In the old industrial town of Gardner, 60 miles west of Boston and 20 miles south of Brattleboro’s fabulous Mc Neill Brewpub, lies maroon-hued black-trimmed GARDNER ALE HOUSE, originally visited December ’07. A red brick wall with open archways separates right bar (with two TV’s) and opposing dining space plus far-left open kitchen.
Appetizers, soups, salads, and lunch specials (pizza-grinders) went well with seven sampled suds on initial family sojourn.
A similarly sanguine citric flavor profile ran through mildly grapefruit-soured, orange rind-embittered, maize-dried, wheat-chaffed Summer’s End Kolsch, woody Cascade-hopped, lemon-dropped, orange-peeled, barley-oats-backed Chair City Pale Ale, sharper lemon-peeled, wood-lacquered, grapefruit-apple-apricot-juiced Facelift IPA, and honeyed yellow-orange-fruited Oma’s Altbier.
Irish-styled Naked Stout had archetypal chocolate-coffee theme while fig-draped cocoa-dried Winter Lager and banana-ripened, clove-spiced, lemon-peppered, raisin-date-dried Dunkelweizen sufficed.
On a seasonably warm post-Thanksgiving 2011 perusal, I sat at the right side bar with my wife and quaffed five previously untried libations. The food improved immensely but I only chomped on the immense chicken nacho platter at this mid-afternoon Monday stopover. Gardner currently sports three bar side TV’s and now boasts a wildly successful Mug Club (with an end-of-year party for members).
Before my dangling conversation with brewmeister Dave Richardson, I consumed two terrific India Pale Ales and three stylistically disparate finds. Face Off Double IPA brought a brightly glazed tropical fruiting to creamy caramel-malted pecan-almond sweetness and bitterly alcohol-burnt peppery-hopped pining, showcasing a tangy panorama of pink grapefruit, red cherry, naval orange, red apple, brown pear, peach and pineapple. Richardson’s latest favorite, the aggressively detailed Nightcrawler Black IPA may be even better. Tossing a large grapefruit presence atop piney molasses-sapped cola nuttiness, earthen wood-burnt charred hops and cocoa-dusted black chocolate roasting, this peat-malted Cascadian Dark Ale takes a backseat to none.
While my wife settled into the light-bodied Summer’s End Kolsch, a local hot weather session beer with a vegetal citric-spoiled corn sugaring, I discovered XSB, a smoothly rye honeyed, caramel toasted, Extra Special Bitter prototype with an ethanol burn similar to citric-fronted, lightly spiced, peppery-hopped strong ale, Belgian Chair.
For dessert, stalwart mocha-laden Chocolate Porter easily sufficed. Its cocoa-dried dark chocolate and vanilla sweetness gave way to oats-roasted hop-charred bittering and peat-y walnut undertones.
Richardson spoke about his brewing methodology afterwards. Since being renovated January ’06 and opening months later in June, Gardner Ale House has become fiscally solid. And the beers have gotten increasingly better.
“It’s all about the balance for each beers’ unique flavor profile,” the University of Vermont undergraduate suggests. “I’m not afraid to experiment. I used a secret wild yeast for the Belgian Chair. But it’s at the end now, 6-months old, so most of the yeast is pretty much gone. I had the yeast cultured and came back with two strains. One was my pale ale yeast and the other was unknown yeast I decided to brew with. It’s Belgian-styled because it’s wild. I knew exactly what I wanted from it.”
Richardson began brewing in a basement, then began dreaming about opening a brewpub when he tasted the awesome results. He worked in environmental science at New Haven, where he convinced BruRm’s Jeff Browning to let him apprentice and gain experience. In those eight months, he realized what he wanted to do with his life and took out a loan to join UC-Davis’ elite brewing school. Red Hook Brewery in Portsmouth, New Hampshire hired him thereafter.
While enjoying a late lunch, he maintains, “Red Hook makes a million barrels per year. At Gardner, I make 500 barrels. Some people may hate most of my offerings, thinking they’re ‘too much,’ but each one is distinctly flavorful. I’ve been to Cologne, Germany, so I’m familiar with the kolsch style I emulated. For a lighter beer, it’s got a nice grainy resolve and hop balance. My Altbier is probably a touch hoppier than the ones tried in Germany, but within stylistic range. And the Chocolate Porter runs the gamut between chocolate, coffee, and vanilla. I put a lot of pale chocolate malts in there and a whole bag of oat malt.”
Richardson admits loving the variety of beers available nowadays. He says, “Unlike women, beers don’t care if you try another beer. In Burlington at UVM, I’d drink old school Magic Hat, Otter Creek, Catamount and Vermont Pub brews, all those nice homey offerings that honed me into wanting to brew. When I went to college, Three Needs Brewpub had a Thursday Happy Hour when The Simpsons aired. They had Dollar Duffs, which were actually Saranac bottled beers for a buck.”