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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Beers of New England -or- Is the US Becoming Less Regional?

Travel posts are always hard. Most of my readership lives on the West Coast, so it matters little what amazing beer I drink when I'm in New England. Anyone who happens to have access to the beer I discuss, however, doesn't need my Johnny-come-lately evaluation. So rather than just going through the beers, let's put it in context: how are the beers of the East Coast evolving with regard to those on the West Coast?

I first started visiting New England in the 90s, and the beer I found there was different from West Coast beer. It was more traditionally English--the beer styles were mostly English and brewed at English strengths and with English-inflected spicy hopping. This may have been because I was influenced by the especially British Maine breweries, Gritty McDuff's, Shipyard, and Geary's. But even in other regional breweries, where Cascade hops were deployed, the overall character was much more toward balance and drinkability. Harpoon IPA, one of my faves, is a modest 5.9% and 42 IBUs (all Cascade). This struck me as totally appropriate--New England has much about it that reminds me of old England, and so I was pleased to see the beer did, too.

This complemented my experience from earlier in the decade, when I lived in Madison, Wisconsin. There, craft breweries produced a whole lot more lager, and their ales were lighter and less fruity than the West Coast examples. Again, appropriate for a region settled in large measure by Germans.

Fast-forward to 2010. This year my brewery sample size was just two: Portsmouth Brewery in New Hampshire and Sunday River Brewpub in beautiful Bethel, Maine. However, my brother-in-law also brought up quite a selection from his area, near DC. That gave me a slightly broader sense of what was happening on the East Coast. What I observed led me to wonder if we weren't beginning to see a nationalization of craft brewing.

Let's start where I did, at Portsmouth Brewing. It's the lesser-known half of a New Hampshire duo that also includes Smuttynose. The latter is a production brewery, the former a brewpub, and both are fairly venerable by craft standards (16 and 19 years). For some reason, I've never stopped in at Portsmouth Brewery, despite passing through the city every visit to New England. That will change. The place is an absolutely perfect pub--lots of character, warmth, and charm. When you think of pub, this is the place that comes to mind. It also boasts a pretty amazing beer list and well above-average food. (I had the mussels, a house specialty. They come in a traditional preparation or a curried version. I went curried and was shocked and delighted when they delivered the plate containing 4-5 dozen.)

The beers vary, but here's what was on tap when we visited: a blonde, IPA, imperial IPA, dunkel gose, smoked dunkelweizen, and oatmeal stout. (They also had some Smuttynose beers.) Oregonians, ask yourselves: doesn't that sound familiar? These beers were perfectly consonant with the varieties being brewed on the West Coast. Moreover, they were very well made.

The gose was less lactic but saltier than Oregon versions--a nice alternative and it seemed pretty authentic (sour mash, no lacto). The smoked dunkel was strange--hand crab apple smoked malt was sharp but clean (no meaty flavors) and melded nicely with the surprising phenols from the weizen yeast. The IPA was vibrantly bitter but one-dimensional, while the double IPA was multilayered and accomplished. (Van Havig would have liked the aroma, which was identical to tinned pineapple.) The huge winner was the oatmeal stout, with 30% oats in the grist. It was served on nitro and the head was mousse-like. And not in the sense that it evoked mousse--it was seriously thick and full of substance. It had a bit of roast and slightly vinous quality. Amazing beer.

So, to recap: two IPAs, two experimental beers, a blonde for the beginners, and a stout. Tres West Coast. (In another national trend, they release an imperial stout in bottles in March called Kate the Great and it produces a scrum before selling out in minutes. The brewer here, Tod Mott, seems to favor stouts.)

Well, fair enough. I suspected I'd just stumbled on one of those rare, exceptional breweries, and they had the qualities that mark all great breweries: broad interests, clever insights, and fun, experimental beer. But then we traveled on to Bethel, Maine, where the local is Sunday River Brewpub. It's located just down the hill from a ski resort and gets lots of business in the early afternoons, as ski bums come in to whet their whistles. A far more common type of pub, it features a regular line-up with just a few rotating specialties, and these seem to recur.

The regular beers include the flagship and my fave, a nicely-balanced, spicy IPA. I nodded sagely--a classic New England IPA. Except they also have a "NW-style" pale and a double IPA. (Also an alt and a porter--and my in-laws all drank the porter, which illustrates what I knew, that they are good and wholesome people.) The pale wasn't great--it was a bit worty and the hops were overstressed and weedy. The DIPA was a monster, though--10%, and hopped such that it would take no crap from anything brewed out here. So, to recap: three hoppy beers, an alt, and a porter. Again, Oregonians, see anything familiar?

One should be cautious about making broad generalizations based on such scant info. But what the hell, let's be incautious. I was dumbstruck to find Portsmouth pouring a gose. This is among the most recent of the Portland trends, and here it is in New Hampshire, too. Imperial IPAs, once scorned and derided by brewers elsewhere, have become standards--even, obviously, in staid New England.

One of the things that had protected regions from outside influence was an insularity both among breweries, but also customers. But twenty years on, customers and breweries both encounter lots of cross-fertilization from other regions of the country. This is probably both a function of the maturation of consumer palates, but also reflects the desire of brewers to experiment. It may just be the way of things, but I lament it a little. Finding a gose is cool, but when you're really looking for, say a cask bitter brewed with Fuggles, it's a little disappointing not to find it. On the other hand, things change. Maybe these are just fads and customers will demand a return to the types of beers New England made when I first started visiting.

Either way, I plan to research the trend.


  1. I find it interesting you're surprised the East Coast is doing a beer like a Gose. Smoked Dunkle with Crab apple wood? Yea! I'm all over that!

    Word travels fast in the beer world. Anything new on the horizon is quickly jumped on across the nation. IPA's? IIPA's? Nothing unique to the brewing world across the nation. Notoriety and prestige these days are marked by Mother of Invention not repeated regurgitation of the same ol thing. Of course, the Doc has been preaching this for years. ;-}

    Sounds like you had a slight eye-opening experience. :-0

  2. With 1,600 or so small breweries in the country, I don't find this surprising at all. Not to mention Facebook and Twitter and the sharing of information that goes on within the beer community through these channels. The best part, in my opinion, is that it is not leading to homogenization, but to diversity in the tastes of beer as each brewer strives to create a distinct version of a given style.

  3. Glad you liked Portsmouth. I feel much the same way you do about it, although I think it's just as important the way that it's nestled into the adorable main-street of Portsmouth NH - a quintessential stereotypical New England town. I agree with you on the Oatmeal Stout, it's one of the best I've ever had.

  4. I dig the stout as well! Next time your here head up to North Conway and check out The Mout Mountain Brewery. ooooo we, you will be in for a treat!
    Great beers, great food and always great people!

    Little more of a hike, but the end result is well worthy of it.

    Love the blog man!

  5. Portsmouth's beers are great--in a lot of ways, I like the more easy-drinking East Coast IPA's.


    Glad you like Portsmouth, but I don't know that I'd describe it as the stereotypical, except maybe for tourists! Portsmouth is in a class with Portland, ME (although Portland is grittier), Burlington, Brattleboro, Northampton, etc. Pretty town though.

    Jeff--get to Novare Res?