Carla Jean Lauter

The Beer Babe

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

 

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.

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