Beer importer Will Shelton trades traveling for brewing to champion the quaffable side of craft beer.
As one-third of the Shelton Brothers—the prolific importing company that’s made brands like Cantillon, Drie Fonteinen and Mikkeller household names—Will Shelton’s spent 16 years introducing foreign beer to Americans. So what in the world would prompt him to trade in his passport for pallets of malts and hops?
In 2006, after growing wary of the domestic craft beer industry’s love affair with high-gravity beers, the discouraged importer took to the kettle to brew something more his speed. With the help of Massachusetts’ Paper City Brewing, Shelton made Beer of the Gods, a 4.5%-ABV hybrid of the classic German altbier and kölsch styles. Initially intended as a small-batch beer to be served at the local pubs Shelton frequented (“It was purely selfish motivation at that point,” he jokes), the experimental brew found a niche with drinkers looking for lighter beers.
“At that time, if you looked at the top ratings on beer sites, you weren’t going to find a lot of [low-ABV] beers there,” remembers Shelton. “I think it takes less of a palate to appreciate those beers than it does the best beers in the world, which are German lagers and English bitters.”
When Shelton officially launched High & Mighty in 2008, he set out to craft European beers with an American twist. Today, he has an inspired portfolio of more than a dozen beers—an India pale lager and two smoked lagers among them—all of which fall under 5.5% ABV. And this year, he’ll open up his new facility to renowned European brewers, who’ll travel here to brew exclusively for the U.S. market.
Four years ago, betting on low-alcohol beer may have seemed risky, but Shelton says it was only a matter of time before American drinkers returned to their first love of easy-drinking beer. “Anyone who’s serious about trying beers will go through phases: light lagers, pale ales, IPAs, imperial stouts, lambics,” he says. “Eventually, everyone comes back to a better version of what they started with.”
Beer of the Gods: “Initially, it was a cross between a kölsch and an altbier; I’m a big fan of both. There’s also some wheat, so it’s got the haziness of a hefeweizen but also the crispness of a pilsner. It really combines all of the best German beers into one. It’s just a joy.”
Fumata Bianca: “I actually hated rauchbiers when I first tried them back in the ’80s, but I’ve really come to love them. This is a lighter, more thirst-quenching variation: It’s a light lager made with smoked malt. It’s unlike any other smoked beer in the world; slightly stronger and sweeter, but also dry and fairly hoppy with a delicate smoke character.”
Purity of Essence: “It’s an unfiltered lager made with 100 percent German ingredients. Some describe it as an India pale lager, or maybe an IPA recipe turned German; the idea was to make a hoppy beer for people who say they don’t like hops.”
XPA: “‘XPA’ stands for Extra Pale Ale, but the X also stands for the cross between the hop fields of the Pacific Northwest and the Kent region in the U.K.—we use both. It’s a hybrid English and American pale ale with 50 percent malts and hops, split down the middle. It’s intended to be really drinkable and not to bang you over the head with hops.”
PLUS: Shelton may be full-time at the brewery, but he still carves out 30 minutes each week to chat with his brothers on the “High & Mighty Beer Show,” which airs Saturdays on WHMP-AM in Northampton, Mass. Download the podcasts to hear the Shelton brothers talk about all things beer, from drinking through Spain to pairing beer with everything other than food. “It’s either going to be educational, instructive or entertaining,” says Shelton. “If we can hit all three, we’re in good shape.”