The Berkshires aren’t just for the arts anymore. This corner of Massachusetts known for theater, dance, and picnics on the Tanglewood lawn has an alternative culture now: craft beer. Five craft breweries and their taprooms are conveniently spread out on a north-south axis so that a traveler is rarely more than 20 minutes from a fresh mug anywhere in Berkshire County. Most breweries distribute some beers to area restaurants and bars, but to taste the small batches or special brews, you need to go to the source. Each will sell you a tasting flight of four to five small glasses. Since brewmasters hate to get in a rut, beers mentioned below may or may not be available when you visit. Fear not: Something else will be equally good.
Barrington Brewery & Restaurant
An elder statesman of the craft beer movement, this brewpub opened in 1995. It’s the least industrial of the county’s breweries, with the entire brewing operation, tavern, and bar in an old barn along Route 7 north of Great Barrington. The exposed beams, rustic décor, and extensive collection of old beer cans create a roadhouse vibe. In contrast to the vintage setting, the brewery’s solar-electric array meets 85 percent of its power needs and a solar hot water system cuts heating costs by half.
But it’s not all ambiance and Earth Day at Barrington. The English-style ales are the principal attraction, and there are versions for most palates. Hopland Pale Ale is the brewery’s top seller. The copper-colored ale has a faint bitterness that mates well with the burger-heavy menu. For satisfying sipping, the Barrington Brown is mellow and malty in the northern English style of, say, Newcastle brown ale. We’d be remiss not to mention the creamy Black Bear Stout, which is delicious on its own and is also a key ingredient in the tavern’s three-layer chocolate stout cake. 420 Stockbridge Road, Great Barrington; 413-528-8282; barringtonbrewery.net. Opens daily 11:30 a.m., closes Sunday 9 p.m., Monday through Thursday, 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 10 p.m. Sampler flight $5.85.
Big Elm Brewing
Named for a defunct huge American elm along Route 7 in Sheffield (ask and they’ll tell you the whole story), Big Elm Brewing has the widest distribution of the Berkshire breweries. Founders Christine Bump and Bill Heaton launched the production brewery in 2012 after they tired of running the restaurant side of a downtown Pittsfield brewpub.
The barebones taproom may be largely an anteroom to the brewery, but it does have enough tables and chairs to accommodate a small crowd of fans for afternoon sipping. The busiest day is usually Saturday, when free brewery tours are offered and food trucks might show up. (Patrons are also encouraged to bring their own food.)
The beers show a broad range. Locals especially favor Fat Boy Double IPA, one of six beers in Big Elm’s year-round lineup. Its potent alcohol level (8 percent) is balanced by the pine and citrus notes of the hops in a Pacific Northwest style. Our own taste runs more to the milder 413 Farmhouse Ale, which is made in the smoother Belgian style and spiced with chamomile and orange zest. The “413” in the name refers to the Western Massachusetts area code, honoring the source of the malt for a very local beer. 65 Silver St., Sheffield; 413-229-2348; bigelmbeer.com. Open Thursday to Sunday, noon-7 p.m. Sampler flight $6.
The Crane Stationery Factory has been the heart of Dalton as long as anyone can remember, so it seems an appropriate venue for an ambitious beer hall that keeps a dozen beers on tap and serves such varied fare as filet mignon, rack of lamb, grilled local bratwurst, and deep-fried deviled eggs. It’s popular enough that it’s a good idea to make reservations for dinner and Sunday brunch. Founded in 2017 by homebrew enthusiasts Andrew Crane and Nick Whalen, Shire fills a special niche as a community gathering space. There’s live music on Saturday nights.
In keeping with the pub’s social role, several beers are even lower in alcohol than the usual session quaffs. The brewers also use local ingredients, making for a kind of farm-to-mug experience. Shire’s wheat beer, only 3.4 percent alcohol, is flavored with elderberries from Black Bear Farm in nearby Savoy. The Money Brook Mint Lager (3.5 percent) is brewed with Dalton-grown mint. Shire also produces some more straightforward ales, like Old Berkshire Blond. This crisply hopped ale is brewed from barley grown in Maine and malted in South Egremont. We can attest that it’s good with shepherd’s pie. 63 Flansberg Ave., Dalton; 413-842-8313; shire.beer. Open Tuesday through Thursday, 5 p.m.-midnight, Friday, 5 p.m.-1 a.m., Saturday, 11 a.m.-1 a.m., Sunday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sampler flight $9.
WANDERING STAR CRAFT BREWERY
Partly because its online presence is limited to a messy Facebook page and partly because it seems to be a one-man band with a wizard brewmaster in baggy shorts, Wandering Star Craft Brewery channels the serendipitous anarchy that makes craft beers so endearing. England-born Chris Post describes the operation as all but accidental.
“I was looking on eBay to upgrade my homebrewing equipment. Someone listed the entire contents of a brewpub, so I bid on it,” he says. “That’s how I went from five gallons to 500.” The barebones taproom is only open on weekends, but Post’s fans are legion. They stream in to sit and sip at the former church pews, greeting Post and his cat, Fuggle (named for a type of hops) like old pals. Many patrons order food from O’Laughlin’s Pub next door.
The biggest seller is Loopy Juice Double IPA. Its big flavors of malt and piney hops mask the 8.5 percent alcohol, so the name is meant as a warning. Post believes that a beer shouldn’t overwhelm the drinker. “You’ve got to live with a beer in the end. It’s not meant to render your palate insensible so that you have to have something more extreme next time.” His Mild at Heart is a case in point. The London-style session porter shows pleasant overtones of chocolate and caramel. Although very dark, it tastes like a grown-up version of Ovaltine. That is not a bad thing. 11 Gifford St., Pittsfield; 347-524-5845; facebook.com/Wandering-Star-Craft-Brewery-108627745829142. Open Sat-Sun noon-5 p.m. Sampler flight $5-$9.
BRIGHT IDEAS BREWING
Proof that Berkshires high culture and hops culture can coexist, Bright Ideas sits on the campus of Mass MoCA. Brewmaster Danny Sump suggests that the location next to an art museum in a former mill town creates a diverse clientele. His regulars are self-admitted beer geeks who appreciate the Undercast IPA , a nicely hazy New England style IPA and the closest thing Bright Ideas has to a flagship brew. “The museum crowd wants things a little off the wall,” he says. “They really liked the cucumber and basil golden ale.”
Only a handful of beers stay on tap, among them the Port Rye Dark Ideas Imperial Stout —just about the diametrical opposite of Undercast. The dark beer tastes a bit like a slightly sweet pumpernickel bread with cherry overtones from the port barrels in which it’s finished. It is astonishingly good with a bowl of mac and cheese topped with pieces of smoked brisket. A-OK Berkshire Barbecue sells just such a dish — and the shop is steps from the front door of Bright Ideas in the former Sprague Electric Guardhouse. Walk over to order at the window, and the food will be delivered to the taproom. 111 Mass MoCA Way, North Adams; 413-346-4460; brightideasbrewing.com. Open Sunday to Wednesday, noon-8 p.m., Thurday, noon-10 p.m., Friday and Saturday, noon-11 p.m. Sampler flight $12-$16.