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Polyculture Brewing Makes Beers Meant for Easy Drinking

  • Chris Prost, and Michelle Oeser Prost, right, co-owners of Polyculture Brewing in Croydon, N.H. talk with customers about their beer in their booth at the Lebanon Farmers Markey on July 26, 2018 in Lebanon, N.H. Sampling the beer are Bailey Carignan, left, and C.J. Freeman, both of Sunapee, N.H., who work with Oeser Prost at Mascoma Corporation. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Nick Conquest, left, of Lebanon, N.H and Vladka Rilje, of Croatia, taste samples of beers made by Polyculture Brewing, beer, at the Lebanon Farmer's Market on July 26, 2018. Chris Prost co-owner of the brewery describes the beer they were sampling. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Kaye Paschall of Wilder, Vt., sips a sample of Polyculture Brewing beer at the Lebanon Farmer's Market on July26, 2018 in Lebanon, N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



For the Valley News
Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The microbrewery revolution has been built, in part, on big, flavorful, often higher-alcohol brews, the kind that can make a brewer’s name. Think of Heady Topper, an Imperial India pale ale that put Waterbury, Vt.’s The Alchemist on the global beer map with its floral flavor and 8 percent alcohol by volume (ABV).

But the cult that has grown up around these beers has left room for consumers who want to be able to drink a couple of glasses, in company with food, and still function, without sacrificing quality.

This is the niche Polyculture Brewing Co., in Croydon, aims to occupy. The husband-and-wife team of Chris Prost, 33, and Michelle Oeser Prost, 34, opened Polyculture in late May with a certain type of brew and a certain type of customer in mind.

“That’s our focus — approachable beers, nothing too heavy or one-sided,” Chris says during an interview in the tiny, one-barrel capacity brewery, in a space about the size of a large living room in their 1873 farmhouse, which is white with black trim and doors the color of a good Irish red ale.

Chris is the sole brewer and takes care of the day-to-day operations, while Michelle works full-time as a molecular biologist at Mascoma Corp., in Lebanon, which engineers yeast to improve the efficiency of biofuel production. The two work together to maintain their social media presence and other essentials. Michelle also lends her expertise at yeast culture.

The name “Polyculture” refers in part to yeast cultures — originally a farming term, here it applies to fruitful combinations of yeasts and other microbes, including wild yeasts and foraged ingredients (the brewery will release a dandelion brew later this summer). The name also encompasses the couple’s enthusiasm for beers from several European nations and the idea that these easy-drinking brews can be enjoyed across many cuisines.

From its compact brewery, where stainless steel mash tuns and fermentation tanks stand in a row on the worn farmhouse floor, Polyculture turns out five beers in brightly colored crowlers, or 32-ounce aluminum cans: Beach Party (a sour gose with notes of hibiscus), Boat Shoes (a sour wheat), Farm Lite (a farmhouse ale), Rough Cut (a farmhouse rye pale ale), and Rustic Chic (a farmhouse pale ale). Chris and Michelle label each crowler with a homemade device, fashioned from scrap pine lumber and dowels.

“We can probably do one per minute. When we first started it took an hour to do 30,” says Chris.

Their beers feature balanced tastes and run between 4 and 6 percent ABV to reach drinkers who “want specific flavors, but they don’t want to have 9 percent (ABV) ruin their palate. We’re not doing anything too intense.”

The guiding principle is the idea that “you can still have a good beer and not start feeling woozy” after finishing. “The more extreme beers are still very popular, but from what we’ve seen and heard, and even what we personally like,” smoother, slightly less alcohol-heavy brews are “coming back,” says Chris.

Their commitment to being accessible to consumers extends to their marketing efforts thus far. Unless you catch them at a festival, Polyculture is currently available for purchase, at $10 per crowler, only at the Lebanon Farmer’s Market, where Chris and Michelle pull samples and enjoy the immediate feedback.

They’ve noticed that people appreciate the accessible brews that they and other breweries nationally are now offering — such as Founders Brewing Co., in Michigan, with its All Day IPA, a “session ale,” a lower ABV ale meant to be enjoyed steadily without laying a drinker out.

Chris says taking comments at the busy market helps him home in on this challenge of creating the flavorful but less confrontational pour, “making the sour beer appeal to someone who doesn’t think they like sour beers, the hoppy beer appeal to someone who doesn’t think they like hoppy, etc. Usually people try it and find it’s not what they were expecting.”

A taste of Rustic Chic, for example, yields a lovely, clear note of citrus that rests lightly on the tongue, somewhere between orange and lime. Chris and Michelle like it with a dish of pasta, garden zucchini and grated cheese, but he emphasizes that each of these brews could accompany a wide range of food.

As the prime example of their accessible beers, Chris cites Farm Light, which is intended as an “alternative to Bud Light, something a little more flavorful, but still easy drinking and good on a really hot day.”

Chris has been brewing for an audience from the get-go. He started when he was a submarine officer in the Pacific Northwest, his first beer a blackberry wheat modified from a kit that he entered in a ranking admiral’s casual Oktoberfest competition. He didn’t win, but after the competition, “no one else wanted the brewing equipment, so I kept it and kept brewing. As I brewed I was more interested in doing classic styles.”

Through involvement with home brew clubs and small breweries in the Seattle area, and later the Siebel Institute brewing school in Chicago, Chris became enamored of the farmhouse style, the best-known of which is the saison. He cites German, Belgian, French and English influences, saying that he likes revivals of nearly extinct styles, such as the German gose, a sour wheat beer traditionally brewed with coriander and salt, that fell out of favor until recently. Boat Shoes, the sour wheat that gets its tang from lactobacillus and is influenced by Berlinerweiss, is another brew based on a recipe that was at risk of disappearing from commercial breweries.

For now, the Prosts are happy to test the waters and to focus on the quality of their product. And they’ve found the town of Croydon a willing partner. Chris, originally from Chicago, and Michelle, from Eliot, Maine, met at Northwestern University and initially moved to the Upper Valley and rented in Lebanon when Michelle landed her job at the biotech firm. Chris worked briefly at Designer Gold and at the now-defunct Lebanon Brew Shop before focusing wholly on brewing, which gave him an appreciation for and experience in running a small business.

He likes how a small municipality like Croydon accommodates new business. Because of the town’s size, Croydon officials have been able to work with them personally on licensing matters. Chris says he’s currently collaborating one-on-one with the fire department to structure a tasting room that could accommodate, say, 10 visitors for beer samples and perhaps light snacks.

He’s had similar personal encounters with restaurants and indeed hopes to get his beer on tap at a local establishment. It’s this type of personal touch and flexibility that he appreciates, staying small, refining recipes with direct commentary from drinkers. He sees the local offerings multiplying in the near future, noting that he’s been getting calls from other prospective breweries, including two in the Claremont area.

The Prosts can envision expansion and, for example, selling beers for private events, but Polyculture can only grow so large before the weight-bearing capacity of their farmhouse is compromised.

“We’d have to rebuild,” Chris says, but seems unbothered by any pressure to grow larger.

A gleaming stainless steel two-barrel fermenter sits, as yet unused, on the north wall of the small brewery. At some point in the near future they will put it into rotation and brew more each week. (A barrel of beer holds 31 gallons.)

At the moment, however, he appreciates the benefits of running a small brewery: the chances to experiment, the opportunity to enjoy each batch, to get to know his customers, one by one.

Kate Oden is a writer and translator who lives in Hanover. Contact her at odenk06@gmail.com.