A beginner dives into New England’s craft beer scene
NORTH HAMPTON, N.H. — I looked at the decorative wire arch holding four glasses of beer sitting before me and took a deep breath. My single-day beer consumption had reached nearly 40 glasses. They were (mostly) small glasses, but at this moment I would have been quite content if I never saw another drop of this barley pop again.
"Look at how beautiful the color is on this one," said Howie Rubin, general manager and wine buyer at Bauer Wine & Spirits on Newbury Street. He held up the glass of deep crimson beer brewed with beets at Throwback Brewery here in North Hampton, before taking a healthy sip. "You can taste the earthy quality from the beets."
I dutifully raised my glass, wishing I had worn my drinking slacks (stretch waist with a little give in the seat) and tried to differentiate the flavor of the beet beer from the 42 other beers I had consumed that day. Rubin, acting as my Sherpa, was patiently guiding me through the booming craft brew scene in southern New Hampshire and southern Maine.
I nodded along with his expert beer assessments the way I nod when my friends who work in pharmaceuticals explain chemical compounds. I couldn't really pick out the full earthiness of the beet in the beer, but I didn't want to disappoint Rubin by letting on what a loblolly I truly am.
You may have gathered by now that my knowledge of beer could fit on a gnat's back with plenty of room to spare.
I was giving this craft brewery tour a whirl not because I run about 15 years behind on trends — it's more like 20 years behind — but because I was tired of feeling excluded from deep and intense late-night conversations about ales, lagers, and stouts. When I first heard the word gruit, I assumed it was some kind of garden tool. Spoiler: It's not a garden tool.
To me, beer was that horrible witch's brew that my dad let me taste when I was 8. I recall that I sipped it, made a face, spit it out, and returned to redecorating my G.I. Joe combat camper with bits of flocked, trompe l'oeil wallpaper and a remnant of shag carpet. That bitter beer memory stayed with me long after the interior of G.I. Joe's combat camper fell out of fashion. When I was finally old enough to drink, I vowed not to waste valuable imbibing time on beer.
But a funny thing happened between when I was 8 and the present day. Beer got a lot more interesting and sophisticated. Budweiser may have tried to mock and emasculate the craft beer movement in its 2015 Super Bowl ad with the snippy line "Let them sip their pumpkin peach ale, we'll be brewing us some golden suds," but the campaign backfired, for good reason.
After my weekend of tasting craft beer, I'd take that hypothetical pumpkin peach ale over my dad's old suds any day. I was amazed at some of the unique brews I encountered on my boozy tour. I tried everything from a cinnamon toast (better than it sounds) to a craft beer with tones of toffee and chocolate. I did not spit out the beer with hints of toffee and chocolate.
Rubin brought me to southern New Hampshire and Maine because of the states' booming craft beer scene — someone I chatted up was even bold enough to call it a "brew-volution." New Hampshire passed a law in 2011 that made it possible for anyone with a dream and $24o to buy a nanobrewery license to open shop. A nanobrewery is a designation given to brewers that produce fewer than 2,000 barrels a year. Maine also enacted similar legislation.
But here's the kicker: These nano operations can serve beer in tasting rooms, and they're not required to serve food. Without high overhead, establishments such Garrison City Beer Works in Dover and Stoneface Brewing Co. in Newington are popping up in places as varied as stylish downtown storefronts to cavernous, bare bones industrial buildings. These aren't bars where you hang around and get lacquered. These are small places where you pop in and try a few samples or a unique flight of beer. At least that's my foggy memory from the two-day binge.
"We sold our first beer in July 2011," said Annette Lee, head brewer and cofounder at Throwback Brewery. Throwback was one of New Hampshire's first nanobrewers and has since expanded into a restaurant. "Within the next year we saw several breweries start, and since then it seems like there's another 10 or so opening every year."
Rubin and I started our tour at 7th Settlement in Dover, a brew pub that was crowdfunded. Clearly New Hampshire residents like beer so much they'll dig deep in their pockets to ensure good breweries are always at hand. Cofounder David Boynton gave me a tour of his brewing operation, attempting to explain different barleys, hops, and the fermentation process to me. I think he recognized the vacuous look in my eyes because he stopped the tour, whisked me to the bar, and set a generous beer flight in front of me.
While I was trying to make out the difference between the Nitro Cream Ale and the 1792 Milk Stout, Boynton told me something that I heard repeated all weekend.
"It's not really a competition between the breweries here," he said. "When we hear of a new place opening, I think it makes everyone happy because it gives people another reason to come out and visit all of us."
One of the brewers I spoke with said each new brewery means there's an opportunity to meet a new friend. I was beginning to feel as if I were visiting the craft beer scene of Stepford, Conn. But more breweries does mean more unique tastes (I'm talking about you, passion fruit), and more reasons for people to hit the beer trail. The latest New Hampshire brewery maps list 43 locations, most of them south of Concord. Maine's beer trail includes more than 50. Devotees of these brewers carefully follow social media and wait for limited beer releases and line up before they sell out.
The most successful of the craft brewers, such as Earth Eagle Brewings in Portsmouth, have grown from stores selling home brewing equipment to bustling breweries and tasting rooms specializing in gruits, the non-gardening tools. For those of you who don't know, gruits are old-fashioned herb mixtures that were used for flavor before hops became de rigueur.
I was particularly fond of the offerings at Earth Eagle, maybe because the flavors were so unique and mostly lacking the harshness of hops. You IPA lovers will roll your eyes, but I found the hops-heavy beers more bitter than a Liz Taylor -Richard Burton divorce.
The growing number of breweries has also prompted a new industry of brewery van tours. Unless you have a designated driver, it's a smart (and legal) alternative that allows you to try some of those southern New Hampshire stouts and malts.
"In Boston you have the mega-macrobreweries which all have their unique identities but are definitely more in competition with each other," said Allo Gilinsky, who runs the Pints of Portsmouth tour. "But in a 20-mile radius of the Seacoast region, you have a dozen small taprooms and brew pubs that all want to showcase their product, but they also don't mind sharing recipes and tips with each other."
Gilinsky picks up clients in Somerville, but all the tastings take place in Portsmouth.
According to the market research company Mintel, sales of craft beer reached $20 billion in 2014, doubling sales in just five years. Mintel forecasted that number will reach over $36 billion by 2019. In its research, it found that 55 percent of respondents said they were willing to spend more for craft beer than for non-craft.
I think Rubin and I contributed a fair amount toward the multibillion-dollar craft beer industry during our tasting weekend. Rubin is a true craft beer personal trainer. Just when I thought I could take no more, he'd suggest another place that I must experience.
By the end of it all, I was overwhelmed, tipsy, and ready to take a monthlong beer breather. I could feel the beginnings of a beer gut, but the minor weight gain was worth the knowledge that I had gained. Beer snobs beware, I can now intelligently discuss the differences between a malt and a porter, and at the very least I can feign knowledge on the topic of gruits.