By Ben Keene / Photos by Michael Piazza
Inspiration has a way of turning up when least expected. For Ben Howe, the idea pertained to beer, and took shape during a trip to the White Mountains in New Hampshire. He had traveled there with a handful of friends, companions who shared his fondness for exploring New England’s rugged landscapes. To combat the evening chill, the small group had brought a growler of Cambridge Brewing Company’s Charles River Porter. One night after dark they passed around the glass jug, slugging from it as they stared up at the constellations, transfixed by the immensity of space.
“The dry, rich beer rooted us there,” says Howe, “and I thought to myself, ‘How do I do that?’”
The question stuck with the young brewer, and when he got back to Massachusetts, Howe set to work tinkering with batch after batch of a dry, warming stout he had made in the past. It took a while to get the recipe just right, but when it finally met his satisfaction, he had a beer he calls Cosmos—a roasty, reasonably bitter stout with dark chocolate aromas and the suggestion of fruit on the tongue. At the time, he had already released two other beers as Enlightenment Ales Incorporated: Illumination, a hoppy hybrid that falls somewhere between an American-style India Pale Ale and a Belgian-style Saison, and Enlightenment, a highly carbonated bière de champagne that in many ways resembles the famed sparkling white wine.
Upon graduating from Boston University in 2007, Howe’s homebrewing experience earned him a volunteer position at the Northampton Brewery and, several months later, a part-time job at the Cambridge Brewing Company (CBC). He learned fast and continued to homebrew as much as possible, and in 2010 he received a scholarship to study brewing science and engineering at the American Brewers Guild in Vermont.
Roughly three years into his career in beer and newly equipped with a wealth of technical knowledge and money he’d saved while waiting tables, Howe decided to go it alone. A bottle of beer inspired him to start his own company. And as luck would have it, Will Meyers, the brewmaster at CBC who had hired him, offered nothing but encouragement. “Ben is a very talented and creative brewer,” Meyers explains, “hard working, unafraid of putting in the long hours required in honoring the term hand-crafting. I think the light bulb went off after drinking some DeuS, which I may or may not have given him as a Christmas present.”
The gift in question, an uncommon (and pricey) bottle of beer from Belgium with a Latin name did in fact impress Howe, who had never had anything quite like it before. “It was a mind-blowing beer,” remembers the Enlightenment Ales founder, referring to this unusual beverage produced by just a handful of breweries around the world. By combining beer brewing and wine making methods and triple fermenting a strong ale, Brouwerij Bosteels effectively created a new style of beer altogether. Bosteels cheekily refers to it as a Brut des Flanders; those who aren’t sticklers about appellation generally tend to call it a bière de champagne. Effervescent, dry, and the color of shimmering gold, DeuS is something of a chameleon. But that duality was precisely what appealed to Howe. His imagination was sparked.
“I thought, ‘Why is no one in America making this?’ Anyone who’s a brewer can make a pale ale.”
Which is how his quest to brew an American Bière Brut began. He started by putting together a barrel system in his head, envisioning how he might pull off his ambitious idea on a shoestring budget. Operating out of an industrial park in Lowell, he tirelessly pursued his project in spite of inefficient equipment, no staff, and little to no formal business experience. Just to get by, he continued working at CBC, often sacrificing sleep for the sake of his latest beer.
Meanwhile, he tapped into the community of vintners and brewers across the state for their advice and expertise. Bill Russell of Westport Rivers Winery taught Howe the Méthode Champenoise, a painstaking technique required to produce a brut, and Ben Roesch, the brewmaster at Wormtown in Worcester, provided welcome assistance as Enlightenment Ales evolved from a dream into reality. Meyers, too, lent Howe a hand in the early days. “It was a great experience to watch him reverse-engineer the process and the beer, and figure out how to make it his own,” recalls the CBC brewmaster.
The first big setback came during their initial attempt at disgorgement (the process of removing yeast sediment) when the pair decided to expel the yeast by freezing the necks of the bottles with liquid nitrogen. Not only was liquid nitrogen inconsistent with the 19th century Méthode Champenoise, it was far too cold. “The bottles exploded and the contents immediately froze into expanding liquid noodles,” Meyers recalls. “We destroyed his kitchen.”
But Howe didn’t give up, and after nearly two years of testing, produced a beer that was ready for consumption. Only there was no time to celebrate, or rest for that matter. He also didn’t have the luxury to think about which beer to do next. Needing to quickly earn back some of what he’d invested in his brewery, Howe had presold part of his first bottling run to a few bar accounts in greater Boston. Once those orders were filled, he had to devote much of his remaining energy to sales calls, not brewing. Excited yet exhausted, he didn’t know what to expect from the market. And he didn’t know how difficult running a business could be.
Early support didn’t exactly translate into droves of repeat customers though. Even at half the price of a bottle of DeuS, his beer wasn’t cheap. And most successful placements involved an explanation of bière de champagne, a style unknown to Howe himself until that fateful holiday gift from his boss. Nonetheless, for those who got it, people like Patrick Magee of Atwoods Tavern in Cambridge and Max Toste of Allston’s Deep Ellum, Enlightenment Brut was a must have. Rare, expertly made, and characterized by its elegance and complexity, this was an exciting American beer with European roots and a strong sense of history.
Unfortunately for Howe, early adopters were not as abundant as he’d hoped. Without many reorders, he worried about the future of his fledgling business. Enlightenment had been dealt another setback. Never one to give up, he designed a second beer with the intention of offering a more accessible style at a lower cost. Like the Brut, Enlightenment Ales number two drew inspiration from Belgium, only this time Howe married qualities of that country’s rustic farmhouse ales with those of a hoppy IPA from America’s West Coast. He dubbed the result Illumination and breathed a sigh of relief when it sold at a faster pace than his first release.
All along, Howe had also seen his nano-brewery as an opportunity for artistic cooperation. During college he’d played trombone in a number of bands and enjoyed the collaborative aspect of rehearsing and performing. So when he launched his company, he did so with what he describes as a hippy mentality: He would come up with various beer concepts to bottle as liquid art, and a visual artist would offer different interpretations of those same concepts on the label. With that goal in mind, he enlisted his friend and CBC co-worker Liz Jacobs to create a painting to represent his first beer. Jacobs had been introduced to the depth and diversity of beer while working at John Harvard’s Brewery and Ale House, and appreciated the creativity and artistry that went into CBC favorites like Heather Ale, Sgt. Pepper, and YouEnjoyMyStout. So she agreed.
“What appealed to me about Ben’s project was combining visual art with the flavor profile of the beers,” says Jacobs. “It was a unique way to sneak fine arts back into everyday life. Ben describes attributes of the beer and I start seeing colors and forms. We discuss ideas until we’re both confident we’re on the same page, and I get to work!”
In more ways than one, the Brut was a blank canvas. “Inspiration is commonly seen as a mystery,” Jacobs says. “I kind of think ideas come from the ether.” A certain degree of etherealness definitely comes across in the artwork for Enlightenment Brut. Dozens of stylized eyes swirl around a glowing yellow light bulb in the center of the label, giving the image a sense of movement and a degree of mystery at the same time. Colorful, expressive, and just abstract enough to capture the spirit behind the bière de champagne, Jacobs’s painting “Enlightenment” set a tone that she’s carried through the imagery for each of the five beers that have followed.
Illumination, Howe’s second beer, inspired Jacobs to paint warm rays of sunlight spilling through the twisting branches of a tree. In Cosmos, their third collaboration, she employed a cooler color palette of greens, blues, and purples against a black background to capture the star-filled New Hampshire sky. And for Transcendence, another farmhouse ale that’s the sixth and most recent release from Enlightenment, she painted an autumn landscape that could almost stand in for Anywhere, New England. In the foreground a soft breeze carries a few rust-colored leaves across the surface of a cerulean pond while the orange orb of the sun slowly sets behind a pair of hills in the distance.
“The whole brand is kinda like an art show,” Howe adds. “These are beers for experiences I’ve had.”
Yet even as he fed off the creative energy from his collaboration with Jacobs and steadily gained confidence as a brewer, Howe started to struggle with depression. Keeping up with as many as 30 accounts was exhausting and his cobbled-together brewery gave him trouble as he worked feverishly to keep multiple beers available. Keeping up with demand was stressful, particularly because he still needed another job to pay his bills. As the second anniversary of Enlightenment Ales approached, he admitted to himself that he was burning out on the business.
Over the summer Howe began to look for work at a brewery in Europe. He wanted to broaden his perspective, but he also wanted to find a way out of his predicament. As it turned out, help was closer than he imagined.
In early December, Chris and Grace Tkach, the owners of Idle Hands Craft Ales, announced an unprecedented partnership with Enlightenment Ales. Howe would relocate his brand to Everett and become the head brewer for both lines. More fermentation tanks would be added so he could make more Illumination, Cosmos, and Transcendence. By the spring, he’ll finally be a full-time brewer.
“I’ve always been impressed with Ben’s beers,” Chris Tkach says. “I’ve been floored by every single one. He’s a really creative brewer and I’m looking forward to leaving the production side to someone else so I can really start to grow this business.”
Howe, meanwhile, sounds excited to be entering a new phase with his career. “Despite all of the problems, it worked out how I would’ve liked it to,” he remarks. “All of my favorite bars carry my beer, but now I’m not worrying about the stuff I’m bad at.” In other words, he’s ready to set out in search of another source of inspiration.
Ben Keene is a beer journalist and travel writer. He is the author of three books, including, most recently, The Great Northeast Brewery Tour (Voyageur Press). Follow him on Twitter: @whereandback