Carla Jean Lauter

The Beer Babe

Into The Woods

Walk into a modern American or European brewery for a tour and you’ll most likely encounter towering steel tanks and a maze of shiny pipes glistening with condensation. For most commercial brewers, the brewing process begins and ends in these metal chambers, which are designed to be sterile vessels that leave the developing beer unperturbed while it undergoes its transformation. But some breweries have a corner, or a room, or an entire building that’s devoted to a very different approach, an organic process that involves a key element typically left off the list of ingredients: wood.

Compared to steel tanks, wood barrels are a whole new (or, really, much older) ballgame. Wood is porous and, as a result, it’s nearly impossible to keep its interior completely sterile. Thus, brewers aging their beer in wood may inadvertently introduce native yeasts, bacteria and other bugs that can change the flavor. The brew may also pick up traits from the wood itself, depending on the type of tree. Done correctly, or when adjusted by blending multiple batches together, you get beer that’s entirely new, fresh and unique, and the drawback of wood becomes a benefit.

Brewers have been barrel-aging beer for centuries — mostly out of necessity, before the advent of modern industrial production. In the early years of the new millennium, as craft beer got more popular and the first mainstream barrel-aged varieties, such as Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout, hit the market, a new era of experimentation began and attempts to create the most robustly wood-flavored beers reached a fever pitch.

Perhaps as a consequence of palate fatigue, the barrel-aged craze slowed for a while, but lately it’s been making a comeback in more subtle and refined ways. Instead of smothering a stout with boozy bourbon, brewers are creating new mash-ups that result in remarkably creative and complex craft beers unlike anything you’ve tasted before.

As I noted, the characteristics of the wood can be imparted to the beer. Oak barrels, for example, can give beer a vanilla-like taste without the introduction of a single vanilla bean. The previous contents of the barrel can also infuse flavors into beer, as happens when brewers use barrels (or chips of barrels) that were once used to age bourbon, rum, tequila or other spirits.

Some brewers have found creative uses for cast-off wine barrels, making beverages that begin to blur the line between beer and wine. Fruit and other natural additives can also be introduced into the barrels to give the beer more depth and nuance of flavor. The barrel-aging process — which can last for weeks, months, or even years — can completely change the character of the beer that’s initially poured inside.

The creativity of craft brewers, combined with the increasing availability of local ingredients and of barrels from small-scale distillers, has introduced a wide variety of new styles to a sub-market that was previously dominated by heavy, booze-steeped stouts. There’s a golden opportunity to sample the new diversity of wood-kissed brews this month. On Sept. 23, at the Portland Company Complex on Munjoy Hill, the folks from BeerAdvocate, a magazine and online forum based in Boston, are teaming up with Allagash Brewing Company to host a festival called Beer Meets Wood. The event boasts the largest selection of wood-barrel-aged beers on the East Coast. Over 200 varieties are slated to be poured, including brews made in the United States and in Belgium, where the practice of barrel-aging has been steadily developing for hundreds of years.

Maine has a number of breweries that excel at this tricky art. Barrel-aged beers that would be rare in other places are almost commonplace around here, like the infallible Allagash Curieux, a tripel aged in bourbon barrels that was first brewed in 2004. The aptly named Barreled Souls, in Saco, has had great success experimenting with their small batches. The tequila-barrel-aged version of their tart, limey Space Gose tastes just like a margarita. Oxbow recently released a barrel-aged version of their flagship Farmhouse Pale Ale that resists definition. The wood adds a slightly funky character to the refined base beer, teasing out just a hint of vanilla from the French oak barrels in which it was aged.

The sterile predictability of steel has its function, for sure, but what better time and place than autumn in Maine to get lost in the woods?

Bring it On Home

Finding local craft beer to take home in Portland seems simple — just go to one of the bottle shops that carry Maine micros. Bier Cellar (299 Forest Ave.) has a highly knowledgeable staff who’ll help you navigate their curated selection and will provide recommendations. RSVP Discount Beverage (887 Forest Ave.) is a big store that also stocks liquor and wine. A bit further down the avenue, at 1037 Forest, Friendly Discount Beverage has a big beer cave. And in the Old Port, Craft Beer Cellar recently reopened in a new location, 320 Fore St.

Here’s the problem, though. Only a fraction of Maine breweries have packaged products that reliably make it to retail, and it seems like they all do it differently.

For the smallest breweries, it can be logistically impossible to brew enough beer to make it worth the cost of packaging it. Many use growlers to fill the need for take-home beer in the interim. For example, in South Portland, newly opened Island Dog Brewing does not currently offer packaged beer. You can go to the tasting room on John Roberts Road to sample beer or have a growler filled, but I don’t expect you’ll be sipping Island Dog from a bottle or can until they grow.

Third-party packagers, including mobile canning companies that bring their equipment to breweries, can help crafters get some of their product to the masses on the go. This saves new breweries from having to invest in expensive, permanent canning or bottling lines, but it can be cumbersome to do this regularly, so many brewers save the mobile operations for special releases.

Fore River Brewing, on Huntress Avenue in South Portland, has offered bottles of a barrel-aged version of their stout and other special beers, but they’ve yet to put their flagship brews into take-home packages. Foulmouthed Brewing, a brewery and brewpub that’s also in South Portland, does occasional large-format bottle releases, but I recommend a visit for samples rather than waiting for a release – there’s too much good food and beer available now to wait.

When in doubt as to whether a favorite beer is available for retail sale, your best bet is to go straight to the source. Lone Pine (in East Bayside) and Battery Steele (on Industrial Way) are beginning to flesh out their packaging schedules, and though both make it into bottle shops, it may be easier to find on premises.

Austin Street Brewery (also on Industrial Way) just installed their own canning equipment. They’re now releasing Patina Pale Ale in cans on a semi-regular basis, much to my delight. Breweries’ websites and social media pages are generally the best sources to track releases. Bier Cellar’s Twitter account and e-mail notifications keep you informed when new batches of popular local beers arrive, like Bissell Brothers’ hazy and hoppy cans, but you still have to hustle — they don’t last long there, either.

Larger breweries whose year-round lineup of beers is reliably available in stores also offer smaller batches of specialty releases on a catch-as-catch-can basis. For example, some of Allagash Brewing Company’s rarest seasonal or specialty releases are available for take-home sale only in their tasting room on Industrial Way.

Foundation Brewing Company (Industrial Way) and Rising Tide Brewing Company (on Fox Street in East Bayside) have worked out a nice balance between beers available exclusively in their tasting rooms, those with retail distribution, and the handling of special releases. They both pilot varieties in the tasting room which can then, as interest or demand dictates, graduate to become beers brewed in larger batches and packaged.

I’ve also been seeing more beer from Portland’s Liquid Riot (250 Commercial St.) and Bunker Brewing Company (17 Westfield St.) make it into distribution lately, but special releases are still best acquired at their respective locations. In Westbrook, Mast Landing Brewing Company has been ramping up their can releases via their tasting room on Main Street and through limited retail distribution. (Their Facebook page is the best source for the skinny on new releases.)

Breweries that consistently produce enough product to be available in craft beer shops, supermarkets and convenience or neighborhood grocery stores are in a final category. The three founding breweries in Portland — D.L. Geary Brewing Company, Gritty McDuff’s and Shipyard Brewing Company — are well distributed throughout the state, and Sebago Brewing Company’s beers are also more widely available these days. I love that even in a pinch I can pick up a six-pack of Sebago’s Simmer Down summer session ale or a 12-pack of Geary’s HSA – two great beers to drink with friends at a cookout.

What are you doing this weekend? I’ll be at #beercamp

Portland, Maine has made itself into a craft beer destination, and I’m lucky to live near an area with so many prolific and excellent brewers. I write this blog and my column to celebrate Maine’s breweries, beer, and events because I love to let the rest of the country (and world) know what’s going on in our little northeast corner of it. But as our beer scene builds, we get to reap other rewards as well. The best example is not from within, but outside – when a famous west-coast brewery packs up and brings some wonderful breweries on tour for a festival.

The 2017 Beer Camp festival tour sponsored by Sierra Nevada Brewing Company has picked Portland, ME as one of only eight cities it will visit – and the festival is coming up fast in the first weekend of June. Slated to be hosted at Thompson’s Point – probably the state’s best outdoor festival venue for beer events – this festival is one not to be missed just because it is “from away.” On the contrary, the festival will feature breweries both locally and incredibly difficult to come by around these parts – and many of the brewers themselves will be traveling with the show. The last time this festival passed through in 2014, it turned ot to be a beautiful day of drinking, chatting and tasting some incredible beers.

Here’s a list of the breweries attending as it currently stands:

21st Amendment Brewery - Aeronaut Brewing Co. - Allagash Brewing Company - Austin Street Brewery - Banded Horn Brewing Company - Baxter Brewing Co. - Black Hog Brewing Co. - Boothbay Craft Brewery - Collective Arts Brewing - Dirigo Brewing Company - Downeast Cider House - Elm City Brewing Company - Firestone Walker Brewing Company - Foolproof Brewing Co. - Fore River Brewing Company - Foulmouthed Brewing - Founders Brewing - Funky Bow Brewery & Beer Co -Geary Brewing Co. - Good Measure Brewing Co. - Great North Aleworks - Gritty's Harpoon Brewery - Knee Deep Brewing Company - Liquid Riot Lively Brewing Co. - Lone Pine Brewing Company - Long Trail Brewing - Lord Hobo Brewing Company -Magic Hat Brewing Company - Maine Mead Works - Moonlight Meadery - New Belgium Brewing Company - New England Brewing - Otter Creek Brewing - Oxbow Brewing Co - Pabst Brewing Co - Peak Organic Brewing Co. - Revival Brewing Company - Rising Tide Brewing - Rogue Ales - Saint Arnold Brewing Company - Samuel Adams - Sebago Brewing Company -Shipyard Brewing Company - Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. -Sixpoint Brewery - Small Town Brewery - Smuttynose Brewing Co. - Stoneface Brewing Company - Stowe Cider - Surly Brewing Company - The Run of The Mill - Tree House Brewing - Trout River Brewing Co. - Two Roads Brewing Company - Urban Farm Fermentory & Gruit Brewing Co. - Vermont Cider Co - Von Trapp Brewing - Willimantic Brewing Company - Woodchuck -Woodland Farms Brewery - Wormtown Brewery

For the beer geeks, this means you can get Tree House and an Austin Street beers in the same place, and eat a lobster taco from a food truck in between. It means that you can have a rich, Founder’s Breakfast Stout or crisp Dirigo Brewing Company Lager, while sitting outside on a warm Maine spring day.

If that isn’t novel enough, there are also a dozen US and international breweries who have collaborated to brew beer just for this event (which is also sold in a special 12-pack by Sierra Nevada) which will be poured at the event as well. This year’s theme was “Beer Camp Across the World” and includes beer from 6 breweries from the US (Avery – Colorado, St. Arnold – Texas, Tree House – Massachusetts, The Bruery – California, Surly – Minnesota and Boneyard Beer, Oregon) and 6 international breweries (Fuller’s – England, Garage Project – New Zealand, Duvel – Belgium, Mikkeller – Denmark, Kiuchi – Japan and Ayinger – Germany).

I was lucky enough to be provided media samples of these beers before they went on sale in the special packaging – and it’s a great mix of styles and tastes. I was struck by how many had some kind of additional ingredient – from honey to fruit, to spices – and how different each beer was from one another. The full list is below, but I did have a few favorites from the pack. Frankly, I wish I had access to the Ayinger Dunkel Weiss (Germany) on a regular basis, it was a solid and robust beer that didn’t need anything else to enhance its flavor. Similarly, the White IPA with Yuzu from Kiuchi Brewery (Japan) was flavorful and bright, but without being too heavy handed with the fruit addition. I recently had a Samuel Adams beer with Yuzu in it and it was overpowering – this one was just the right amount. On the other end of the spectrum, I thought that the Thai-Style Iced Tea from Mikkeller (Denmark) was using the bouquet of flavors in the traditional drink in a bold and yet, somehow not literal or mocking way. I’d like to try it again on a hot day.

  • Atlantic-Style Vintage Ale brewed with Fuller’s Brewery of London, United Kingdom.
  • Campout Porter featuring manuka wood and honey from our friends at Garage Project in Wellington, New Zealand.
  • Dry-Hopped Barleywine-Style Ale, combining two classic barleywines from Sierra Nevada and Avery Brewing Co. of Boulder, Colorado.
  • Hoppy Belgian-Style Golden, a hop-forward rendition of the golden ale style that is classically Duvel from Puurs, Belgium.
  • Dry-Hopped Berliner-Style Weisse brewed with Saint Arnold Brewing Company of Houston, Texas.
  • Dunkle Weisse brewed in collaboration with Ayinger Brewery of Aying, Bavaria, Germany.
  • East Meets West IPA is an unfiltered, golden IPA from the pioneers of the New England style, Tree House Brewing Company in Monson, Massachusetts.
  • Ginger Lager is a bright, crisp flavor bomb made with the good folks at Surly Brewing Co., Minneapolis, Minnesota.
  • Raspberry Sundae boasts raspberry, cocoa and vanilla in an ultra-complex beer from The Bruery in Placentia, California.
  • Thai-Style Iced Tea is a nod to our globetrotting friends from Mikkeller Brewery in Copenhagen, Denmark.
  • West Coast-Style DIPA is an intense Double IPA created with the hopheads at Boneyard Beer of Bend, Oregon.
  • White IPA with Yuzu is a hopped-up White Ale with bright tartness from our friends at Kiuchi Brewery in Naka-shi, Ibaraki, Japan.

While I’m not the rabid pursuer of one-offs and rare beers I used to be, the opportunity to get beers I haven’t had access to is still something I find to be a fun way to spend an afternoon, as is sharing our local beer perspectives with visitors from away. To that aim… I’ll be at Beer Camp, and I hope that you will too.

General Admission $55, VIP access $75 (an extra hour of tasting) Tickets hereMore info here.


As compensation for this post, I received tickets to attend Beer Camp and beer samples to review courtesy of sierra nevada. Although this post is sponsored, all opinions are my own.

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