HAMPTON — Napa Valley has nothing on New Hampshire. Sure, you can ride a limo from California winery to winery as you hold forth on the nuances of New World pinot noir. But only in New Hampshire can you hop on Greta the Growler Getta, a.k.a. the New Hampshire Beer Bus, and debate the merits of Cascade versus Golding hops as you roam for foam.
The growing craft beer movement in the Seacoast area prompted David Adams and Mark Chag to begin offering brewery tours last April. “I’d been taking my family and friends to visit breweries,” says Adams, “and I figured why not take more people? I wanted to make it like a city tour — but with beer.” Granite State Growler Tours was born.
Friends since childhood, Adams and Chag share a love of beer and an easy rapport. Adams, the company owner, is the driver and straight man, while history buff Chag plays raconteur. Greta, by the way, is a 14-passenger van, not a bus. A big cooler holds bottles of cold water (drinking alcohol aboard is not allowed) and can accommodate any growlers that passengers purchase along the way.
Roughly four-hour excursions usually make four or five stops for private tours and tastings. On a recent Saturday morning, our group included a Greater Boston couple who had chosen the tour over the Red Sox duck boat parade, a local fellow who had won a ticket and decided to bring two friends, and newlyweds who had received tickets as a wedding gift (the perfect choice for a couple whose registry included obscure brews).
Just to make things interesting, we began at Sea Hagg Distillery, where husband and wife team Heather Hughes and Ron Vars started making distilled spirits two years ago. “We’re going to start the day right with rum for breakfast,” Chag announced as we made the quick trip to the distillery. “In the 1800s, rum was essential to the daily workday. It was thought to increase worker productivity so they would drink it all day.” Chag is probably the champ at his local pub’s trivia night.
Hughes and Vars greeted us with hot buttered rum mixed with local cider. “Heather and I are rum nuts,” Vars said before ushering us into the distillation room with a copper alembic still built in Portugal. “It’s inefficient, but it lets the flavor come through,” he explained, describing the distillation as “hot and fast.” Confirming what we learned in school about the Triangle Trade, Vars said that “rum in its most basic form is molasses, water, and yeast.”
After the tour of the small facility, Hughes and Vars offered tastes of their full product line. As the self-taught distillers expand beyond rum to fruit brandies and eaux-de-vie, they have been making connections with New England fruit growers. They buy blueberries from Jonesport, Maine, and strawberries from local farmers for flavored brandies, and apples from nearby orchards for their apple eau-de-vie.
The local theme continued as we piled back into Greta to head to Throwback Brewery, where founders Annette Lee and Nicole Carrier began selling beer not quite three years ago. “We founded the brewery to satisfy our passions for home brewing and supporting local growers,” Carrier said as she led us on a tour of the three-barrel brewery. “It’s a glorified home brewing operation. Our goal is to use products from within a 200-mile range.” That includes the grains, many of which are malted by a relative in Western Massachusetts.
Lee, who calls herself “an MIT nerd,” handles the actual brewing. The dedication to experimentation produces some unusual ales, including a porter made with grain smoked with applewood, and a “maple-kissed wheat porter” malt with local syrup and wheat from Brookford Farm in Canterbury, N.H. While we visited, people streamed in to fill their growlers. To meet the demand, Throwback will move to a larger facility at an old farm, complete with donkey, next summer or fall.
Adams must have sensed we were getting hungry. Once we were back in the van, he gave each of us a big beer pretzel made that morning with Ragged Neck Rye beer, a product of Blue Lobster Brewing Co., our next stop. Perhaps the fanciest of the tasting rooms, Blue Lobster has a definite air of whimsy with its long blue vinyl bar, and bright blue and red walls. The beers are a quirky lot, ranging from the Gold Claw Pale Ale with unusual notes of pine and grapefruit to the spicy Black Claw Stout with overtones of coriander and smoked cardamom. (It would be perfect with Indian food.)
We never had time to get thirsty. Our longest drive was about 15 minutes into Portsmouth. Chag spent the transit asserting New Hampshire’s claim that the American Revolution really began on Dec. 14, 1774, when a group of Colonials fired on Fort William & Mary in Portsmouth Harbor. “It all started with patriots drinking beer in a tavern and complaining about taxes.” He also recounted George Washington’s 1789 visit to Portsmouth — “his first stop was the Globe Tavern” — and quickly sketched the life of the Granite State beer hero, Frank Jones (1832-1902). The Portsmouth mayor and two-term US representative owned Frank Jones Brewery, one of the largest in the country in the late 19th century.
Our downtown Portsmouth destination, Earth Eagle Brewings, was far more modest — a nanobrewery hitched to a homebrew supply shop. “We started as a one-barrel brewhouse,” said Alex McDonald, who co-owns the homebrew shop with his wife, Gretchen, and the brewery with Gretchen’s brother George “Butch” Heilshorn. “Now we do two barrels. Because we are small, we can be experimental. Customers come to see what’s new.”
Six beers were listed on tap on a chalkboard at the bar, and the tiny room was overflowing, with some of us sitting in the open windows. Earth Eagle’s most unusual brews are gruits — sour beers made with dried herbs rather than hops. (Butch’s wife is the brewery herbalist and the brewers work with a local forager during the summer.) Ingredients like sweet gale, hawthorn berries, wood betony, and reindeer lichen help drinkers channel their inner hobbits.
On the return, we drove quickly past Stoodley’s Tavern, where tax-weary patriots fomented rebellion, and stopped at the abandoned red brick mill buildings where a marble inset announced “Built 1884 by Frank Jones.” Greta’s cooler was full of growlers, but Chag asked if we were up for a final stop. Absolutely. We pulled into Top Shelf Brews across the street from our departure point. The shop stocks more national and international brands than we could count — and gave tour members a discount. It was a world of brews, but we had tasted local products that held their own with the best.
GRANITE STATE GROWLER TOURS Friday through Sunday, departing from the Community Oven, 845 Lafayette St., Hampton, N.H. $55 per person, reservations recommended. 603-964-0284, www.nhbeerbus.com