The new Iron Duke Brewing facility in Ludlow might be a bit of a trek for some Valley beer chasers, but the visit pays off in small pleasures. One of those is sitting at the bar in their busy taproom listening to college kids and grandparents alike shout, “I’ll have a Baby-Maker!” Nick Morin, co-founder of the brewery, says he named this amber porter for his pregnant wife, who was nine months along when the first barrels debuted in March, 2010. But there’s another reason for this mighty moniker — when you’ve made a kick-ass product, it deserves a kick-ass name.
The brewery has barely been open a month, but the Baby-Maker is an accomplished brown ale, silky-dark, nicely toasted, with a light touch of sweet brightness. It’s easy to drink, just like it’s easy to get comfortable in the warm, high-ceilinged taproom. The brewery opened Thanksgiving week inside a repurposed stockhouse in the historic Ludlow Mills complex alongside the Chicopee River.
Morin says the 3,000-square-foot building was originally built to dry and store jute, a fibrous plant product used to make twine and rope. The building, which had sat unused, has come a long way since he and his business partner and childhood friend Michael Marcoux moved in two summers ago.
“This time last year, there was no plumbing in here,” Morin says. “No gas, no heat. We were cold, working in the dirt. It was miserable.” He turns and surveys the equipment, the warm lighting, the boisterous crowd nearby. “But rent won’t be out-of-pocket now. We’ve been living the dream this month.”
Morin and Marcoux, both 33, attended Cathedral High School in Springfield. Morin went to UMass Amherst and now works as a mechanical engineer. He says he started itching to open a brewery about five years ago.
It wasn’t a huge jump — Morin worked at the Northampton Brewery in college and has brewed at home for years. At his day job, he buys and builds equipment for food processing plants. “All of a sudden it came into focus. I knew equipment, and I knew beer.”
The Baby-Maker is a crowd pleaser, but the other year-round offerings on tap hold their own. The Common, named for the Kentucky Common style of midday beers, is refreshing, although perhaps too lightweight for some. Stockhouse 122 is a sturdy, nicely hopped pale ale. The Dead Nuts IPA is its burlier sibling, a full-bodied and slightly stronger beer with a great zesty smack of rye.
Those four beers are available as a flight or as pints. Visitors can also try the Sinker, Iron Duke’s tasty oatmeal stout. Each beer hovers at, or just above, 5 percent ABV.
Their Harvest Ale, which Moran calls “piney and earthy,” is on hiatus. But Iron Duke expects to offer at least eight drafts once the place is fully up and running. The taproom, which has 15 draft lines, will also feature seasonal and limited-run test batches throughout the year.
Morin is preparing a malty English ale he calls his “winter warmer.” Later this winter, he’ll be brewing a black lager. He also has a Russian imperial ale in mind, plus a barley wine lager and, come springtime, a saison of some sort.
Hoppy beers are Morin’s favorite, but he says his job now is to experience the whole spectrum. This is why the small-batch approach excites him. “I can make 100 gallons of something and never have to worry about whether it’s commercially viable. As long as we can sell it on the taps for a few months, that satisfies my urge to experiment.”
The brewery does a limited amount of bottle sales as well, but distribution won’t begin until the first part of 2015, Morin says. “We want to do baby steps. I’d like to distribute to a couple places in Ludlow, Wilbraham, Springfield.” A few places in town, he adds, want to sell it on draft as well.
Nothing is automated — Morin works manually, setting his times and temperatures by memory. The brewers don’t buy anything in bulk, instead milling and mashing one sack of grain at a time. But the business is designed to scale up, Morin says.
“We’re doing 100-gallon batches, but we could do 1,000-gallon batches. We just put in a 30-foot walk-in cooler, and right now we’re only using 10 percent of it.”
The taproom, which can hold 100 people, drew full houses through its first week. Which is a relief, Morin explains, because breweries are a new thing for Ludlow. When asked about nightlife here, he shakes his head. “It’s not good. There’s nothing going on in Ludlow. You go to the Polish club, you go to the Portuguese club. There’s a lot of clubs. But there aren’t places to really go out for beer. Laid-back bars, not dinner places.” Visitors get good local beer, then, but they also imbibe a good local story — one about homegrown dudes who built something special from scratch.
“We hired not one contractor,” Morin says. “We owe favors to everybody we know.”
Luckily, with many of those debts, squaring up can be as easy as pouring a glass.
“I’m finally repaying my debt to people now that I have beer,” Morin says. “It’s amazing what people will do for beer.”•
“The Beerhunter” appears monthly. Hunter Styles can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.