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
In 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!