The Beerhunter: New neighboring breweries find homes in old industry buildings

Leadfoot co-founders Pat Randall (left) and Jeff Thibodeau at their new space in Chicopee. Hunter Styles photo.

This month’s local craft beer update highlights a pair of new Valley breweries that are opening soon. If your first thought is ‘Oh man, not again,’ this probably isn’t the column for you.

Massachusetts is in the midst of another wave of entries into the craft beer market, and tracking the progress of these newcomers will be taking up a lot of this Beerhunter’s time for the next few months.

The arrival of these new companies — some large, some only slightly bigger than homebrew operations — should excite not only craft beer lovers, but anyone who enjoys watching small business give new life to historic spaces. Old buildings, and the river that brought them to life, connect two neighboring breweries soon to open in Hampden County.

Holyoke Craft Beer

Along the canal in Holyoke, Mike Pratt is preparing to open Holyoke Craft Beer within the next few months. His one-barrel nano-brewery will open in the recently renovated STEAM building at 208 Race Street, a stone’s throw from Gateway City Arts and the culinary center run by Holyoke Community College.

“Race Street has gone through an amazing transformation in the last few years,” Pratt wrote on the Kickstarter page for his brewery’s recent fundraiser. “We are very excited about the changes in downtown Holyoke and believe a small craft brewery is a great fit for the community to come together and enjoy a fresh pint of beer.”

That August Kickstarter raised Pratt nearly $8,000 to help pay for equipment, installation, and ingredients. The end result will be a small brewhouse and stop-in space, open a few times a month, where visitors can sample Pratt’s beer and purchase growlers or cans.

Pratt has a degree in chemical engineering from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and he works as an industrial water chemist. He has been homebrewing for about a decade. Last December, he and his wife — who is also an engineer — decided to make the leap.

“I’ve always wanted to start a business, and I thought it’d be awesome to have a brewery come back to the city,” says Pratt, referring to the recent closure of Holyoke’s Paper City Brewery, which attracted craft beer fans to its Cabot Street mill building starting in the mid-1990s, but which stopped production at the end of 2016.

Pratt has a one-barrel system and six fermenters. This will allow him to play around a bit, fermenting up to six beers at the same time. He says he plans to make about six barrels (or 12 kegs) each month. The space on Race Street will allow Pratt room to grow, and potentially upgrade to a bigger brewing system down the road. But that’s not his main goal. “A lot of breweries start small and then right away they realize that they already have to expand,” he says. “I’ll try to control that.”

Holyoke Craft Beer will likely open with four beers, all of which are made with local ingredients: a Belgian White Ale, a black IPA, a New England IPA, and a pale ale.

Pratt says he wants to attract craft beer fans from all over, but also appeal to Holyoke residents who may stop in on foot, curious to try something new. “It’s not just about the beer, it’s about bringing people down here to have a good time, and bring the community together,” he says. “This is supposed to be Holyoke’s brewery, not just my brewery.”

Leadfoot Brewing

A mile away, on the other side of the Connecticut River, Jeff Thibodeau and Pat Randall aren’t worried about starting too small. The longtime friends, now business partners, will be starting on a 30-barrel brew system when they open Leadfoot Brewing in Chicopee this fall.

Tucked into an industrial area off North Chicopee Street in the Willimansett area, Leadfoot’s home is a 5,200 square foot, high-ceilinged space that will allow Thibodeau to brew large batches from day one. It is part of a network of buildings that for decades was the home of Hampden Brewing, and later Piels Beer.

Leadfoot co-founders Pat Randall (left) and Jeff Thibodeau at their new space in Chicopee. Hunter Styles photo.

Leadfoot co-founders Pat Randall (left) and Jeff Thibodeau at their new space in Chicopee. Hunter Styles photo.

Although Leadfoot will open as Chicopee’s only craft brewery, beer runs strong in this city’s history. Hampden Brewing began producing beer at this site in 1894. The building that is now headquarters for Thibodeau and Randall was built in 1961 as a can and bottle storage facility. Operations continued here until 1975, when Piels ceased production.

Leadfoot’s brewery will include a taproom featuring a horseshoe-shaped bar, and Thibodeau and Randall hope to add further draws like food trucks and live music over time.

Visitors shouldn’t expect pints of anything too hazy. Although Leadfoot is perfecting an IPA using local ingredients, Thibodeau prefers to brew clean, clear lagers — especially pilsners.

Work as a baseball umpire landed Thibodeau in Prague in the early 1990s, where he first sampled and fell in love with Czech pilsners. In the years that followed, he says he has worked hard to ace the style himself.

Leadfoot Brewing has been about five years in the making, and the past couple of years have been largely spent looking for space. Thibodeau and Randall, both of whom live in South Hadley, considered property all over the Valley before settling on this historic site in Chicopee.

Much of the search was governed, of course, by the need for lots of space. Brewers must keep lagers in the tanks for several weeks longer than they do ales, and on top of that, the tanks require height, says Randall. “We were looking at mill buildings in Holyoke, and they’re great, but the ceilings are so low, it just wouldn’t work for us,” he says.

They signed the lease here last August, and started renovations last winter. The entire project is self-financed. Thibodeau continues to referee professional sports, and Randall works as an engineer in Springfield.

“We have a game plan, and we’ve pretty much stuck to it,” says Thibodeau. “It’s an expensive start-up, but we didn’t want to die out just because we started too small.”

Thibodeau plans to open with a small handful of beers in addition to the pilsner, including an IPA and an ESB-style pub ale. Leadfoot likely won’t do any canning or bottling right away, leaning instead on draft contracts with local bars and restaurants to distribute its kegs. Some of the game plan is still being filled in, but the two say they have appreciated the guidance they’ve received so far from friends who run breweries, including Mike Rodrigues at Vanished Valley Brewing Company in Ludlow and Rich Pedersen at Hitchcock Brewing Company in Whatley.

“People in Chicopee are excited about having a brewery, because they remember their parents and grandparents talking about Hampden,” says Thibodeau. “I think with the lager, we’re going to hit a home run.”

“And the water here is great,” says Randall. “It’s the perfect water for pilsners and lagers. There’s a reason there used to be a brewery here.”

The Beerhunter appears monthly. Hunter Styles can be reached at hstyles@valleyadvocate.com.

Hunter Styles

Author: Hunter Styles

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