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Breakout Brewer: Bonn Place Brewing

After spending just a little time with Sam Masotto and talking beer, it’s hard not to think of the Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde comparison. The Bethlehem, Pennsylvania-based brewer talks about his appreciation of the classics, but not being defined by styles.

John Holl 3 months ago

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Photo by Jeff Quinn

When he was twenty-one, Sam Masotto was in a serious motorcycle accident. When he recovered, naturally he found himself shaken by the experience and wanted to make sure that his days would be spent appreciating life and all it has to offer, so he headed west with a friend on a road trip and along the way was introduced to a variety of beer flavors and styles.

In today’s coming-of-age drinking experience, beers such as New Belgium’s Fat Tire, Alaskan Brewing’s Amber, and Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout might not sound like revelatory beers, but back then they were, and they expanded Masotto’s mind and desire to learn more.

His burgeoning beer journey took him to Europe, and in England (like so many other travelers before him), he came to realize that real ale—cask ale—was not the warm and flat concoction that is often mischaracterized and maligned, but delicate and vibrant, a true marvel in a glass. Milds became his obsession.

A return to the States brought him to the famed Pony Bar in New York City, where he worked behind the bar, chatting with fellow enthusiasts and the brewers who would pass through. Other days were spent as a traveling actor, including a stint with Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding, where he would work with his future wife, Gina. They lived across the Hudson River, in Weehawken, New Jersey, on Bonn Place with a roommate who, when he moved out, left behind a Mr. Beer kit.

You can see where this is going—it led to a few stints at breweries— like New Jersey Beer Co., and Chelsea Brewing Co, then Newburgh Brewing, where he was assistant brewer—and eventually to opening his own brewery. Like so many before him, a plastic kit from Bed Bath & Beyond inspired a career. Remnants of that Mr. Beer kit hang today in his brewery.

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In those early days of homebrewing, he would swing wildly from one end of the spectrum to the other. A pale ale might be followed with a curry-infused ale—all at a time long before larger professional breweries were releasing such things to the wider market. But time and time again, he would come back to solid amber ales—homages to the original craft beers that started him on his journey.

“I’m inspired by sours and milds. I like hoppy American IPAs, but it’s a style that needs more respect,” he says. “Ultimately I want to keep it diverse.”

That’s why when you walk into his brewery taproom—a 1,400-square-foot space where his 7-barrel wood-clad English-inspired-but-American-made brewhouse is on display—you’ll find a lineup that includes, of course, a New England IPA, fruited sours, some ambers, and a few milds.

It’s those milds that brought home two medals at the 2017 Great American Beer Festival. Mooey, a 4.8% ordinary bitter took silver in the ordinary or special bitter category. Nemo, a 3.8% English-style dark mild, earned bronze in the English-style mild ale category.

That a brewery that has been open only a year can place with two medals in two very similar categories shows that his milds are worth seeking out and clearly done right. While most are served on tap, once a week (so long as he’s not traveling), Masotto will release a cask of real ale, one that has been properly kept and cellared. “There’s a re-education needed for some, or a right first-time exposure to the style for others,” he says. While he’s not against monkeying around with casks (like adding pumpkin spice latte flavors to some), he finds that a low ABV cask, properly naturally carbonated and served from the bar will go quickly to the growing number of regular patrons who are in on the secret. Doing it well depends on doing it right. There’s also a nod to history. Mooey, for example, is an homage to Boddingtons, the brewery is trying to get craft consumers to get out of the IPA comfort zone and experience the pleasure in more rounded styles.

“I’ve heard from people, ‘This beer isn’t good, it’s not hoppy and strong’ and that’s not great to hear,” he says. By making alternatives to IPAs, he’s encouraging drinkers to take the same journey he once did in discovering new beers.

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That’s not to say he doesn’t make IPAs or hoppy beers—he does. “We’ve made many IPAs, and they are very popular, but I’m likely going to call them double pale, strong pales, whatever they seem to me, but IPAs aren’t really done in the tradition that inspired them, so we should really be calling them American hoppy or something.” Again, spend time with him, and Masotto, it’s clear, is a guy who thinks a lot about different things and is comfortable charging into conversations, with not only passion but well-thought knowledge to back it up.

“I am who I am, and I like to say I brew what I like, and if others like that too, that’s wonderful; we just don’t need to get hung up on labels.”

He uses New England IPA as a current example. When a brewery advertises one, customers know what they are saying. The challenge is to get them out of the predetermined mindset, which is a big challenge, and think about the beer as the sum of its parts rather than just a style name.

“It’s a stance that I take because I can. Our customers trust us and drink what we make regardless of what we call it and maybe discover something new,” he says.
It’s this attitude, the comfort of the brewery tasting room, and a true commitment to community (he’s already brewed several beers with all Pennsylvania-grown ingredients) that have quickly garnered him regulars, planned visits from out of state, and a growing list of fellow brewers wanting to collaborate.

“My mantra is family, employees, and customers. If they are happy, I’m happy. Find the balance, do the right thing, and you can achieve success.”

John Holl is the Senior Editor of Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine®. Email tips and story suggestions to [email protected].

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