Moving Up a Notch
Oktoberfest season is here, and if you’re looking for a way to celebrate that feels more authentic than downing a German import at your corner pub, you’re in luck. Over at Salem’s new Notch Brewery & Tap Room, you’ll find an expansive beer hall with a waterfront biergarten pouring freshly made brews ready to be consumed by the liter. We’re talking crushable styles that are still full of flavor, such as Notch’s Černé Pivo (a toasty Czech black lager) and Hootenanny (a sour Berliner Weisse).
“Session” beers like these—ones that average around 4 percent alcohol by volume—are having a moment, and for that, you can raise a toast to Notch founder Chris Lohring. A veteran brewer who made his name in the 1990s with Tremont Ale, Lohring pioneered session beer as an American craft category in 2010 with Notch Session Pils, modeled after the classic Czech style. Being a trailblazer isn’t a job for the faint of heart: When he and his wife and business partner, Mary Ellen Leahy, first launched Notch, hop-heavy IPAs dominated beer menus. “I didn’t think [Notch] would last a week,” he says. But their gamble paid off.
Six years later, session beers are everywhere. Notch has nearly doubled its production in the past year alone, from 5,000 barrels to 9,000 and counting. That success has allowed Lohring (who also brews at other New England facilities) to make Notch’s seasonal and specialty beers in this new home, a century-old building in Salem, Lohring’s hometown.
The 5,000-square-foot space, which opened in July, exudes the vibe of a German bierpalast. The tables, made of Douglas fir reclaimed from the original building during renovations, are communal; go ahead, sit down with some strangers. The atmosphere is laid-back in a European sort of way, but Berlin or Prague this is not. “It’s very American,” Leahy says—from the taproom’s vintage Skee-Ball machine to the Hatch Show Print posters.
The Salem brewery will serve as a laboratory for Notch to experiment with the malt-forward European brews Lohring and Leahy love. Among them is a traditional brown Czech lager called tmavý. While it’s a recent addition to Notch’s taps, it’s not exactly new: Lohring launched variations of this style before, but they never took off. Will consumers go for it this time around? It wouldn’t be the first time Lohring’s been ahead of the curve.