I grew up and came of beer-drinking age in the Boston area in the 1990s. There were so many great options for a craft beer fan and (terrible) homebrewer in those days, but I often found myself coming home from the packie (it’s a Massachusetts thing – just Google it) with a couple of 22-ounce bombers from McNeill’s Brewery. Firehouse Amber Ale and Dead Horse IPA pretty much had reserved spots in my refrigerator. The beer was great even if the labels on the bottles looked like they had been hand pasted on by a toddler. They were mostly crooked or halfway peeling off, but that just seemed to add to the experience. I made it out to the brewery in Brattleboro, Vermont once to pick up a couple of cases of beer for the homebrew club that I was a part of. It was quirky – originally built as a firehouse in 1892, it became the home of founder and brewmaster, Ray McNeill, and his brewery in 1993. When I say it became his home, I mean it. Ray lived in an apartment above the brewery.
Ray McNeill died at his beloved brewery on December 2, 2022. A fire destroyed the brewery and sadly claimed the life of a New England brewing….I don’t know – legend, pioneer, character, original. Probably all of those. If you didn’t know Ray, I would recommend that you check out Andy Crouch’s recent remembrance of him here – https://allaboutbeer.com/ray-mcneill-of-mcneills-brewery-remembered/. I never met Ray in person, but I did have a few interactions with him over the years, dating back to that generous beer donation to the homebrew club. More recently, he reached out to me in a long series of emails over the past year or two. Ray was working on an Imperial Stout recipe and was intrigued by our Synergy Select MaltGems
After some emails back and forth discussing the attributes of MaltGems
®, Ray thanked me for all my help and proudly stated that he’s been a Briess customer for 31 years and that he was a friend of Roger Briess. At this point, my inner homebrewing dork came out and I told him that I had just brewed a five-gallon clone of his Firehouse Amber Ale. When I shared my recipe with him, he told me that I was very close. A few days later, I received an email from Ray with the original recipe for McNeill’s Firehouse Amber Ale. He even scaled it down into a five-gallon batch for me. He laughed at the amounts involved in five gallons. The next several paragraphs were all about his struggles with different yeast strains throughout the years. He did state, emphatically, that “the malt and hops for Firehouse have not changed ONE IOTA since around ’93”. I still have that email saved.
When I heard of Ray’s passing, I looked back through that correspondence with sadness, but also with a few laughs. I shared this story with two of my brewing friends in the Boston area, Megan Parisi and Eryn Bottens, both with Boston Beer. The three of us came up with the idea of re-creating McNeill’s Firehouse Amber Ale in a small batch, with some of it going to Briess’ booth at the upcoming Craft Brewers Conference in Nashville, TN. But it wouldn’t actually be “McNeill’s Firehouse Amber Ale,” as Ray specifically asked me not to share his recipe with anyone. With that in mind, the three of us came up with an American Amber recipe that we hope honors Ray and his Firehouse Amber Ale. We are calling it, “Parting Glass”.
Mashing in “Parting Glass”
In late January, Eryn, Megan, and I got together at the Sam Adams Tap Room in Faneuil Hall in Boston. In the shadow of the iconic statue of Sam Adams (you can look right out at the statue from the brewhouse platform), we mashed in a batch of Parting Glass. Even though I say “we”, it was mostly done by Mike, one of the brewers there. I did provide the coffee, gourmet donuts (nothing but the finest), and moral support. As Firehouse Amber Ale was a classic 1990s Amber Ale, we kept the malt bill pretty simple – most of it being Pale Ale Malt, along with a little Bonlander® Munich and some Caramel Malt 60L. While this is a tribute to Ray, we still wanted to put our own spin on it, so we utilized a single decoction which would help achieve our fermentation target and also give it a little Sam Adams twist. The hops were kept pretty traditional, with some Cascade and a few others. The dry hop utilizes Cascade as well, and for fermentation, we selected an American Ale yeast strain. I think Ray would have approved.
You’re invited to stop by our booth #1125 at the Craft Brewers Conference for a sample of “Parting Glass”. And perhaps we’ll raise a toast to a New England brewing original.
Rest in Peace, Ray.