Let’s face it, Beer is the new wine. With craft beer skyrocketing in popularity and new microbrews appearing on the horizon at breakneck speeds all around us, the transition to a beer culture just can’t be ignored. The Seacoast (NH) Beer Group on Facebook has over 2000 members and is one of the most prolific producers of facebook content in my feed. People are just plain into the craft beer thing around here. Passionate lush’s like myself now have terrific excuses for drinking before 5PM – and can now say things like:
“Brewery Tour, Bub, it’s OK…. I’m collecting Growler fills to trade….. I had to take off work this morning before they ran out of Amoprhic Hop Pils King Gose, you understand.”
And much to the chagrin of my significant other, most of these Seacoast Breweries are really into Ales, Pale Ales, IPA’s and DIPAs. I wouldn’t want it any other way. I will drop kudos to Throwback Brewery in Hampton for their focus on the darker shades of beer, and to be fair, most local micros make a mean porter or stout. But the IPA craze is on and I for one, am loving it. Also new to the scene are some beers that I can’t be sure classify as beers – the experimental brews – Gose, Berliner Weisse, Gruits – I can go on and on. Even better, the brewmasters have begun collaborating and making some amazing concoctions. I think of Tributary’s Sweet Fern Gose made with Earth Eagle’s assistance, that is an amazing little beer, and I am not just saying that because Tod Mott is to local craft brewing as Donald Trump is to arrogance. Others like East Coast Common which was a Smuttynose, Stoneface and Great Rhythm concoction have begun to appear bringing in not one but two local craft masters into collaboration.
So allow me to offer a brief rundown of some of my current favorites, in no particular order, and any I have left out were most likely because I have not visited first hand or haven’t been since they upped into new digs (Smutty and Throwback). I haven’t been much up Maine (aside from Kittery, which really isn’t Maine anymore, right?) primarily because I don’t like traffic on I95 in the Summertime. That will come, my friends. But for now I have enough Seacoast NH spots to keep me occupied for quite some time.
So for now lets look at some of the new kids on the block near my home in New Hampshire and some of my initial impressions. Opinions are my own, and what’s great about the beer scene is that no one really cares if opinions differ. I recall from my wine tasting days that if you didn’t recognize a ‘good’ wine you had a bad or uneducated palate. If you like boxed wine (please god tell me you don’t) you were not to be taken seriously. But with beer, if you like it, that’s really it. There are new batches constantly being produced and the selection grows rapidly. Breweries up in Vermont and Maine (Maine Beer Co, Hill Farmstead) have lines of folks waiting before the doors open which is unheard of for nearly any local products save for Walmart junk on Black Friday. As I say, these people are really into it. Social Media has fueled the fire because it is so easy to share and notify other hop heads what’s hot and what’s not, what’s new, and what restaurants have just tapped what keg. It’s amazing how fast word travels and the impact of the beer community online, and in real life. There are various apps to track such things that I particularly don’t use (I don’t really need to) and Beer Advocate hosts reviews of nearly everything ever produced (if you are into that type of thing) and the Insurance Beer Guy does intensive reviews on individual brews. I’ll try to keep this up to date as I go, so many new places to see and try, the fun never stops (until the market becomes oversaturated with crafts to the point no one can make money, or the big beer guys start buying out and destroying the smaller craft brews – think Magic Hat.) And here we go.
Stoneface Brewing, Newington NH
(I say they are a Portsmouth beer because I just want to. Same with Smuttynose, deal with it).
I said there would be no order to these but I lied. Stoneface gets top billing because their beer is just freaking amazing. Almost all are perfect: clean, crisp, hopped up but not astringent or too rich to session. They do a few dark beers and an imperial IPA as well but the sweet spot is their Pale Ale’s – IPA’s. It’s not really a secret, Stoneface has been in quite a few major news outlets as one of the hottest up and coming breweries in the country. In my opinion, they win based on consistency, availability, and managing a similar style to their production. They aren’t all over the place (which is great for some breweries) but instead seem to have a sort of focus to what they produce, often on the lighter and crisper side in what has become a world of heavy high alcohol bombers. And it’s all damn good suds.
The tasting room is small and very friendly, samples are free and flow freely (they give the impression that they really want you to try their beers – all of them) they have a gas controlled growler fill contraption to help preserve your tankards a bit longer in the fridge. They also sell Bomber bottles that you’ll also find out on the streets in beer and wine shops and restaurants. I prefer their brew straight from the keg and places like the Coat of Arms really do their drafts justice. Bottles are good but lack a particular sharpness that the draft imparts.
Also of note – this isn’t a tiny brewery. They have a nice stack of big time tanks and a warehouse that looks ready to scale up in growth. I expect really great things from the Stoneface.
Deciduous Brewing, Newmarket NH.
I’d try to say this too is a Portsmouth Beer too if I could, but Newmarket has made such an amazing transformation over the past few years they really deserve their own identity. The downtown used to be a great place to park for people to get drugs, but these days it’s a booming little city center, revitalized and refreshed and now graced with brewpubs, restaurants, the stone church, and now a brewery. A really, really good brewery.
I don’t get too deep into politics but I believe one of the owners cut their teeth at Blue Lobster, the first major death in the local brew scene (I think it’s important to know that the scene will have turnover and the better breweries will shake themselves out). There was some bad blood apparently and the brewing talent left, only to reemerge as part of Deciduous. If I have any of that wrong, forgive me – it’s heresay – but Blue Lobster was doing some really good stuff….in the beginning….and now are gone. Karma?
So leaving that behind us, Deciduous only opened to the public a couple weeks into the Summer – they still are on limited hours. They built a beauty of a tasting room out of reclaimed wood and industrial modern accessories (plumbing pipes, live wood, barn wood, turned wood) and have what amounts to one of the cleanest and most refined tasting rooms around at a small scale. Not bad for a first effort. They currently have but 4 beers, a American Pale, A Dry Hopped Wheat, A Smoky Porter, and a Berliner Weisse (pictured) as first sampled at Row 34 in Portsmouth in a great tulip glass. If you haven’t been, check out Row34 then go immediately. This style of beer is relatively new to me. Tasting notes describe this beer, named Auroral, as ‘made with
acidulated malts, lychee and blood orange.’ It’s super light, low alcohol and wikkid tart. Beer Advocate describes the style as “a top-fermented, bottle conditioned wheat beer made with both traditional warm-fermenting yeasts and lactobacillus culture. They have a rapidly vanishing head and a clear, pale golden straw-coloured appearance. The taste is refreshing, tart, sour and acidic, with a lemony-citric fruit sharpness and almost no hop bitterness.” Yup. That’s it. If you like a light, crushable but very tart/sour beer, this really hits the spot. Not my favorite style, but beats the tar out of the mainstream “Summer Beers” that usually don’t make much sense on the palate unless really cold or you just don’t care what you’re drinking.
Renasense is a heavily piped up porter with a good hoppy finish. Not heavy or cloying, maintaining that crisp drinkability that I admire from both Deciduous and Stoneface but way smoky with an 8.1% ABV. This is not Guinness. It has a lot of body without being sweet or sickly, rich and smooth but not too ‘coffee’ like.
The Dry Hopped Wheat IPA (Agricultural) was a winner for me, slammable yet really thick with nice bitter hops, a medium style body, and loads of yummy beer flavors, this beer is a standalone that I expect will be quote popular among the hopheads. The Arose is a dry hopped Pale, the Standard Faire brewhouse selection, but this one is spot on. The only detractor is that the other beers are also really, really solid on tap, and if you are like me you just have to choose favorites. But this is a slammin, light, under 5% session ale that would be perfect in any situation and is a shining example of that stle. I’d say it reminds me of a lighter Heady Topper but the Heady’s would have my head on a platter. Check out Franklin Oyster House, one of the first to offer Deciduous, though the taps often rotate. It may be too late!
The tasting room has couches, seating at homemade live wood picnic tables, a glass viewing area into the brewery and offers $1.50 tastes of their brews. 750ML growler fills were also available on my visit but no true Growlers made their way there just yet. They just opened after all. One to watch.
Garrison City Beer Works, Dover NH
Garrison was a surprise for certain, I don’t spend a lot of time in Downtown Dover and to learn it was smack dab in the center of things was news to me. A few hundred feet down from 7Th Settlement Brewery and next door to Yeastern Homebrew Supply (the sister business of Garrison City) Downtown Dover is just brew lovers central. Directly across the street is Dover Wine and Brew so in one stop you can really find yourself knee deep and boozy. So beware. Dover is, after all, known as a hard drinking town with a working problem (Ok I just made that up, but there are really thirsty folks in Dover, always have been). Just look at the Thirsty Moose Taphouse.
Entering Garrison you’re greeted by a terrific shiny copper bar, lively green (hop influenced) colors, a huge shiny POS flatscreen that outlines all the beer on tap, and scrolls social media reviews randomly (I tried to get on it by my phone died). Garrison had 5 beers on tap (one just kicked) that were presented in a very ‘cute’ hop shaped paddle full of numbered mini tulip glasses. Gold star for presentation. They also had really cool merch, and were it not for a $30 price tag, I’d have walked away with an embroidered hop hat. It was super cool be able to sit down at a real bar with a bartender and sip our samples which ran from $1-$2 a pour. I found it interesting that neither Deciduous nor Garrison offered pints (which I thought was allowed under new MicroBrewery laws in NH) but then again, why get into a bar scene (people drinking too damn much) and the headaches associated with it. I am curious to know if that is a choice they make or contingent upon town ordinances. Either way, I am fine with samples, and even paying for them, but I do prefer the ‘free to taste model’ myself.
So OK, onto the beer. Being connected to Yeastern Homebrew Supply shop is the model also followed by Earth Eagle in Portsmouth – makes complete sense to have wholesale access to brew supplies. One thing to note about Garrison – their brew room is tiny, a bit more cluttered and carries the feel of a homebrewer gone awry. It doesn’t feel like a ‘designed for mass production’ brew space. I suspect they will run out of capacity sooner rather than later. Another absolutely awesome differentiator at Garrison is how they package their beer for offsite consumption. Instead of filling glass or metal growlers or bottles, they have a unique canning system known as a “Crowler” = canned growler. Get it? The system was originally developed by Oskar Blues brewery in conjunction with the Ball Corporation (the canning jar people) to come up with this revolutionary way to can fresh beer. CO2 is used to blow out the oxygen and the can tops are simply crimped on real time with whatever is on tap. they can be pre-canned for retail or onsite for limited brews. At 32Oz they are a nice evening libation to share or drink solo, and solve the problem of having a million glass growlers that carry big deposit costs and are never in the right place (or clean) when you need them. You can just run and recycle these aluminum beauties. NH is archaic in the sense that only those growlers branded with that breweries label can be filled. In more progressive places, Oregon for example, you can fill your own hydroflask at any brewery keeping it cool and reusable with just one single vessel. Not so much here in the nanny state where the Beaurocracy seems to think that rumrunning is still possible. There is some logic to the state’s madness, they want to avoid bait and switch sales and be able to monitor taxable production, etc, but come on. These little guys can barely produce enough to sell let alone pull a fast one over on the government. But I am off on a tangent. Onto the beer.
I’ve had a few Crowlers of various Garrison brews before our so I knew there was some good suds coming out of the place. The Calypso and Citra had been favorites (and still are). Lighter, hoppy ales that always strike a chord with me in Summertime. We also had occasion to try the Anomalous (double/strong IPA), Plexus (American Pale) and Crowbar (Porter). The one thing I will say about Garrison as a critique is not all of their beers were homeruns, in my opinion. The Anomalous was thick (it is a DIPA after all) but had a medicinal, almost chemical flavor I just couldn’t get into. My partner enjoyed it and the Porter in particular which was nice and smoky but not too rich. The Plexus was fine but non descript, not punchy enough to be memorable. But don’t get me wrong, the beers are good and solid overall, I just don’t find everyone to be a slam dunk as I do with the aforementioned breweries. I really love the simplicity of the Citra. I suspect Garrison experiments much more and have less of a focus on producing on a formula model with standardized flagship beers that need to maintain consistency. Which is terrific, you can never get bored and always have a reason to visit.
My only real complaint was of my bar stool/seat mate. It is not clear what it was that I had done, but clearly I was in the wrong. Note that the finger is extended to face the author of this article, and not the beer. There were no similar sentiments toward the kind folks at Garrison, just to me. Practically ruining the terrific presentation of my Garrison’s.
So to briefly slip over the bridge from Portsmouth into Maine I throw in another legendary brewmaster we are fortunate enough to have right here in our own backyard. Tod Mott is damn near the most infamous brewer in these here parts because of one concoction he helped formulate and brew for The Portsmouth Brewery – a dark, sultry balanced little doll called “Kate the Great.” Kate as she came to be known, a Russian Imperial Stout, made national media, was chosen by many a mens’ magazine as one of the best beers on earth and developed a hardcore following. So hardcore it had to be released by the bottle, in a lottery, on a certain day, when the stars and moon were in alignment, to a select few, who waited in line for multiple days. The demand was off the charts and supply was limited. So to keep things short, Tod is famous, and many say one of the nicest guys you will ever meet.
And yes, I have had Kate the Great, the original, hand delivered liquid gold from a generic growler at a party by the man himself. I am certain he would not remember this moment but I clearly do. Right there in Kittery, from the OG himself. One of the few times my shadow has touched fame so please let me have my moment.
Ok, now that that’s over…Tod branched off to start his own brewery, Tributary, a few years back. Question one – did he make Kate? Answer – no. I don’t know the reason, nor do I care, but he did indeed come up with a beer as high and mighty in stature but more masculine called “Mott the Lesser.” Hysterical. And once again people flocked in hoardes to get their hand on the Imperial Stout Master’s crowning achievement. Alas, I am told this was a one time release, and I did not secure a sample of this fine libation.
Just outside Kittery Foreside (downtown) in a building called Post Office Square (guess why) which hosts the Tributary brewery. With tons of parking and a farmers market on Sunday, the brewery is just the right size, has picnic tables, live music from time to time and is clean and modern with a nautical flair (the color blue). What’s unique about this brewery, perhaps because it is in Maine, you can buy pints of beer just to enjoy (not everything is a sample), samples or growlers (and mini growlers) to go. So it’s got a bit of a bar vibe, but still a tasting room experience.
I went for a special event highlighting diabetes (Tod is a victim himself apparently) and had four samples of Trib’s beers, paired up loosely with some bites from Cava restaurant and wines from a ME based winery Andrew Bevan Wines. My first sip was of the collaboration between Tributary and Earth Eagle (coming up next) which was a Sweet Fern Gose. I am not altogether familiar with the Gose style but heard it referred to as ‘salt beer.’ The sweet fern part literally came from ferns that were harvested in the wild and added to the brew in similar fashion to a dry hopping. In this case ‘dry ferned.’ Earth Eagle, as we will learn next, loves using unusual, hand foraged ingredients to make their unique style of beverages. Apparently Tod is a fan too! This beer was light, tangy, but soft and gave just a tiny hint of an herbal undertone. It was really, really good. Light, punchy, and crushable – this was a beer worth getting to know better. Again I heard talk about the ‘saltiness’ of the brew and was forced to consult my lifeline to the internets.
An old German beer style from Leipzig, Gose is an unfiltered wheat beer made with 50-60% malted wheat, which creates a cloudy yellow color and provides a refreshing crispness and twang. A Gose will have a low hop bitterness and a complementary dryness and spice from the use of ground coriander seeds and a sharpness from the addition of salt. Like Berliner Weisse beers, a Gose will sometimes be laced with various flavored and colored syrups. This is to balance out the addition of lactic acid that is added to the boil. Thanks Beer Advocate.
I can’t say if I picked up coriander, and the salt could have been there in the flavor profile, but it just came across as hops or minerality to me. It is a damn fine beer. The internets also offer up that this beer was made of wheat, cloves (something I really dislike when used in excess) and real Maine Seawater (there’s your salt folks!). I’d need to validate those facts but it does make sense that Tributary would be connected to the Ocean, right?
Following this was another Nice, light damn near perfect IPA made with Citra hops, so refreshing and citrusy without being cloying and a Wheat IPA that had more flavor and body and was so well constructed I don’t have much more to say. Once again we were faced with too many good beers at once. The way it should be, but makes it hard to choose favorites. Finally there was a miss for me, the American Mild. I love me a good skunked up cheap swill beer sometimes. Old Milwaukee. Utica Club. And I suspect this was brewed in the style of the cheap American beer but on a craft level. It came across to me as carbonated water with a slight flavor of corn (not hops) and while not offensive just did nothing for me. I like a good pilsener but I think light beer needs a little funk or skunk to have character, that’s my well trained cheap beer palate’s take on this style. So nothing wrong with it, it was just unassuming and uninteresting. Coors light drinkers may love it.
Tod is a jovial character, friendly and talkative when not busy. There was live music playing which was super cool, they do that regularly, and as a ‘bar’ you can just drop by and have a pint or two which is a really nice way to keep folks in business.
We had the pleasure of returning to Tributary for their 1st Anniversary party which was for the most part business as usual except for tents outside, a live band of ever changing characters (I think it was a bunch of local friends/musicians), food from Portsmouth’s Vida Cantina and a number of additional beers not seen before – including a DIPA brewed especially for the event. There was a Belgian Triple, A Winter (and Spring) Saison, and another dark beer whose name and style eludes me. It was lovely to have them served outdoors in nice low profile, real tulip glasses. Kid and family friendly, dancing, you could have a drink and enjoy some tunes on a terrific summer day in September no matter who you were. It was lots of fun, still chill and cool, and made lots of happy people, happier. I(‘m not sure if the beer was the focus, or the community of the beer, but I’ll take both. It was nice to see folks being free, happy, relaxed and enjoying life). Clearly Mr. Mott is doing something right!
Earth Eagle Brewing, Portsmouth NH
Earth Eagle pretty much has to come last becuase if I haven’t been able to keep your attention on these relatively straightfroward brewery experiences, I am definitely going to lose you on Earth Eagle. What started out awhat was essentially the back room/closet of a homebrew supply shop has morphed, twisted and crawled it’s way up to the top via additions, growth, and expansions. What was once a taste and take room now offers a full bar (mixed drinks), guest taps, a nice selection of in house brews, and a pub food menu that is actually quite tasty (get Chili). They also have an old WildCat ski trail sign on the wall that I would give up a toe for if I had to, legend has it that someone found it in the trash. A friend of mine tells me I once offered $500 for it (and was promptly shut down) of which I have little memory of. But that just puts this place on the coolness factor. A little more hipster and NH bearded than the other spots on the tour, a tad darker and a bit more grit, this is the most unique of all the aforementioned stops. The main differentiator is the fact that not only does Earth Eagle produce standard faire beer (IPA, porter) but also are the only folks I know actively involved in brewing Gruit. Again I turn to Beer Advocate:
Scottish Gruit / Ancient Herbed Ale
This category recognizes the ancient ales. Beers of yore, the way beers were probably brewed throughout the Middle Ages in Continental Europe. Gruit is mainly a concoction of : sweet gale (Myrica gale), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), and wild rosemary (Ledum palustre). Other herbs, spices, and berries might be used to create interesting and pleasant aroma and flavor of green- and herbal-tea. These ancient ales may be highly intoxicating and aphrodisiacal when consumed in significant quantity. Historically, it has been said to stimulate the mind, create euphoria, and enhance sexual drive. Other ancient style ales include those made with such ingredients like: heather, seaweed, pine, spruce, etc. Those interested in learning more should read “Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers” by Stephen Harrod Buhner.
So for example, try this one on for size. Feral Pears being a highlight, and of course, fresh catnip. These are all actual descroptions of EE’s website. You can’t make this $hit up.
And…THEM BONES, Dark Gruit. A robust porter based gruit with several pounds of beef bones added to the boil for a unique savory mouth feel. Also Sweet Gale, Galangal Root, and Burdock Root. A most satisfying quaff!
SoMe Brewing (Sothern Maine Brewing Co). York, Maine (just added 9/6/15)
The beers were very nice representation of a whole number of styles, not just the Proverbial IPA and DIPA iterations (which I have come to love) – we started with a couple Hefe styles, a Sour, and moved into a dark then the IPA’s to finish the flight. ‘Whoopie Pie Stout’ wins the name award, so Mainer. The beers were cold, good, well presented, but my partner noticed a bit of skunkiness that I may have agreed with, but I actually think, having been a fan of such suds as St Pauly Gir, Pislener Urquell, and Molson Canadian, I find that that a little skunk never hurt anyone (in beer). The Standout beer for me was the Double Dent, a 2x Hefe brewed with Peaches. It was lighter than one might expect for a double on the palate but was still refreshing and crisp. Yummy. The sour was a nice tart sour wheat, and much like Deciduous’ sample, something I am learning to love. They were all good, solid, Craft Beers. In fact, this would be the definition of a Craft brewery to me – someplace that tries every style, produces all different types of beer, and isn’t afraid to experiment. What I didn’t find is an overall world class beer like a Stoneface that was so well crafted it left you thirsty for more. But believe me, I only say that because those are big shoes to fill. The beers were nice and easy, cold, and available by the glass, growler/half as well as by samples both big and small.
And not only can you get glasses and Squealers of SoMe, they have snacks, and a real honest to God hot dog steaming machine. You know, the old school-bun-on-one-side-pork-in-the-other machines. The bar dude said he tried 13 different kinds before settling on one, and pound for pound this was a winner, with the perfect amount of snap. Bar banter begins afresh with people agreeing that no hot dog should ever be red, or mushy, that snap is imperative. I really wanted a hot dog but we had dinner plans that evening. I still want a hot dog.
SoMe does cool stuff. You can play cornhole outside, they have a SoME running club, live music, and is much more of a social type pub than a tasting room, something I love to see. You could hang out for a bit with some friends and enjoy yourself, and they made it feel like comfy neighborhood place. I didn’t see any brew equipment so if you are looking for that piece of the experience you may have to ask them to take you out back. But they did indeed have dog treats made from spent grains, Brownie’s Barkery, which my partner got suckered into. Our dogs would eat almost anything that wasn’t a vegetable but this is a great way to extend the usefulness of the raw materials that go into beer.
So not sure if it was the heat of Summer, the Maine weekend traffic or the vibe in the joint, but we got a bit giddy. One nice thing about SoMe’s brews is the aren’t all alcopops, they keep some on the crushable side, so I don’t think we were tipsy at all, I think we were just having a little fun. That, to me, sums up SoMe, it’s fun. Not too full of itself, not too serious, but a more social kind of place that seems like fun ranks in a priority. Perhaps I am wrong, perhaps they are going for the perfect brew, but to me, it came across as just a cool place to go to grab growlers, have a pint, and live life as though it wasn’t the ridiculously complicated ball of stress we seem so hell bent on making it. It’s definitely the kind of place you want to see succeed, that you can feel as part of your life. Not everyone is able to obtain that goal, I think they are on the right track.
And for now I leave you with a promise to add more as I go or produce a part two to cover those establishments I may have missed. Please share with your friends and keep building our great little community of beer fans and fanatics.