Carla Jean Lauter

The Beer Babe

’Scuse Me While I Kiss the Rye

Of the four primary ingredients in beer — malt, hops, yeast and water — the selection of malts is probably the least understood by beer drinkers. It’s relatively easy to distinguish the effects of various hop varieties in juicy IPAs, but more difficult to discern, or even learn more about, the malts. Take, for example, beers in which rye is used as one of the malts, in addition to the more traditional barley.

Rye is a type of grass that was once considered a weed among the fields of barley and wheat, but has long since been used as a grain for breads, cereals and animal feed. It’s also very popular for making whiskey, and it produces a spicier finished product than the sweeter corn-based mash used to make bourbon. In beer, rye is a versatile, albeit somewhat unruly, ingredient that adds complexity and additional flavors.

The flavor I’ve always associated with rye, being born in New York, is that of rye bread. But the rye bread of home is loaded with caraway seeds, which impart a bitter, almost licorice-like flavor to the bread, and that is not what rye tastes like. When I began tasting beers containing rye, I errantly found myself searching for more of that distinctly licorice-like flavor in each sip. The taste of rye is slightly nutty, peppery and crisp — closer to the flavors of pumpernickel bread.

When used in beer, rye imparts a subtle spiciness. I often detect its presence as an “earthy” note. Depending how much rye is used — brewers typically use between 10 and 30 percent rye among the malt, and 50 percent or more in some traditional German beer styles — its flavor may be distinct or just a twinge of taste among others. Because this grain can provide a foundation for the rest of the brew, rye can be added to almost any style of beer.

Rye lovers may wonder why brewers don’t brew entirely with rye as the malt. The problem is the lack of husks. Without husks to move around in the mash, it becomes nearly impossible to sparge (the process of spraying water on the spent grain), and the mash becomes a thick, concrete-like porridge. Brewers who put large quantities of rye in a beer need to be prepared to lose a few wooden mash paddles in the process.

Rye beers are not uncommon in Maine, and the more you search for them, the more you’ll find. Rising Tide’s session rye, Daymark, is a year-round offering that’s my go-to beer when I don’t know what to bring to a house party. Its ABV is a manageable 5.5%, it has a nice earthy note to complement its bright lemony hops, and it’s interesting enough to stir some conversation.

Bissell Brothers’ LUX is a bit harder to get — it’s released in cans on a rotating schedule. LUX earned the number three spot on Beer Advocate’s list of Best Rye Beers (among hundreds of user-submitted reviews). Its flavors are punchier than Daymark’s – a tropical explosion of hops layered atop the rye-malt base.

On tap at Flight Deck Brewing, on Brunswick Landing (where the Naval Air Station used to be), are two rye beers of completely different styles. The Wright Stuff (named for the Wright Brothers) is a pale, crisp beer that pulls back the hops a bit to let the rye do its thing. Slightly cloudy, this beer stands out among traditional pale ales, and at 4.5% ABV, it remains very drinkable. If you prefer the darker side, Rye Wing features chocolate malt in addition to the rye. The rye imparts a roasted, spicy flavor, but doesn’t contribute to the heaviness of the beer, thus providing the best of dark-beer flavors in a lighter package (and also a reasonable 6.2% ABV).

If you’re crazy for rye, the traditional German Roggenbier is for you. Made with more than 50 percent rye, this style makes the grass the star of the show. Gneiss Brewing Company, in Limerick, brews a Roggenbier each spring called Stryeation. They use 70 percent rye and 30 percent wheat, then finish it with a little bit of German Noble hops. The result of this difficult process is a smooth, dark, spicy beauty.

As brewers continue to seek ways to innovate, varying specialty malts is one way they can “spice up” their recipes without going completely non-traditional. We’ve already seen the trends of adding additional flavors or ingredients (like fruits, etc.). Using rye is a more technical way for brewers to create unique beers, and well worth taking some time to explore.


Originally published in the December 2017 issue of The Bollard

The Freshmen Thirteen

Augusta. Kittery. Bridgton. Ellsworth. Machias. These places have something in common: their first brewery recently opened. In fact, over a dozen breweries have opened in Maine since last November, and only one (Ebenezer’s Brewpub, in Brunswick) has closed. This rate of growth is impressive, but it’s as much a story about neighborhood gathering places as it is about the demand for craft beer.

When Flight Deck Brewing opened its brewery and tasting room in Brunswick at the end of 2016, they were initially overwhelmed by customers. They hadn’t expected how strong the demand would be. The community of people who’ve since become regulars there seemed to be craving a place to just exist – especially with kids and dogs in tow. Every time I’ve visited, I’ve heard someone remark to the staff, “Oh, I’m just so glad that you’re here!”

At Cushnoc Brewing Company, in Augusta, I sat at the bar a few days before their grand opening and listened to locals thanking the owners for opening the brewery. One after the other, they said the city, or the neighborhood, or the street just “needed a place like this.”

As we approach 100 breweries in Maine, the question of how many the state can ultimately support looms large. There is intense competition for tap lines and shelf space, but if you look at it from a geographic angle, there seems to be plenty of room for communities to get a brewery of their own. If brewpubs can thrive in small communities like Norway, Liberty and Lyman, why not South Berwick, Richmond, or Gray?

•••

Portland Beer Week (Nov. 5-12) is a time to rediscover beers we’ve forgotten, taste some one-off creations from brewers who want to stretch their craft, and see what’s on the horizon. The events are Portland-based, but breweries from all over the state participate in this annual celebration, and I encourage you to give a little love to some of the pioneers making a go of it in areas that were previously left out of the craft-beer scene.

Your best chance to taste beers from some of the newest breweries (some of which are opening in the coming weeks) is to grab a ticket to the Maine Brewers’ Guild’s “Freshmen Class” event (Nov. 12, at Bayside Bowl, from 3 to 5 p.m.). The event exclusively showcases beers by the baker’s dozen of breweries that have opened since last November.

Some freshmen to watch:

Lake St. George Brewery (Liberty) is new, but it’s being led by old-school talent. Head brewer and owner Danny McGovern has worked his way through the Maine beer scene since the mid 1990s, starting with the short-lived, but pioneering, original Lake St. George brewery, then to Belfast Bay Brewing (home of the original McGovern’s Oatmeal Stout), Marshall Wharf Brewing (where he’s responsible for the hoppy and delicious Cant Dog), and Monhegan Brewing. Lake St. George’s new offerings include the bright and modern Pinnacle IPA and a very well-executed Helles lager named Millstone. Their cans are available at an increasing number of stores and are well worth bringing home.

Cushnoc Brewing Company (Augusta) is located on Water Street, in a surprisingly large space. The modern layout includes a gigantic family-style table running down the center of the room, as well as a bar and booths. A sip of their juicy and perfectly bitter All Souls IPA got my attention, and I found myself already making plans to return to Augusta (who’d have thought?).

Woodland Farms Brewery (Kittery) is a lager-forward brewery that has some great straightforward styles, as well as some funky ones. Not in a traditional “main street” setting, their tasting room is tucked in with a Weathervane restaurant across from the outlet malls. A visit to try their interesting and refreshing beers could be your refuge from holiday shopping this season.

Yes Brewing (Westbrook) puts the fun back into brewing. While they make some seriously good beer, you can tell that they do so with a playful attitude. Their brightly lit tasting room, ’80s aesthetic and creativity inside the glass and out will put a smile on your face. Their peanut-butter-and-jelly-sandwich beer, named No Crust, is a must-try. It’s one of the very few novelty brews that I’ve relished drinking an entire pour of.


This content was originally published in the November 2017 issue of The Bollard.

Born on the Kennebec: Impressions at Cushnoc

My GPS became agitated as I approached the riverfront. It couldn’t seem to decide whether I’d already passed my supposed destination or if I should continue further. As I circled the block, nearly turning the wrong way down a one-way street, I was reminded why I never really liked to use GPS in cities like Augusta.

I had a rare opportunity to allow myself to experience a city’s reaction to its first brewery – before the beer geeks descend upon it or before it gets listed on a listicle by a writer who’s never been there.

The purpose of my trip was to get a peek at Cushnoc Brewing – a not-yet-opened new brewpub that would be Augusta’s first, despite Maine already closing in on the 100-brewery mark. Augusta is among Maine’s oldest cities, originating as a trading post on the Kennebec River, and called “Cushnoc” by Native Americans (meaning “head of tide”).

This once-thriving trading hub is now the Maine state capitol, which might lead you to believe that it a busy and lively place to live. But Augusta in 2017 is an odd city – a magnet for donut shops and restaurants with poorly maintained changeable marquees, far too many automotive parts stores and mediocre food chains. Population-wise, it isn’t even in the top 15 cities in Maine, and its airport only has one commercial carrier that takes customers back and forth on commuter flights to Boston. Portland has more than three and a half times more residents. To Mainers, Augusta is often forgotten… aside from the political fireworks that sometimes put the area into the spotlight.

 

What I found at Cushnoc was unexpected. I walked in to see a Friday-night sized crowd (despite not being “officially” open) in a beautiful open space that felt both new and immediately friendly. In the center of the wide, deep space was a community-style table that stretched from nearly the front entrance to the back of the room. A neon sign spells out “Born on the Kennebec” on a darkly-painted wall, and the bar is backed with star-shaped former tin ceiling tiles. Along the wall to the right were tables, and a row of booths divided the dining area from the bar area, providing a natural division between the spaces.

“Thank you so much for doing this,” they said. “You have no idea how much we need something like this here.”

I picked out a seat at the bar and ordered All Souls, an American IPA. While I make it a point not to review beers from breweries that have just opened (after being burned by some in the past who had immediate consistency issues after their initial batches), I can at least say that they seem to know what they are doing here. The flavor profiles in the beers I tried were clean, the taste was inviting, and the variety was interesting. I didn’t sample any that weren’t enjoyable.

To supplement their own beer, they offered a selection of guest taps from some quite popular breweries, including Bissell Brothers, Sebago Brewing, and Flight Deck, but most guests were keen to try the local pours first.

As I sipped, customers regularly engaged staff behind the bar in conversation, and comments flowed in what amounted to a stream of gratitude. “Thank you so much for doing this,” they said. “You have no idea how much we need something like this here.”

The manager of a local hotel came by to sample the beer and was delighted that he’d “finally have someplace to recommend for their guests to eat and have a beer.”

An older gentleman remarked that “you couldn’t have done a better job with this building, it’s perfect.”

As I moved on to a couple of their other beers, I caught myself feeling proud on behalf of the city of Augusta and for the owners of Cushnoc brewing. Even if the concept is a simple one – a brick-oven-fired pizza place with some fresh, locally made beer and plenty of seating – the execution feels special.

I stayed incognito that night, and didn’t reach out to get any official statement or comment from the brewers or owners. There will be plenty of time for that later. I had a rare opportunity to allow myself to experience a city’s reaction to its first brewery – before the beer geeks descend upon it or before it gets listed on a listicle by a writer who’s never been there.

The communal nature of the tables, with strangers striking up conversations together, as well as the happily hectic staff that never looked anything but proud, all contributed to the feeling of an optimistic future. It may just be beer, but if the happy faces sitting in this downtown room are any indication, it may just be all they need.


This piece is part of a 30-Day writing challenge – an attempt to stretch my writing by posting something a little different each day.

Hooray for Bray’s!

When Bray’s Brewpub, in Naples, was listed for sale in a small advertisement in the April 2014 issue of Ale Street News, many feared it was a sign of the demise of one of Maine’s oldest brewpubs. The brewery and restaurant, opened in 1995, was known as a destination for locals, leaf-peepers and vacationers to the Lakes Region that offered live downhome blues music and down-to-earth brews. Finding a buyer for the Victorian-style farmhouse-turned-pub on Route 302 wasn’t easy, and for several years there was little news about the fate of Bray’s. Some just erroneously believed it had closed.

Last May it was announced that the property had been sold to Gary Skellett, a National Guardsman with a background in finance and a vacation place in Point Sebago. Bray’s Brewing Company now leases the brewing space from Skellett, who renamed the establishment Gary’s Olde Towne Tavern (perhaps a nod to the fictional rival bar from Cheers?). Skellett has made improvements and added some seating, but otherwise he’s kept the pub’s rustic charms intact, and it continues to be a music venue in an area that sorely needs one.

With the sale of the property finally behind him, Bray’s Brewing Company owner Michael Bray is free to focus on the beer. I recently met with Bray over a few pints during an event at the Great Lost Bear. He’d spent the day visiting Portland beer establishments to introduce (or reintroduce, as the case may be) the newer brewers and barkeeps to his brand.

Brewing on a 4.5-barrel system, Bray keeps about a half dozen different beers on tap at Gary’s, and is branching out to other accounts. The beers range from an entry-level Brandy Pond Blonde, crafted to entice drinkers to cross over from light lagers, to Yammityville Horror, an autumn brew made with sweet potatoes.

Bray said that when brewing beer, it’s important to consider the drinker. “I want to brew beer in a way that the customer wants to order four of them,” he said. That philosophy translates to mostly low-ABV beers, and many that are low in bitterness.

Old Church Pale Ale was the first beer Bray ever brewed and sold commercially, back in 1995, and I found it to be a really nice English-style IPA, balanced with the malts and very gentle in its bitterness. My favorite of the night was the Muddy River Bog Brown. I’m not usually a big fan of brown ales, because I find them too thin in body, or too mild to keep my attention. The Muddy River Bog Brown, however, was substantial and had a robust roastiness. At 4.5% ABV, I could see myself ordering several in a sitting, especially with some food.

Bray said he’s been looking for a new space to house the brewery — the lease arrangement is not intended to be permanent. “I’m looking for a space somewhere on the 302 corridor, anywhere between Naples and Portland,” he said. “Let them know I’m looking and maybe someone will write in with something for me!” he added with a chuckle. Bray said he’d like to expand and eventually step up to a 20-barrel brewing system, but the demand has to be there to justify it.

This begs the question: Is there room in Portland’s crowded craft market for beer that’s simply … beer? In a scene renowned for its cloudy and pungent IPAs, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine many drinkers would welcome a reprieve from those styles, but it could be a challenge to stand out amid all the hype.

We’ve seen several of Maine’s earliest craft-beer companies make news this year, including the sale of Geary’s and the revival of Lake St. George Brewing Company, in Liberty. I’m eager to see what the future will bring for these revolutionary brands, and hope they can find a niche where they’ll be sustained and appreciated.

Bray’s in good spirits after all these years and ready for yet another chapter. He even joined Facebook for the first time to set up Bray’s Brewing Company’s business page. One of the first posts has some tongue-in-cheek references to rumors of the brewery’s fate: “Despite the popular belief in Portland that Bray’s Brewing Company no longer exists…”

I can assure you, Portland: Bray’s Brewing Company is back in action. In fact, it never went away.

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Originally published in the October 2017 issue of The Bollard

 

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