You’ve heard this story before. Guy gets smitten with homebrewing, learns all he can, eventually finds the circumstances to get a formal education, and goes pro. That’s Jay Bullen in a nutshell. But like everyone else you can apply this story to, there’s so much more than that. There are the years of toil, the friendships and bonds made, and the leap of faith.
Bullen, the owner and head of brewhouse operations at Brewery Silvaticus Ales & Lagers in Amesbury, Massachusetts, has always worked with his hands. A carpenter by trade, he grew up in New York City, which is a lot of things, but back around 2003, it wasn’t a beer mecca. A move to California with his girlfriend (now wife, Michelle Riaz) opened him up to a world of flavor.
“There was fresh Anchor and beers from Lagunitas, and you could walk into a beer store with options. It was great,” he says. While Riaz worked in the tech sector, Bullen took odd jobs as a carpenter and with a catering business, eventually landing a lunch-shift host and service job at a brewpub.
“It just sparked something in me, and I started homebrewing, mostly extract stuff,” he recalls. A move back to the East Coast found him interning at New Jersey’s Cricket Hill Brewery, where he was not only brewing and doing brewery maintenance but also being sent out on sales calls. “It was eye opening to see what it takes to keep a brewery functioning.”
A course at the Siebel Institute introduced him to David McCarthy, one of the owners about to open 49th State Brewing Company in Alaska. Bullen and Riaz opted to head north, and for the next five years Bullen was able to learn about opening a brewery, recipe development, and all of the challenges that come with running a brewery in a location that is seasonally dependent.
Trips back to New York introduced him to Mark Zappasodi, a well-known and respected member of the city’s homebrewing community who had long talked about opening a brewery somewhere in the metro area. But he and his wife, Caroline Becker Zappasodi, had recently moved to a farm in Massachusetts and were now eyeing that area.
The time was right for a move, and so the two couples joined forces and, in September 2017, opened Brewery Silvaticus in an old millwork factory (easily identifiable by the smokestack) right downtown, a space that lends itself to the tradition that Bullen and Zappasodi put into each recipe.
“We focus on Belgian farmhouse ales and German lagers,” Bullen says. “We have a respect for the traditional beers from Europe and want to pay homage to those. But we also want to push things forward.”
Brevity, a sour ale, is popular, as is the Sovereign Pilsner—a recipe that Bullen made just once while in Alaska. He has continuously tweaked it since its first batch. To find the Pilsner that works best for Silvaticus, he has consulted some of the high benchmarks on the market today, including offerings from Urban Chestnut Brewing Company (St. Louis, Missouri) and Heater Allen Brewing (McMinnville, Oregon) because the style “is more than just Radeberger.”
And Bullen has spent a lot of time thinking about water chemistry. When he was brewing at 49th State, they used water from an aquifer that was hard, making it great for some styles, not so much for others. Water would have to be trucked in if he wanted to make recipes that required a softer touch.
In Amesbury, he has an excellent soft-water source that lends itself to a continental Pilsner. “I can start low, add to it; I can tweak it to various styles, rounding it out when necessary. It’s just another tool in the toolbox.”
Playing with the water chemistry has allowed him to keep dialing in on what he wants from the Sovereign Pilsner, “something crisp and snappy, with a moderate hops bite, and a bit of crackery malt.” Visiting the taproom, you’ll see pints full of it across the bar. Bullen and Zappasodi subscribe to the philosophy of making the beers they like drinking. But being in a town of 14,000 close to the New Hampshire border and not distributing, they know that the beers produced have to appeal to the locals first and foremost.
“Because of [our Pilsner], we’ve gotten a huge amount of trust from our customers,” says Bullen. That in turn allows them to experiment with other styles, such as smoked beers, with folks ordering a new offering without hesitation. Silvaticus doesn’t, by the way, make an IPA, but there is an India pale lager in rotation.
Keeping It Small and Community-Focused
Everything Silvaticus makes is produced on a 7-barrel system with matching fermentors and bright tanks and sold out of the taproom. “We knew we’d be at capacity pretty quickly, and there are new challenges with that. We’re trying to see the path we want to go down, but we’re also just trying to enjoy what we’ve created and what’s made us successful in a short amount of time,” says Bullen.
They typically brew one day each week, on Monday or Tuesday when the taproom is closed to the public because the taproom and brewhouse occupy the same space.
Silvaticus is Latin for “of the wood,” meaning wild, untamed, and uncultivated, and is rooted in Bullen’s carpentry past where it takes a lot of discipline to get a product just right. Always striving for better is something Bullen picked up in his early interning days. He watched as breweries kept doing the same thing over and over, not pushing boundaries, not addressing potential issues, or not keeping up with evolving customer expectations.
Still, he admits that there are no style police anymore, but that doesn’t mean that innovation for the sake of innovation is a good thing. He worries that the brewers who immediately launch into a recipe that uses adjuncts, flavorings, or exotic ingredients are missing a chance to connect with history and even potential drinkers.
“You have to learn the rules to break the rules,” Bullen says. “You can always improve, but you need a solid foundation.” His time as a carpenter and cabinetmaker has taught him that attention to detail is not only important, but necessary.
“Creating something that is community-driven and focused on serving the town we’re in, there’s a beauty in that. If we can produce the beers we want to drink, enjoy them, and pay ourselves, that’s a lifestyle we’re very happy with.”