I LOVE BEER, and I’ve got the belly to prove it. But my best friend, Adam, is a bona fide beer snob. About 10 years ago, he began buying expensive, fancy bottles of beer that almost resembled wine bottles — in size, price, and alcohol by volume (ABV), not to mention pretentious descriptors like “nose’’ and “mouth feel.” I thought he was nuts, but he had simply arrived early to what would become a raging keg party: the craft beer craze.
Sales of craft beer have risen by double-digit percentages for eight of the past 10 years. Meanwhile, the number of breweries in the United States more than tripled between 2009 and 2016, to an all-time high of 5,005 (and rising). New England is home to some of the movement’s most successful pioneers — Boston’s Samuel Adams and Harpoon, among them — as well as its newest hop heroes, like Trillium in Boston, Tree House in Monson, and Alchemist and Hill Farmstead, both in Vermont.
Visiting these breweries to sip suds from the source and take home limited-edition, small-batch brews is a rite of passage among many craft beer fans, who are often willing to brave long lines for a few bottles of their favorite hazy IPA. It’s the kind of road trip Adam and I have long dreamed about — except the part about waiting in line. And, well, the double IPAs. Our craft beer palates were mostly honed on balanced lagers, malty stouts, and Belgian ales, not the hyper-hopped New England IPAs that have made the likes of Alchemist and Tree House famous.
On the advice of our friend Jason Notte, a beer columnist at MarketWatch, we decide to skip mud season in the mountains and instead hug the coast, where he says the breweries have a chummy blue-collar feel. In particular, he steers us toward Portland, Maine: “Allagash is the best beer in New England, hands down.” As longtime fans of its flagship Belgian-style witbier, Allagash White, we don’t disagree — but figure we ought to double-check, just to be sure.
WE BEGIN OUR JOURNEY northward with lunch in Ipswich at the Brewer’s Table, an inviting beam-and-brick restaurant opened last year at the 25-year-old (downright grandfatherly in craft beer years) Ipswich Ale Brewery (978-356-3182, ipswichalebrewery.com), a few steps from the town center. The fried fish sandwich and the pulled pork, marinated in oatmeal stout, are both quite tasty — but, of course, the 16 beers on tap are the real attraction. We split two flights — the classics and the specials — and, being the first beers of a freewheeling Friday afternoon, they taste superb. However, it’s slightly annoying that you’re not allowed to create your own flight, instead forced to choose from a preselected menu.
If we had more time, we would have paid a visit to Cape Ann Brewing Co. (978-282-7399, capeannbrewing.com) in Gloucester, whose flagship Fisherman’s Brew is a well-balanced amber lager. Touring the small brewery is free, and food is served inside the homey pub and on a deck overlooking Gloucester Harbor.
Instead we continue north and decide on a pit stop at Tributary Brewing Co. (207-703-0093, tributarybrewingcompany.com) in Kittery, Maine, founded by veteran brewer Tod Mott, who in 1993 created Harpoon IPA. Despite its strip mall setting, the interior space is relaxing and friendly, and a 4-ounce pour of sweet and roasty mocha milk stout or crisp pale ale will run you just $1.50.
From there, we head straight for Portland, where the sheer density of beer makers and brewpubs allows you to ditch the car and bounce among breweries by bus, taxi, or on foot. For all its newfound cachet, brewing is still an industrial process, and this city’s exposed-brick warehouse-and-wharves aesthetic provides the perfect backdrop. “The Portland, Maine, area is without a doubt one of the three or four bucket-list areas for any fan of small-batch, traditional American beer,” says Tom Acitelli, author of The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution.
We end up staying by the waterfront at the Marriott Courtyard (207-780-6000, marriott.com), which is surprisingly hip and affordable, given its corporate parentage. Our room looks out over Portland Harbor, a working waterfront with an industrial look and, sometimes, aroma to match: At low tide, it smells like salty clams outside our hotel. Personally, I love it, but consider booking a few blocks deeper into downtown if waking up to the sound of seagulls and the smell of the sea puts you off.
If you’re a fan of fonts, the Press Hotel (207-808-8800, thepresshotel.com) — the former longtime home of the Portland Press Herald newspaper — embraces its journalistic roots with playful newsroom references and a style we’ll dub “typewriter chic.” The Portland Regency (207-774-4200, theregency.com) is a historic hotel smack in the heart of Old Port’s boisterous bar and restaurant scene, while the Danforth Inn (207-879-8755, danforthinn.com) offers classy digs in the more residential West End neighborhood. (Just make sure that when you reserve your hotel, you select the right Portland: Two front-desk employees tell us people often show up with a room reserved 3,000 miles across the country in Oregon.)
After a 20-minute Uber ride across town, we arrive at Industrial Way, home to four breweries: Allagash, Geary’s, Foundation, and Austin Street. Our first stop is Allagash Brewing Co. (800-330-5385, allagash.com), which offers free tours (though booking ahead is usually necessary) and four free samples for those 21 and older. Sipping St. Klippenstein, a deceptively strong Belgian stout aged in bourbon barrels, we get to see where and how some of our favorite beers are born. From the gigantic stainless steel vats where the wort is boiled to the fermentation tanks spewing bubbles like Jacuzzi jets, to the elaborate mechanics of the bottling equipment, to the hundreds of oak barrels where specialty beers are aged or even fermented only by naturally occurring airborne yeast, it’s part factory, part laboratory, and part fantasy. (Did I mention you get to drink free beer along the way?)
The enormous facility is the result of several expansions, and we’re treated to traces of the company’s modest origins along the tour route. A small, painted outline marks the site of founder Rob Tod’s first brewing equipment, while other Allagash artifacts include the original mash tun — a jury-rigged industrial ice cream mixer bought used from Ben & Jerry’s.
The spacious taproom, meanwhile, has the welcoming warmth of reclaimed pallet wood and oak barrels, and a new outdoor beer garden sits ready for spring sun. When our tour wraps up, we try the other three beers on the day’s tasting menu, including Allagash White, Hoppy Table Beer, and Ganache, an experimental brew with a sour raspberry tartness.
As a producer for Antiques Roadshow, my buddy Adam travels all over the country and visits breweries at every stop. But even he leaves wowed; we both feel like Charlie Bucket at Willy Wonka’s candy factory. “Allagash is the nicest facility I’ve ever seen,” he says. “The only way the tour could have been better is if Rob Tod came out after my last sample, said he was giving me the factory, and we flew over Portland in a glass elevator.”
It’s a 10-minute stumble to D.L. Geary Brewing Co. (207-878-2337, gearybrewing.com). Founded in 1983, Geary’s calls itself New England’s first microbrewery, and its small taproom shows its age a bit compared with Allagash’s dazzle. But the beers are fabulous, including a number of pilot brews only available on-site, such as Black Bear Dark Lager and Wingman Porter.
From Geary’s, we take a short Uber ride to Bissell Brothers (207-808-8258, bissellbrothers.com), which has grown dramatically since its founding in 2013. The brewery and taproom on Thompson’s Point — which shares a redeveloped industrial complex with an upscale winery, a distillery, and a fried chicken shack — boasts a mellow mix of bearded hipsters, happy toddlers, and cheery dogs, all unwinding in the lofty space. These guys love hops, though, and the bitterness is inescapable, even in traditionally maltier styles like umbra oatmeal stout. Adam and I struggle to find a beer we enjoy. “That’s not to say they weren’t making great beers,” Adam says. “They’re just making great beer I hate.”
For dinner, we catch a ride to the King’s Head (207-805-1252, thekingsheadportland.com), which pours dozens of beers from local breweries alongside bar food like sriracha and honey chicken wings. After dinner, Adam decides to turn in, but I’ve got some energy left to amble around the streets of the Old Port; it’s a Friday night, and Portland is bouncing. While some raucous twentysomethings are crowding into sports bars, most people are scouting the array of excellent restaurants and craft beer bars.
The cozy, dimly lit Maps Bar (facebook.com/portlandmaine.maps) speaks to my dual love of beer and geography, but I end up at Portland Mash Tun (facebook.com/portlandmashtun). It makes a great spot for the last drink — any hungry beer fan would feel right at home among its brick walls, beer-hall tables, and giant chalkboard listing some 30 fresh taps.
THE NEXT MORNING, feeling exactly like two 40-year-olds who drank lots of beer, we decide fresh air and a full brunch are in order. We walk up to Local 188 (207-761-7909, local188.com) for a Spanish spin on breakfast classics, served weekends only, and the antique-chic decor has the feel of a trendy friend’s loft apartment. In an epicurean dreamland like Portland, the early bird gets the brunch: By the time we leave, we have to squeeze out the door past a growing line. The wait for comfort food at nearby Hot Suppa (207-871-5005, hotsuppa.com) is even longer, even though the place serves breakfast all week long. If you don’t have time for a sit-down breakfast (or the patience to wait for one), pick up coffee and morning treats at Tandem Coffee + Bakery (207-805-1887, tandemcoffee.com). “To leave Portland without a cortado and a piece of pie, cookie, or loaded biscuit is criminal,” says Chad Robertson, founder of food blog Concrete Chow.
With bellies full of eggs and potatoes, we start another day of brewery hopping with a short drive north to Freeport, home of Maine Beer Co. (207-221-5711, mainebeercompany.com). Pulling up to the solar-paneled brewery, we notice a small line outside; hop lovers flock here some Saturday mornings for ticketed releases of rare, hard-to-get beers like Dinner, a coveted double IPA. The tasting room is new and brightly charming but also surprisingly small, given the brewery’s popularity. Lunch, their flagship brew, is a well-balanced IPA; I try Dinner to see what the fuss is about, and, no surprise, it’s brutally bitter for my taste. Our favorite draft of the flight is Mean Old Tom Nitro, a creamier version of their popular stout.
After popping into L.L. Bean (877-755-2326, llbean.com) — you simply cannot have enough flannel on a craft brewery tour — we head back down the coast properly outfitted for our next stop: Banded Horn Brewing Co. (207-602-1561, bandedhorn.com) in Biddeford, Maine. Tucked into a converted mill near the mouth of the Saco River, Banded Horn’s taproom puts us at ease even faster than a sip of the Jolly Woodsman Coffee Stout. The loft-like space is adorned with string lights and features foosball and Ping-Pong tables, cornhole, and a handful of retro arcade games like Gauntlet and Hang On. While Biddeford itself is hardly a must-see destination, the Portland Pie Co. (207-286-3222, portlandpie.com) next door to the brewery pairs tasty pizzas with local beers. Nearby Elements (207-710-2011, elementsbookscoffeebeer.com) fuses four of my favorite things into one cafe: books, coffee, music, and an excellent beer list.
Farther down I-95, we stop for lunch at Smuttynose Brewing Co. (603-436-4026, smuttynose.com) in Hampton, New Hampshire. Both the brewery and the Hayseed Restaurant (603-601-8300, smuttynose.com) next door are jampacked, thanks in part to a brewery tour bus. While we wait for a table, we check out the massive brewery and pick up cases of last season’s beer at half price. To sample beers at the brewery, you must first buy a drink card ($4) at the register.
In addition to some great fish and chips, Hayseed has far more beers on tap than at the brewery. I appreciate the little flavor indicators on the beer menu, too — H for hoppy, T for tart, and so on — that point me in the right direction. Shoals is a classic pale ale, while Really Old Brown Dog, a stronger version of their reliably delicious and mellow brown ale, goes down far too easily given its double-digit ABV. The 2013 Scotch ale, however, tastes more like actual Scotch than the Scottish ale I was imagining.
While we had to bypass nearby Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on this trip, it makes a nice addition or alternative to Portland for your beer geek getaway. There are plenty of places downtown to get a craft draft and good grub, from Smutty’s sister Portsmouth Brewery (603-431-1115, portsmouthbrewery.com) to Earth Eagle Brewings (603-502-2244, eartheaglebrewings.com). If you tip back one too many, spend the night at the smartly decorated Ale House Inn (603-431-7760, alehouseinn.com) — it was once a brewery.
Our final stop is much closer to home, at Notch Brewing (978-238-9060, notchbrewing.com) in Salem. Opened in 2016, the taproom features an all-season beer garden perched on the South River, beer snacks like soft pretzels, and a vintage skee-ball machine. We join a 5 p.m. tour with brewer Chris Lohring, who co-founded Notch in 2010 with a focus on session beers — lower-alcohol beers you can drink back-to-back without falling over. That contrasts with the obsession over higher-strength imperial styles, which Lohring chalks up to experimentation. “I think when something is new, there’s a tendency to try and push the limits with it,” he says. “Like, how strong can we make a beer?”
In 2005, Lohring had an epiphany while visiting the Czech Republic. “In all these traditional beer cultures, there’s always a low-alcohol beer — and they’re really good. I realized you can brew a complex session beer; it’s just harder to do, because you can’t hide behind the stronger flavors.”
A rotating guest tap showcases stronger ales brewed on-site by friends such as Malden’s Idle Hands, but Notch’s core lineup falls squarely in the 4 percent ABV range, which suits me just fine and makes driving sometime in the near future a more reasonable proposition (though the commuter rail is nearby). The rauchbier smoked lager and tmavy Czech dark lager are deeply flavored but not at all heavy and leave me with my wits about myself. I’m so impressed with the latter that I get a giant quart-size can to go: The bartender fills it up from the tap and uses a canning machine to cap it right at the bar. Mesmerized by the process, and enamored by the loungey taproom and the balanced beer, Adam and I realize we’ll be returning before long. “There’s something about getting your beer at the source,” Lohring says. “It’s a tradition that’s really come back in favor.” Lucky for us New Englanders, that source is often just a short road trip away.