My GPS guided me over a bridge to cross the Connecticut River before alerting me that I was moving to the wrong side of the river.
After turning around and going through an underpass, I took a slight left and was promptly informed I missed the turn again.
“What turn are you talking about? You want me to go on the railroad track?” These words represent the ‘PG’ version of what I was saying in my frustration while I was growing worried that I would be late for my appointment. I don’t like to be late.
As I took a slight turn, I saw a large banner sign down a side street that appeared to lead to nothing but trashed cars and construction equipment. The alley felt like one I would have been wise to leave immediately, and if it weren’t for the signs letting me know that I was on the right track to Leadfoot Brewery, I might have.
I found my way down to the end of the alley to then hidden parking lot of the young brewing business ran by friends Pat Randall and Jeff Thibodeau. The pair of friends began brewing together in the past ten years (the actual date was debated, but not settled upon) but were steeping themselves in beer culture long before then.
After researching the viability of opening a brewery, they decided there was room in the market for what they have to offer. They incorporated Leadfoot Brewing Company in 2016. Still, there were more steps to take before they would be pouring beers for guests.
The Foundation of a Brewery Long in the Making
The partners spent a long two years searching for the right place to start their brewery. After spending time cycling through one location after another that didn’t live up to their standards, a property owner they were speaking to about a separate site brought a new one to the table.
The new location was once the home of Hampden Brewing Company, a brewery in operation from 1933 to 1957. It seemed like an ideal fit for this two-person team to bring brewing back to the building.
There has been a lot of problem-solving the two have done together in getting their brewery running. Their attitude towards such difficulties is admirable. When I asked them about the most significant challenges they’d faced along the way, their answer nearly dismissed the relevance of problems.
“Nothing is a roadblock. You need to make sure every challenge is a speedbump instead,” said Randall, whose nature of meticulous research has served the company well in solving some of these problems. “I got a guestimate on what our wastewater was going to look like, sent the information to the city, and they told me it was going to be a ton of money to send it to them each month. So we bought our own waste treatment tank, and I do all our treatment now. Saves us thousands of dollars each month.”
For a young brewery, thousands of dollars a month back in their pockets is a huge deal.
Once they found the location, it was still another year of preparation before they were able to open for business. Despite the difficulty in finding the brewery, they have been developing some bigtime fans that have a real appreciation for the way they do beer, a style that is informed by tradition.
Tradition Inspired By Travel
“I’m a purist and a traditionalist more than anything, and I think that correlates to what I like to drink,” Thibodeau told me when I asked him about how his travels informed his beer styles.
“I have been afforded the luxury to travel a lot through sports,” says Thibodeau, who worked as a professional umpire in baseball leagues. “Beer and food have always brought people from different cultures together. Around food and beer, we always had conversations we could understand even though we didn’t speak the same language.”
Thibodeau says, besides the work he was doing with baseball, trying local beer was always on the top of his list of things to do in every country he visited.
He repeatedly brought up how he fell in love with traditional Pilsners after drinking Pilsner in Prague. But he also proved beyond doubt that he is a man of the beer world, mentioning many of his favorites from across the globe, “Taiwan beer is a great beer. Japan has some great ones too. Sapporo, to me, is a great Japanese beer, Asahi too. Presidente in the Dominican might be one of the best beers I’ve had. I think that’s a fantastic Lager.”
While the duo is not afraid of adventuring into different realms of beer styles, they are committed to staying true to the roots of tradition and doing so with excellence. For anybody looking for a high-quality craft Pilsner or American Lager, you are unlikely to have luck in finding someone that takes more pride in their work than these two.
I get it. Modern trends say that complexity and wild variety in beer is the way to go. Randall and Thibodeau at Leadfoot have presented an entirely new argument of counter-culture. If you can do the traditional stuff right and appreciate it, what are you trying to prove by ignoring it? The truth is, a lot of breweries wouldn’t do it right because the process is more complex than the product might seem.
The Pilsner and American Lager
The Pilsner is what got them started as brewers. This is their bread and butter and something they enjoy drinking most. It is an easy to drink beer and something you could drink all night long with zero complaints. If the people Thibodeau met in Prague had a chance to drink his Pilsner, they would be proud to know it was something they inspired.
Doing the traditional beer well is a more difficult task than it sounds. The classic American Lager is difficult to emulate, but something Randall and Thibodeau have done brilliantly and elevated it to a level that has developed a circle of fans.
“I modeled that beer thinking about what my grandmother would like to drink. It’s our version of PBR, and it kills it,” Randall told me. The high level of drinkability comes through on the Lager without leaving a cheap taste in your mouth. If anything, they’ve achieved a unique level of gourmet Lager.
Pioneer Valley IPA
They brew their Pioneer Valley IPA 100% with ingredients from the immediate area. It does not carry the intense hoppiness of many IPAs, and the tandem – true to their traditional form – brought up the origin of IPAs when mentioning the motivation around the Pioneer Valley IPA.
Initially, when the English were colonizing India, they wanted to get their beers there. They added a significant amount of hops to drop the pH levels of the beer and act as a preservative. But since it is sitting on a boat for two months, it loses the bitter kick of hops on the front of the beverage.
“A true IPA doesn’t have all that. That is a real traditional IPA in our opinion,” said Randall.
My Personal Favorites
My favorite beers that I sampled with them were the Kerry Irish Amber Ale and the Café Brewlé Stout. Both of these beverages had complex aromas. The Kerry was almost mossy – something I was very unaccustomed to in a beer. The Brewlé Stout was an intense sweetness that shocked me. The intense caramel and vanilla bean notes had me double and triple take to figure out if I smelled what I thought I did.
The flavors of the two were equally astounding. The Kerry, with its combination of both roasted and kilned malts, had a charred flavor that wonderfully complemented the weight of the ale. The taste of the Stout was far more understated in comparison to its aroma. It had great spicy and sweet qualities that played beautifully off of each other.
Leadfoot was intentionally located in a place and a building that gives Randall and Thibodeau room to expand. They have definite plans for growth beyond the current size of their pub and level of distribution.
There are already plans to create additional outdoor seating at their pub. They are also preparing to begin some of their first canning that they’ll get out to retail liquor stores in the area.
Unfortunately, for anybody out of state, it may take some time before Leadfoot has much distribution far from its home in Chicopee. Barring the opportunity to sample any of their beer, it should at least motivate you to find a brewery that is similarly committed to tradition.
There is a fine line between honoring tradition and just being a stubborn traditionalist. Even though Randall and Thibodeau are emulating a lot of culture through their beer, the second you start drinking Leadfoot is the second you know you can’t compare it to anything else.