Carla Jean Lauter

The Beer Babe

Category: Featured

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

 

The Good, The Bad, and The Buttery

Originally published in the April edition of The Bollard.


As we begin the annual ramp-up toward the busy summer season in Maine, there are a few issues on the tasting-room table that warrant some attention…

The Good

This summer will bring more people to Maine for beer than ever before. A recent report by the University of Maine School of Economics and the Maine Brewers’ Guild determined that Maine beer and breweries brought nearly $228 million into our economy last year, a growth that is forecast to continue. Beer has become a significant part of our state’s draw for tourism, and the beer industry is one that our state lawmakers would be wise to support.

Last month, brewers and other workers in the industry testified in favor of bills aimed at making some behind-the-scenes logistics of brewing and selling beer more straightforward in Maine. One key measure would clarify laws regulating the transfer of packaged beer from one brewery location to another; a second would give retailers more freedom to host tastings and provide free samples. Though these are not high-visibility issues, they are important to ensure that the growth Maine’s beer sector is experiencing can continue. So if you really like beer, you should totally come to Maine, and you can try the best beer there is around, you can even bring your own mug, and if you don’t have one you just need to visit the Top 9 Best Copper Moscow Mule Mugs 2017 – Top9Rated.

In January, Bissell Brothers announced tentative plans to start brewing and selling their beer in the founders’ hometown of Milo, located in Piscataquis County. Without the ability to legally sell beer produced and packaged in Portland at this second location (and vice versa), the brothers’ dream may not become a reality, and Piscataquis could remain the only county in Maine without a brewery.

The Bad

During my visits to Portland breweries over the winter months, I was pleasantly surprised to find most of the tasting rooms full of enthusiastic patrons. But some brewery owners I spoke with expressed unease about the high numbers of customers coming in during what’s normally a slow season. A few admitted they were nervous about their capacity — not just from a production standpoint (can they brew enough beer to meet demand?), but as a matter of crowd management. Many tasting rooms have a modest amount of space for seating and standing, and a small staff whose primary job is to serve beer, not manage crowds.

With more people come more potential problems. In addition to the issue of glassware theft that I’ve raised before, it’s prudent for everyone who supports the industry to be aware of other inappropriate behavior happening at tasting rooms and to do what we can to intervene. If you see patrons drinking beer in the parking lot, acting intoxicated or vandalizing property, let a staff member know. Even one serious or dangerous incident at a brewery tasting room could ruin the relatively generous amount of freedom these establishments have enjoyed, and no one wants that to happen.

The Buttery

It’s disheartening to order a favorite beer only to find it doesn’t taste like it should. Or worse, to take a chance on buying a bottle or a six-pack and get a slick, buttery feeling on your tongue when you drink it. I’ve had both experiences in the past few months, and I’m putting my foot down: We should not tolerate this.

The culprit for these flavors is diacetyl. Pronounced either dye-ass-uh-tull or die-a-seat-ill, this byproduct of fermentation produces flavors reminiscent of buttered popcorn or butterscotch. In most beers, the amount of this chemical that’s present is small enough not to be noticed, or it’s entirely absent. In some English styles, a hint of diacetyl is desired and is produced naturally by some of the yeasts. But you should still be able to taste the beer beneath that slight buttery flavor.

Brewers can rid their beer of diacetyl by adding a few days of “rest” to the fermentation process, giving the yeast a few days to re-absorb the compound so it doesn’t show up in the finished beer. Beer that is rushed to market can often suffer from this unfortunate flavor. Infections from dirty tap lines can reintroduce diacetyl to a beer, as well, which makes it difficult to determine if the brewer or the bar manager is at fault.

In any case, it’s important to recognize this flavor and bring it to the brewer’s or bartender’s attention so they can correct the flaw. I’d rather that we give that $228 million to the breweries and bars that are doing it right, wouldn’t you?

Smashing Pumpkins

Originally published in the September issue of The Bollard


You’ve done it, beer fans! You’ve survived “peak pumpkin spice.” Last year may be remembered as the apex of an obsession that manifested itself in everything from pumpkin spice lattes to gourd-flavored Oreos and M&Ms. More pumpkin beers crowded our shelves in 2015 than in any previous year. For some, this undoubtedly was a delight, but many wished the trend, which often involved artificial flavors and coloring agents, would simply go away.

Fads, by definition, inevitably decline, but I suspect the collective backlash against seasonal creep — being bombarded by spiced concoctions in early August or even July — also had something to do with it. The numbers are already in for 2016, and the pumpkin trend is on its way out. Retailers are slowing their orders, pumpkin beers are sitting on shelves a bit too long, and the quantities being produced are declining.

What will replace them? The cynics among us say it will be other artificial flavors (witness the rise of alcoholic sodas), but I hold a more optimistic view. I think the abandonment of pumpkin beer as an autumnal staple may be evidence that lagers can carve out a legitimate and lasting space in the American craft beer landscape.

Search-engine tools like Google Trends allow you to investigate the relative amounts of interest in different search terms. Type in a lager style like Märzen, Helles or Dunkel and you’ll see a huge swing upward in 2015 and 2016, while the line for searches about pumpkin beer drops off.

What encourages me is that these styles are more traditional and showcase the beer for what it is — grains, hops, yeast — rather than what can be added to it.

Let’s look more closely at Märzen for a moment. This malt-forward beer is typically brewed with either Munich or Vienna malt, and its caramel and toasty flavors are perfect for a fall afternoon.

In Germany, the term Oktoberfest only applies to the beers made and poured at the annual festivals in Munich, but in the U.S. we colloquially label beers “Oktoberfest” if they’re a fall seasonal of the Märzen or Vienna lager style. These medium-to-deep amber beers are especially popular in September (when Oktoberfests are held). The now classic Samuel Adams OktoberFest was the first seasonal beer I ever tried, and though I suspect its recipe has changed some since my first sip, it’s a beer that still defines the onset of autumn for me.

I’d argue that lagers have staying power well beyond the fall. Their clean flavor profiles allow the malt character of the beer to shine through. Some styles finish so cleanly that you need another swig just to be sure you’ve had any. The lack of a lingering aftertaste also makes lagers excellent choices to pair with food.

So why aren’t more breweries jumping on the lager train? The simple answers are space and time. Lagers take much longer to ferment than ales do, and that can create bottlenecks at the brewery. With ales, a weekly rhythm of brewing and kegging can be established. Lagers, however, need to sit, filling up fermentation tanks and making it impossible for brewers to start something else until the first lager has matured. With proper planning such obstacles can be overcome, but the point is that lagers are not a style brewers get into on a whim, or in an effort to follow a fad.

In Maine we’re lucky to have several breweries that regularly make classic lager styles, including Gneiss, Banded Horn, and, most recently, Dirigo Brewing Company, which opened in Biddeford last month. Von Trapp Brewing, in Vermont (owned by the Sound of Music von Trapps), is also distributing classic German lagers to the New England beer market.

Raise a lager this month to toast the demise of pumpkin beer! And don’t forget about the style just because seasons change.

Death by a Thousand Cups

A bartender’s hand slips off a freshly washed pint glass that falls to the floor with a crash. The sound of its destruction triggers cringes from patrons, some uttering small groans of disapproval. The expense of replacing a pint glass is negligible, folded into the overhead costs of running the drinking establishment. Unless an employee is exceptionally uncoordinated, such accidents don’t noticeably diminish the bar’s glassware inventory.

Across town, the employee of a small brewery takes stock before opening the tasting room to the weekend rush of beer enthusiasts and their friends. The racks of clean glasses seem sparser than they were last week. Or the week before that. Or the week before that week.

The cause here isn’t a careless bartender or busser. It is, literally, thieves.

Many operators of the small brewery tasting rooms that have popped up across Maine in the past year or two face the same questions after every busy weekend: How many tasting glasses are left, and when will we need to order more? The more popular the brewery, the more likely they are to fall victim of this type of petty crime.

The cumulative financial impact has compelled some brewers to attempt to police their tasting rooms, a task they are, understandably, reluctant to do.

“We have to spend more time than we’d like looking after taster glasses,” Jake Austin, of Austin Street Brewery, told me. “That’s time that could be spent talking to people about our beer and our brewery.”

Most of the affected breweries that have branded tasting glasses also offer those glasses for sale, often for only a few dollars. So why does this thievery continue week after week?

Maybe it’s because the glasses are tiny and pretty. Maybe the tasting room guests are trying to look cool in front of their friends by pulling off a mildly daring heist. Perhaps they’re so entitled as to believe that because they paid for a beer, the glass should be theirs when they finish it. Or maybe the small samples they’ve consumed have simply eroded their already weak impulse control.

There are actions that can be taken to make glassware less attractive to thieves, and several Maine breweries have taken those steps. Breweries can use unbranded glassware, ask patrons for a taster-glass deposit, or switch to plastic cups on busy days (please, don’t). They can invest in security cameras, post scolding signs, or spend more time monitoring patrons. But all those measures have drawbacks — they’re a hassle, an expense, or both. Switching to unbranded glassware robs breweries of opportunities to promote their brand via social media — all those photos of your pals hoisting tasters on Facebook and Instagram.

Unfortunately, glassware isn’t the only thing snatched from local tasting rooms. Posters, artwork, flight boxes, tasting paddles, and even a potted plant have all walked away from brewery tasting rooms in recent months. This indicates a more general attitude of entitlement that, as with glassware theft, ultimately leads to higher costs for everyone.

Instead of expecting our breweries to invest time, money and staff for extra security, let’s join together in an effort to raise awareness of this problem and help to self-police it. I believe we can change this culture of entitlement if we try hard enough. The pilfering of one taster glass obviously won’t be the ruin of any single brewery, but the collective kleptomania will lead to higher prices and a less convivial atmosphere for all.

Go to Austin Street Brewery and order a taster glass of Patina Pale Ale. Go to Rising Tide and get a flight of four beers served in their wooden tasting box. Go to Foundation Brewing Company and look at the little outline of the state of Maine on the back of your sample of Forge.

If, while enjoying your samples, you see someone trying to steal something, call them out on it. Maybe give them a nasty glare, or mutter a quick, disapproving “Dude” (which is also effective on women). And when you’re done, bring your tasting glass back to the employee at the taps — because it’s the right thing to do.

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