What I remember most about last year’s NH Brew Fest at Red Hook in Portsmouth is being wet. It rained pretty steadily all night, forcing the samplers under tents and leaving me with an ultimately unreadable and soggy notebook, muddy shoes but high spirits. I had a lot of fun – including meeting a brewer from Dogfish Head in person (who later gave me a tour in Milton when I finally got down there that way – so despite the crowds and the persistent dampness, it was a fun time – the music blasted and people reveled all night long.

This year I vowed to come to the early session (a lesson I’ve learned from several brewfests now) to avoid crowds and excessively drunk people. My goal, after all, is to talk to brewers and try some great beer – not end up a staggering mess arm-and-arm with friends singing “Sweet Caroline” at the top of our lungs.

From NH Brew Fest 2010

I was let in a bit early as press to the “VIP session” which turned out to be a great opportunity to try some things and scope out the territory before the flood gates open. There were also beers that would be opened just for that session – and would run out when they ran out. (Sorry late session folks!). So as I scoped out the place, I noticed that there were a lot of small and local breweries – including Moat, Gardner Ale House, Haverhill Brewing etc. This made me quite happy, because I really didn’t want to see two NH breweries and 50 other nationally-distributing breweries. Even Elm City Brewing from Keene, NH (a favorite post-class stop of mine while I was in graduate school) made an appearance.

From NH Brew Fest 2010

Unless I am imagining this, the grass where this was setup last year was muddy – though under the tent it was pavement. This year, they (I *think*) extended the pavement all the way out to the bathrooms and food tents – which was a good move (and allowed me to avoid mud if it had been raining).

From NH Brew Fest 2010

Some of my favorites from the evening:
Kennebunkport Brewing Co. – Local Hop Ale : Their pale ale put through local hops and then casked. Very interesting and a little caramely and sugary, would probably taste even better aged.

Gardner Ale House – Double : Aged 10 months, this was beautifully sugary and had a great depth of flavor. Their Octoberfest was very nice, too. (Gardner is now on my “to visit” list for sure).

Kona Brewing Co. – Coffee Porter: Now, I have not been a huge fan of some of the Kona brews that come out, but I had a chance to try both the original of this beer and then one aged in Jack Daniels Barrels for 8 months. The aged one being a little drier, very different with the addition of a sweetness, and I liked this far better than its original.

Elm City – Jalapeno – What? The Beer Babe liked a beer with jalapenos in it? No way. Well, I hate to say it but, yes, this was awesome. And it was awesome because it was done with a great deal of restraint. Take a pale ale and put a few (and I mean a FEW) slices of jalapenos in it and let it sit for a little while – and voila – a non-overwhelming yet awesomely vegetable/pepper tasting beer. Really great – would love to have this with some mexican inspired food. According to the brewer, you could do it yourself with any pale ale. Pretty awesome execution on something I really thought I’d dislike.

I really enjoyed the first session because there really was room to walk, get brews, and the brewers really were willing to answer anything you wanted to know. The food, too, was delicious – I had a slice of great pizza and a pulled pork sandwich and the prices were very reasonable.

I got to check out a few new breweries I have to check out further (I was impressed by Mercury Brewing and Haverhill among others). The organizers did a nice job of encouraging some of the larger brewers to bring something special/aged/casked/small batch so that it wasn’t just their standard lineup, and I appreciated that a lot. For someone who’s now gone to a lot of beerfests, I think that’s the right way to go. Make it unexpected, exciting and bring experimental stuff – and the beer geeks will come.