Carla Jean Lauter

The Beer Babe

The Beer Babe’s Best – 2016 (The Bollard)

Regardless of your feelings about 2016, we can all savor the fact that it was an incredible year for Maine craft beer.

By my count, 17 new breweries opened their doors this year: Mast Landing (Westbrook), Fore River (South Portland), Bear Bones Beer (Lewiston), Lone Pine (Portland), Saco River (Fryeburg), Norway Brewing (Norway), Mason’s Brewing (Brewer), Gruit (Portland), Simplicity (Warren), Foulmouthed  (South Portland), Threshers (Searsmont), Northern Maine (Caribou), Dirigo (Biddeford), Tom Gobbler (Fryeburg), 2 Feet (Bangor), North Haven Brewing (North Haven), and One Eye Open (Portland). As is tradition, I’ll share some end-of-the-year highlights this month, but first I’d like to congratulate the Freshman Class of 2016, who have impressed me with their quality and creativity this year. Keep it up, and keep us from being thirsty in 2017, please!

Maine’s Best New Brewery

This decision was easier in 2015, when there were fewer than a half dozen new breweries to pick from. After much consideration, I have to give this one to Foulmouthed Brewing, in South Portland’s Knightville neighborhood. There are many challenges to operating a successful brewpub. In addition to the myriad tasks necessary to maintain a restaurant and brewery side by side, there’s the pressure to have a good variety of brews that rotate often and complement the food. Foulmouthed has leapt those hurdles with grace. A flight of six beers at Foulmouthed may range from lighter lagers and cream ales to dark Belgian-style beers and porters. Each beer in their lineup is creative and well-executed. Foulmouthed has resisted the temptation to focus on “safe” styles, opting instead to take chances on interesting, lesser-known varieties. That gamble is paying off.

Best New Maine Beer

On a whim, I stopped by Allagash Brewing Company a few weeks ago and got to try a sample of Allagash Haunted House. Allagash is known for its Belgian-style beers, and they’ve had success attracting fans to House, a light and flavorful Belgian table beer. Inspired by the spookiness of the season, they released Haunted House around Halloween. It’s a dark Belgian ale with a wicked ABV of 6.66%. The taste is rich and roasty without any heaviness. It’s a limited release at present, one I hope they consider adding to their regular rotation.

Best Maine IPA

Every year, Sebago Brewing Company releases Hop Swap, a beer made according to the same basic recipe, but with different kinds of hops. It’s a great way for drinkers to explore the characteristics of various hop varieties. This year’s Hop Swap is my favorite so far. It includes Mosaic, Idaho 7 and Simcoe hops. The flavor of this bright orange brew is tropical and easy to love. I wasn’t familiar with Idaho 7 hops. This year’s Hop Swap has provided an excellent introduction.

Best Maine Stout/Porter

I first tried Rising Tide’s Nikita on Election Night, while watching the returns come in during a pig roast at their brewery in East Bayside. It’s a rich and flavorful stout, inky black in color, that conveys the complex taste of plums and figs and dark fruits, delivered with a velvety smooth mouthfeel. To create this special-edition beer, Rising Tide took a Rye Russian Imperial Stout, brewed as part of their Sputnik series of pilot beers, and aged it in bourbon barrels for four months. Russian Imperial Stouts like Nikita often surpass 10-12% ABV, but this one maintains a reasonable 9.8% ABV. If you’re a fan of this style, Nikita will ring all your bells.

Maine’s Most Creative Beer

On my tasting adventures over the years, I’ve sampled many beers that had flavors added to them in an attempt to make the brew taste like something other than beer. Most often these were fruit or coffee flavors, but I’ve also tried beers made with unconventional, and unsuccessful, ingredients, like peanut butter. Mast Landing’s Gunner’s Daughter, a Peanut Butter Milk Stout, won me over. It’s legitimately delicious and unexpectedly balanced. Gunner’s Daughter eschews the cloying sweetness that a peanut butter-and-chocolate approach would evoke, remaining in a rich and earthy realm. The beers in Mast Landing’s initial lineup were mostly hop-driven, so this one took me by surprise. Give it a try and be prepared to have your mind changed.

Best Label/Can Design

per-diem-renderIn 2016, Lewiston’s Baxter Brewing Co. overhauled the branding and label art for their cans (and released a few new beers, to boot). The new designs are more illustrative and have a lot of character, which really helps Baxter’s beers stand out among the more typography-based labels on the shelves. They also take full advantage of the cans’ wrap-around “canvas.” The label of Baxter’s Per Diem All Year Porter, one of the new beers this year, is an excellent example of creative can design. Inspired by the brewery’s home, the Bates Mill complex, and an old sepia-toned photo of mill workers leaving for the day, designer Josh Fisher came up with a cool new look that pays homage to Lewiston/Auburn’s past. Cheers to that!

tasteblind

Taste Blind, and Now You’ll See

Every time a new brewery opens in Maine, brewers struggle a little bit more to stand out from the crowd, to be recognized and remembered, to have their beer mentioned in the first few breaths when a newcomer asks a local for recommendations. The events on tap for this year’s Portland Beer Week (for which this publication is the media sponsor) are designed to showcase breweries you may not have heard of, or had forgotten about, or those that simply aren’t at the top of the hype list.

My favorite event each year is usually the Freshman Orientation, a speed-dating-style sampling of beers by the local breweries that opened in the past 12 months. This year’s Orientation takes place Nov. 5 at Coffee By Design’s Diamond Street location, and features over a dozen new craft beer-makers. It’s a fun and efficient way to meet the new breweries on the block.

Another way for breweries to get noticed seems counterintuitive but is actually quite effective: don’t tell tasters what beer they’re drinking ahead of time. At blind tasting events, the maker of the beer is not revealed until after the drinker has evaluated the samples or voted for their favorite. Tasting notes are usually provided so participants have some idea what to expect, but this method is a great way to erase your preconceived notions and open your palate to pleasant surprises.

Here are two Beer Week events that employ the blind-tasting format, and a third that you can easily turn into a blind tasting with a few friends.

1. Salvage BBQ Pro-Am (Tues., Nov. 7, at 6 p.m.)

The beer community in Maine is incredibly supportive of those looking to learn how to brew, and an opportunity to partner with a professional brewer can be a memorable one. The annual Pro-Am competition, hosted by Salvage BBQ, gives amateur brewers the chance to flex their creative muscles by partnering with pros to brew pilot or full-sized batches in a production brewery space. The judging is by popular vote, but this year the tasting will be blind. Competing brews will be numbered and a description will be provided, but the brewers will remain anonymous until the votes are counted. I expect there’ll be a wide variety of styles at this year’s event, so creativity will likely be a bigger factor than the execution of a traditional type of beer.

2. Blind Belgian Tasting (Thurs., Nov. 10, at 5 p.m.)

The Blind Belgian Tasting at Slab is all about the perfection of a particular style. Participating breweries will enter beers that meet specific criteria — they must be made with a particular strain of Belgian yeast, be light in color, and have an ABV below 5 percent. The lineup this year is an exciting mix of “freshman” breweries (Foulmouthed Brewing and Mast Landing Brewing Company), up-and-comers (Foundation, Austin Street, SoMe) and more established competitors (Sebago, Rising Tide).

3. GLB Maine IPAs! (Thurs., Nov. 10, at 5 p.m.)

Only a local institution with as many draft lines and as much history as The Great Lost Bear could even attempt to host a happening where nearly every available Maine-brewed IPA is on tap. For this event, the servers aren’t intending to pour flights blind, but it would be simple for a pair of friends or a group to turn this opportunity into a blind tasting. One person orders the IPAs and the other (or others) tries to find their favorite — like a hopped-up version of the Pepsi Challenge. IPAs are perfect for this type of game because, though they’re all the same style, the flavor can vary quite a bit. Come prepared to have friendly disagreements and maybe even change your own mind.

You’ll be amazed by what’s revealed when you stop looking and start tasting.

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Yeasty Does It

Every fall, I bake apple pies for family gatherings. As long as I follow my recipe card and use the same types of apples, the pies taste pretty much the same. So why is it so difficult for brewers to make consistent beer if they’re simply following a recipe?

The answer is that beer is alive.

Though it’s crucial to the brewing process, yeast can be an overlooked ingredient in beer, even among craft beer fans. Different strains of yeast have a profound effect on a beer’s characteristics. And, in fact, yeast is the only thing that can transform a slush of grain-based sugar water into the beverage we love to drink. But as a single-celled microscopic organism, it often gets less respect than it deserves.

Take, for example, a hefeweizen. The cloudy, aromatic beers brewed in this style get most of their flavorful esters from the use of a particular variety of yeast, one that produces banana, fruity and clove-like flavors as part of its natural environment. I used to think “hefe” meant “half,” because typical hefeweizens are made with a fairly even ratio of regular grains and wheat (weizen). Turns out I was wrong. “Hefe” refers to the yeast, so it’s more properly called a “yeast wheat” beer.

Brewing a hefeweizen — or any beer, for that matter — can be more akin to ranching than baking. Brewers have to wrangle and tame these living organisms. The brewing process seems simple: create a mix of fermentable sugars and water, put in a little yeast that likes to eat those sugars, and the little guys will magically produce beer. However, getting yeast to consume the sugars you’ve provided them, at the rate you’d like, while reproducing and creating CO2 and alcohol as waste products, is harder than it seems.

To create a flavorful beer, brewers have to pamper yeast by giving it exactly the right range of temperatures (sometimes only a few degrees apart) and adjusting acidity (pH) or other water chemistry. They may also have to provide extra food or oxygen to coax them into doing their thing. Batches of yeast can be different from one another even if they’re the same species — yeast can get lazy, can starve or eat too quickly, can die off too quickly or grow too fast, sometimes leaving behind undesired off-flavors.

Brewers need to actively control the lives of these organisms and then prevent them from dying before their time. In high-alcohol beers, the alcohol that the yeast produces as waste will ultimately kill them off. Yeast strains that can tolerate higher levels of alcohol in their environment have been specifically bred for the task, but most of the time brewers are just pushing the boundaries of what the yeast can tolerate each time they create a high ABV beer.

In most cases, brewers carefully select yeast that will impart certain characteristics: the estery notes of the hefewizen, the dry finish of a lager, or the peppery notes in saisons. But if you want even more of a challenge, try letting just the local yeast show up and see who applies for the fermentation job.

Allagash Brewing has a vessel known as a “Coolship” that’s essentially a shallow stainless-steel pan sitting in the center of a little shed. They pour wort that’s been boiled into the pan to cool, and then leave the windows of the shed slightly ajar, so the night air can come in. The natural yeast in the area (and yes, there’s yeast everywhere!) slowly settles onto the cooling liquid and begins munching away on the sugars. The result (which is sometimes aged in barrels long after this process) is a funky and complex mix of flavors derived from the unique terroir of the area where the beer is produced.

Other breweries have learned to use natural selection to their advantage. Barreled Souls, for example, uses a “Burton Union” brewing system that’s specifically designed to get the heartiest yeast possible to ferment each batch of beer. In that system, fermentation vessels (barrels) are connected with pipes in such an arrangement that the yeast travels up into a catchment tank, where it’s later separated from the beer and reused in subsequent batches. This captured yeast essentially self-selects for the most effective and hearty cells.

The next time you raise a pint, give some thought, and some thanks, to the little beasts that brought the flavors into your glass — and to the brewers who made them behave.

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