Carla Jean Lauter

The Beer Babe

Author: Carla Jean Lauter (Page 1 of 151)

2017: In like a lion, out like a… lambic?

One of the benefits of having nearly 90 breweries in Maine is that you can, at least in theory, satisfy a craving for any beer style without leaving the state. This maturing, critical mass of breweries is also large enough to begin reflecting the trends in style and technique happening nationally. Here are the four major trends I see on the horizon for this year.

1. Let’s get spontaneous

Wheplace-allagash01n Allagash installed a little shed behind its brewery, poured freshly brewed beer into an open, stainless-steel “coolship” vessel inside the shed and left it there overnight, with the windows open, some of us thought they were a little weird. But this traditional method allows natural yeast to settle on the sugar-rich wort and brings forth a bouquet of microorganisms, each imparting their own funky flavors. The technique is catching on. Oxbow Brewing Company and, more recently, Rising Tide Brewing have secured similar vessels and are experimenting with their own expressions of funkiness. The result will be a new class of hyper-local and wholly unique beers entering the Maine market, with flavors characteristic of the individual breweries’ airborne terroir. Allagash’s Coolship beers are released periodically and only available locally, so keep your eyes open. My favorite is Allagash Coolship Resurgam, a blend of old and new versions of a spontaneous beer, named after the motto of the City of Portland: “I shall rise again.”

2. Sessions are here to stay

In the early 2000s I spent time at beer bars trying to find lower-alcohol options, scanning menus that were full of 9, 10 and 11% ABV offerings, and lamenting the lack of brews that pack less of a boozy punch. But the trend of session beers – so named because you can have several in a single “session” – is here, partly in reaction to the high-ABV trend that preceded it. On a particularly cold day this winter, I was in the mood for a beer with a warming amount of booze in it, and was alternately pleased and disappointed to find that nearly everything on the menu was under 7%. In 2017, expect that local brewers of many styles (not just hoppy ones) will continue to dial the alcohol content down a little bit (and not just in the summertime). Try Dirigo Brewing Company’s Schöps for an example of a flavorful style (chocolate wheat beer) that is under 6% ABV.

3. Beer & liquor become better friends

The trend of aging beer in vessels formerly occupied by liquors is in full swing. Some Maine brewers are finding it difficult to source enough booze-soaked barrels to satisfy the demand. Yet this is only the most basic way that liquor can play with craft beer. Another trend, cocktails that blend spirits and beer, offers limitless variations.

Since swooning in Colorado over a creative cocktail consisting of gin and IPA, I’ve been on the lookout for local bartenders who’ve realized the potential of pairing the bold flavors and aromatics of beer and spirits. Steve Corman of Vena’s Fizz House, in Portland, has four Maine craft beer cocktails on the menu. Foulmouthed Brewing, in South Portland, also serves several such concoctions. The D.T.F. cocktail at Foulmouthed has whiskey, house-made grenadine syrup, lemon-and-honey syrup, and Dig the Fig, a Belgian-style amber ale they brew with figs and peppercorns.

4. Grown-up seasonals

The idea of seasonality – that you may want to drink something different in the depths of February than you do at the height of July – is not new in the beer world. Some of the first regional craft breweries of the current renaissance, like Magic Hat and Harpoon, were making seasonal beers in the early 1990s, but the concept seemed shallow. Summer? Add some blueberry to a wheat beer. Winter? Add some coriander or nutmeg to a brown ale. Over time, these “easy” seasonals have begun to lose their popularity, and more mature seasonal varieties are being offered. Look for more breweries to get into the rhythm of the seasons in subtle and interesting ways. Bunker Brewing’s Dark Wave is a satisfying seasonal – a well-balanced porter perfect for winter, no spices necessary.

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!

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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