Carla Jean Lauter

The Beer Babe

Category: Beer Reviews (Page 1 of 56)

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


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.

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.

Rolling on the River

Published in the March 2016 issue of The Bollard

The inspiration to build a brewery commonly strikes while people are drinking beer. In the case of Dirigo Brewing Company, the seeds of partnership and possibility presented themselves during an appointment for a new set of tires.

Last year, Mark Paulin, owner of Paulin’s Tire & Auto Care, struck up a conversation with a customer at his Forest Avenue location. Her name is Molly Bull, and when Paulin learned that her husband, Tom Bull, was the former brewer and co-owner of Bull Jagger Brewing Company, his interest was piqued.

Tom Bull started homebrewing with his father at age 19. His brewing career technically began when he got a job as a bouncer at Gritty’s, eventually landing a position in the brewpub’s brewery. Stints at the now long-shuttered Stone Coast Brewing Co. and at Casco Bay Brewing Co. (before it was acquired by Shipyard) followed. In 2011, Bull launched Bull Jagger Brewing Company with business partner Allan Jagger.

Bull Jagger was the first and only Maine brewery to exclusively brew lagers. The flagship beer was Portland Lager, a fruity and crisp brew made in the Helles style. It soon attracted a sizeable local following. Unfortunately, that business partnership didn’t last long, and the 7.5 barrel brewery closed in early 2013. Not long afterward, however, state laws governing the operation of brewery tasting rooms were loosened, giving rise to Maine’s thriving tasting-room scene.

Mark Paulin and Tom Bull, with the help of their significant others, plan to make Dirigo Brewing Company a big addition to that scene this spring. Their 15 barrel brewhouse, with over 100 barrels of fermentation capacity, is taking shape inside an old mill in Biddeford. Dirigo will join a small cluster of breweries in the Biddeford-Saco area, which includes Banded Horn, Barreled Souls, and the Run of the Mill brewpub.

Dirigo’s tasting room will be over 2,000 square feet, with big windows that provide stunning views of the Saco River and historic mill buildings nearby. Tasters and growler-fills will be available on premise, and draughts will be distributed across the state.

Paulin wants the tasting room to appeal to all types of people. “If you’re a business person and you want to go talk over a deal, I want this to be the kind of place where someone says, ‘You know Dirigo? It’s got a cool vibe, let’s go talk down there.’ But I also want the hard-hat guy to come in and say, ‘This is my kind of place.’”

The new brewery’s line-up will be lager-centric, but not exclusively so. Bull said he plans to bring back some of the beers he brewed at Bull Jagger, in addition to other styles, including a few ales.

What’s the difference between brewing an ale and a lager? Bull has a one-word answer: “Patience.”

Lagers, which are fermented at colder temperatures, take significantly longer to make. Ales can be brewed in as little as two weeks, whereas lagers can take up to two months before they’re ready. That’s why Dirigo has so much fermentation capacity — to ensure they have the space (and the time) for the lagers to fully develop.

The spectrum of lagers goes far beyond the pilsners and Budweiser-style brews most folks know. “There’s a whole world beyond the pale yellow, fizzy lager that we all think of,” said Bull. “It stretches the gamut of colors, tastes, flavors and textures.” Dirigo Brewing Company’s offerings will include a familiar Helles lager, but also a Martzen, a crimson-colored festbier, and a Baltic Porter.

The options for good, locally produced lagers have grown in the three years since Bull Jagger closed, but there’s still plenty of room (and demand) in the market for variations on the style. Bull, who drove a cab for a while after Bull Jagger’s demise, always knew he’d get back in the brewing business. “Once it’s in your blood, it’s in your blood,” he said.

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