll go, ‘No one’s ever had this before, in some ways it’s the rarest beer possible.’”

Mystic has intentionally delayed purchasing a mash ton, boil kettle, or whirlpool, deciding to focus instead on yeast culturing and making sure it has a beer people will drink. So, on the two days a week he’s brewing, Mystic’s head brewer, Adam Threlkeld, drives 140 miles round-trip to borrow another brewery’s equipment. Back in Chelsea, the unfermented wort is injected with the yeast, which also carbonates the beer naturally.

Most brewers look at hops and barley as raw materials in the pieces of art they create, says Martin of the Massachusetts Brewers’ Guild. Greenhagen, he says admiringly, “looks at the wort as his raw material” and the yeast his paintbrush. “That’s his canvas.”

What’s next for Mystic Brewery? The City of Chelsea recently issued Mystic a license so it can give visitors full glasses of beer. Greenhagen says the vision is to turn part of the tasting room into a European-style beer café, serving specially paired cheeses from Formaggio Kitchen and other small plates alongside Mystic’s beers.

Based on their success thus far, Mystic will obviously be making more Saisons and Gruits—not exactly front-and-center at the local package store but fantastic for drinking with great food, Greenhagen says. Expect to see sour beers, too, which appeal to Greenhagen because of the time and effort it takes to make them. And Greenhagen recently handed off a number of administrative duties to focus on expanding the Vinland project, including scouring the region for the next yeast-bearing wild fruit and playing “mad scientist” in the Chelsea lab. As always, he’ll be making sure Mystic’s process honors traditional brewing methods while continuing to innovate.

Process and innovation mean very little, however, if consumers don’t like your beer, says Martin of the Massachusetts Brewers’ Guild.

“Is the beer good?” he asks, rhetorically, of Mystic’s offerings. “The beer is good.”

---

Mystic Brewery 174 Williams Street, Chelsea Tasting Room open Wednesday-Saturday Tours available Saturdays mystic-brewery.com

---

Steve Holt writes about food, food politics and drinks for several local and national publications. His Edible Boston story about healthy burgers in Boston was anthologized in the 2011 Best Food Writing book. He lives in East Boston with his gorgeous wife, two human children, and an almost-human poodle. Follow him on Twitter: @thebostonwriter.