For nearly three decades, Tod Mott has been making one of the most sought-after beers in the world.
While working at Back Bay Brewing Co. in 1996, Mott released a stout called Boston Strangler. In the early 2000s, while brewing at the Portsmouth Brewery, that stout became Kate the Great. Beer Advocate would eventually name that beer the greatest in the United States and No. 2 in the world, and it’s no exaggeration to say Mott’s life hasn’t been quite the same since.
“That was the first time people really lined up for beer,” Mott said last week by phone. “We got kinda hammered. We weren’t ready for it, and it went in a day, which was just crazy.”
Today, Mott, his wife, Galen, and their son Woody run Tributary Brewing Co. in Kittery, Maine. And while the brewery receives accolades for its entire tap list (if you’re tired of going to breweries with 10 kinds of IPA and not much else, Tributary is for you), it’s a particular stout that still garners the most attention.
Mott left Portsmouth Brewery in 2012 but brought the recipe for Kate the Great (he wasn’t granted rights to the name) with him to Tributary, which opened in 2014. That beer, now called Mott the Lesser, is released twice annually.
I’ve never been to a Mott the Lesser release, but if you hang around other beer people long enough, good things tend to happen. And so it was that a friend texted recently saying he had a bottle of Mott the Lesser, asking if I’d like to try some. We agreed to meet at his office happy hour for the official tasting.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t excited to try the beer. Scarcity and storytelling are still powerful factors in our enjoyment of food and drinks, and Tod Mott is a good narrator.
“I’d decided that I tasted too many imperial stouts that tasted like bourbon,” Mott tells me on the afternoon of the tasting, when I ask what to expect. “If I want a stout, I want a stout that has a certain nuance, but not in my face.
“I’ve always been leaning towards nuance and balance, rather than extreme.”
My friend said we’d be drinking from a bottle of the spring 2021 release of Mott the Lesser, and one thing to know about that beer is that it isn’t exactly what Mott wanted. Typically, the finished version of Mott the Lesser is a blend of fresh stout with beer aged four months in spirit-soaked barrels. But ahead of this release there had been a leak in a barrel, causing some beer to spoil.
“We had to dump it,” says Mott. “It was totally heartbreaking.”
Instead of adding in newly aged beer, small portions of every previous batch of Mott the Lesser were added to the brew. And I could definitely tell there was less barrel-aged beer in my pour of Mott the Lesser than Mott had originally intended. Still, the beer was a knockout, with ripe cherries and smoke on the nose, chewy but not syrupy malt in the mouth, and a dry finish. This is not the marshmallow-stuffed, peanut butter-infused pastry stout of the moment. It’s beer, rich and satisfying and everything you’d want in a cold-weather brew.
I’ve also got a quest now, to try Mott the Lesser at the source. In fact, the fall 2021 version is currently on tap in Kittery, though Mott isn’t sure it will last the week.
Legendary beers are like that.