Published in the May 2016 issue of The Bollard
Years ago, if you ordered a brew made with fruit, or even allowed a slice to garnish the rim of your glass, you risked being the subject of ridicule for being “girly.” There was a stigma that bordered on sexism (and homophobia) attributed to fruit beers. They were considered the alternative for people who didn’t like the taste of “real beer.”
Fast forward to 2016. I’m standing in a beer store, staring at a wall of six-packs chilling in the cooler. As I watch other beer-savvy customers make their selections, I notice a trend. You can see it right on the labels: fruit.
Most of the fruit beers popular in Maine these days are brewed in other states. Ballast Point, a brewery in San Diego that recently began distributing here, brought a portfolio of India Pale Ales flavored with pineapple, grapefruit, and even Habenero peppers. Samuel Adams, in Boston, makes a Grapefruit IPA (given the manly name Rebel), as does Vermont’s Magic Hat Brewing Co., which dubbed theirs Electric Peel. Harpoon, another famous Boston brewery, has a new mango-flavored pale ale called Camp Wannamango.
What’s behind the revival, or redemption, of fruit beers? It can be partly attributed to the popularity of more fruit-forward hops. Many of the hops used to make some of the juiciest IPAs (like the East Coast–style IPAs developing in our region) produce aromas and flavors similar to those of tropical fruits, so the addition of the same is complementary.
The obsession with hops that accompanied the IPA craze has made it possible for guys to order a pineapple-flavored beer at a crowded bar without a hint of embarrassment. And brewers of the best varieties now eschew fake flavorings in favor of fresh fruits or purées that give their beers a bright character. The improvement in taste has been dramatic.
So why aren’t more Maine breweries riding this gushing wave? Well, we aren’t exactly in the tropics, and Maine brewers love to keep it local when sourcing their ingredients, so grapefruit and pineapple are out. But Maine does have a bounty of berries, especially blackberries, raspberries and, of course, the blue ones.
The first blueberry beer in Maine was brewed in 1993 by Atlantic Brewing Company. According to legend, it was inspired by the time a farmer showed up at their Bar Harbor brew pub desperate to unload a truck full of his crop. Atlantic’s Bar Harbor Blueberry Ale, which is a little less sweet than many of its imitators, has since become a Maine staple.
More recently, local brewers have been using berries to boldly go beyond sweetness, into tart and sour territories. Liquid Riot’s Rasby Trouble is a twist on a traditionally sour Belgian style, called Oud Bruin (or Old Brown). The raspberries add a welcome tartness to what can be a slightly acidic-tasting brown ale.
The funk masters at Allagash Brewing Company also use fruit in creative ways. Their Farm to Face ale is made with heaps of fresh peaches (three pounds per gallon) from an orchard in New Hampshire. Little Sal, a clever play on the title of the classic children’s book Blueberries for Sal, was a sour red beer made with blueberries grown in Windham. Beers in Allagash’s wild-fermented Coolship series have been flavored with cherries and raspberries.
The influx of fruited beers from away may swamp the local market this summer, but Maine brewers have the berries, the brains and the bravery necessary to battle back with homegrown varieties that are just as good and even more interesting. The smart money is still on the locals.
If you sense that Maine is going through another brewery growth spurt, your intuition is correct. Since the beginning of this year, four new breweries have joined Maine’s ranks. That leads me to a staggering statistic: the number of breweries in our state — 73 at the time of this writing — has doubled since 2011. And there are at least 10 more slated to open before the end of 2016, seven of them by this summer.
Although this sounds like a fantastic problem to have, the profusion of breweries does make it difficult to keep up with them all and to describe their beers to visitors and friends. With each brewery making, on average, about a half dozen varieties, we’re talking about hundreds of options.
How do you know if the beer in your hand is actually a “great beer,” or if it’s just OK or has some problems? Here are a few simple guidelines. Ask yourself the following:
- Do you like it? (I know this sounds obvious, but stick with me here.) Does it taste good and bring a smile to your face? A beer’s color and aroma and mouthfeel are all part of the experience, but your taste buds are the most important decider. If you can’t answer this question in the affirmative, stop there. Likewise, if the style doesn’t suit you (e.g., if you don’t enjoy sour beers or particularly hoppy ones) or if you’re just not in the mood for that kind of beer that day, it’s completely fair to throw in the towel and move on. Peer pressure is a real thing in the craft beer world. I encourage you to resist it.
- Is the beer true to its style, or does it taste as it was described to you? Not every beer has to be a perfect archetype of its variety — brewing and tasting would be boring tasks if that were the case — and some breweries toss these guidelines out the window to come up with new, experimental combinations that defy traditional definitions. But if someone hands you a beer, tells you it’s a really hoppy IPA, and it tastes more like, say, an Allagash White (a Belgian-style wheat beer), that’s a bit of an issue.
- If you’ve had this particular beer before, does it taste the same as you remember it? One of the most challenging aspects of operating a successful brewery is keeping beer consistent from batch to batch. It takes more precision and attention to make the same beer twice than it does to make two different high-quality beers. I have seen many breweries in Maine struggle with this. Usually I’ll reach out to a brewer and say, “Hey, I noticed this isn’t the same as last time. What’s up?” Often those brewers tell me the recipe is changing, or say they’re still working on consistency or breaking in new equipment. I don’t give up on a beer at that point, but I will wait for a few batches to come and go before I give it another try. A little leeway is OK, but when you’re paying for a product you should expect (and demand) that it’s consistent.
- Is there anything “off” about it? In the beer world there are actual classes you can take on “off” flavors — their causes and the solutions to eliminate them. But some are easy to identify without any training. There are a host of problems at every step in the process — from sourcing ingredients to pouring a pint — that manifest themselves as skunky, buttery, soapy, vegetable-like, fruity, wet cardboard, metallic or medicinal flavors. If you notice any of those, bring them to the bar’s or the brewery’s attention immediately. Some “off” flavors can be caused by lack of sanitation or dirty tap lines, others by rushing a beer to market or taking other shortcuts. Though such flavors won’t hurt you, drinking “off” beers is almost the equivalent of eating spoiled food. Don’t tolerate it, especially if it happens more than once.
If you finish your pint or taster glass and its contents have passed all the tests above, then congratulations, you’ve found a great Maine beer! Tell all your friends and people “from away” to seek it out.
If the beer falls short in one of those areas, don’t be shy about sharing your thoughts with the brewer or bartender. If the beer gets better over time, you can always put it back on your list. If not, take heart that there are more choices than ever these days, so you’re bound to find a Maine beer that tastes great to you.
All About Beer Magazine – Volume 36, Issue 6
Despite being the historic home of Neal Dow, the father of the Prohibition statute known as The Maine Law, Portland, Maine, is far from being dry today. There are now nearly a dozen breweries in the immediate Portland area, and over 60 statewide. Beers from breweries spread across the state can often be found on tap somewhere in Portland—saving lots of additional travel to the more far-flung corners of the state. The city of Portland has its own airport and is also easily accessible by bus and rail from Boston—making it an ideal spot for a weekend beer visit. [Read more on All About Beer.com]
A few notes on this article since it went to print:
- Austin Street Brewery is not as tiny
- Rising Tide Brewing Co. has a newly expanded tasting room
- Bissell Brothers has moved to a new location at Thompson’s Point
- Foundation Brewing plans to expand into the former Bissell Brothers space
- Urban Farm Fermentory is now brewing beer (gruit) in addition to ciders, kombucha.
- A new brewery, Lone Pine Brewing Company, has joined the yEast Bayside neighborhood.
That’s the pace of the changes around here! Cheers!
Portland Beer Week, happening Nov. 1-7, is a celebration of the state’s beer scene, a collection of events designed to showcase the best brews, encourage experimentation and collaboration, and rekindle the camaraderie local craft brewers famously share. There are opportunities to try beers that will never be made again, or sample a new brewery’s beer for the first time. Portland Beer Week is also a good time to reflect on the industry’s previous year and look ahead to where the scene is going.
There are now over 4,000 breweries operating in the United States, which is just shy of the historical peak of 4,131 breweries that were open in 1873. Based on the current rate of openings, it’s predicted that we’ll exceed that previous high in early 2016. Maybe one of Maine’s breweries-in-waiting will end up being number 4,132. Depending how you count, there are over 60 breweries in the Pine Tree State, with several in the planning stage that should come online next spring and summer. The pace of openings has slowed a little, but the rate of expansions has not. It seems that nearly every month, one of our favorite locals has a flatbed truck with a bigger fermentation tank strapped on it pulling up to its front door.
Last month, Budweiser’s corporate parent, AB InBev, the world’s largest beer company, announced its intention to merge/take over the second-largest beer manufacturer in the world, SABMiller (maker of Coors, Miller, and dozens of other brands). The resulting conglomerate would be so large that three out of every 10 beers brewed on the planet would come from that one mega-brewer. It would be bigger than Coke buying Pepsi.
I mention this not because it is going to drastically change the way Mainers drink beer, but to point out that we are entering a new phase of the craft beer business. Many are concerned this merger will make it harder for local breweries to get their beer distributed, because both companies have their hands in distribution networks across the world. Others say it could encourage the new beer behemoth to include more “craft” beers in its portfolio, but with the unfair advantage of being able to produce and distribute these faux-micros on a massive scale. Nationally, numerous smaller brands have been sold off to larger entities in the past few months, angering fans who accuse them of “selling out.”
During the past decade of craft beer expansion, Maine has been largely insulated from the Wall Street world of mergers, takeovers and buyouts. Though there is contract brewing here (by which a brewer contracts to use a larger company’s facilities to produce and/or distribute their product), we haven’t had to face the disappointing news that one of our own has relinquished its independence.
Why not Maine? For one thing, most of our breweries have limited distribution (many don’t even cross a state line), so they’re not tempting targets for Big Beer to acquire. I think there’s also a stubbornness and an independent streak characteristic of Mainers that can make such deals a tough sell. Tough, but not impossible, however.
Rather than trying to hide from the changes to come, I suggest we revel in our good fortunes right now. Maine beer lovers are in the midst of a golden age of growth, independence, collaboration and creativity.
To help guide this revelry, I’ve made a “bucket list” for this year’s Beer Week events…
- Try a few different local IPAs and actually decide which is your favorite.
- Reap the benefits of collaboration: find a beer created by at least two brewers.
- Ask a brewer how they realized they wanted to make beer, and what a typical day on the job is like for them.
- Pair food from a restaurant, food truck or farmers’ market with your beer.
- Bring a can of beer to a place you couldn’t bring a bottle.
- Try beer from a brewery you’ve never heard of before.
- Try a style of beer you haven’t had before.
- Go to a bar or tasting room you’ve never been to before.
- Try a Maine beer that’s brewed over 50 miles from where you live.
After making this list, I realized our beer scene is so strong that one could do all these things during any week of the year.
Now, that’s the way life should be.
Mama’s CrowBar, a popular watering hole on Portland’s Munjoy Hill, will serve its last beer this Labor Day. Owner Tricia Pryce Henley will be hitting the road this fall in a refurbished camper, nicknamed “Honey,” leaving her beloved city of Portland to visit friends, family and fellow poets while figuring out what’s next.
It might be easy to let a bar in a city full of them close without much acknowledgement, shrugging and muttering something like, “Oh well, guess that’s how business goes these days.” But Mama’s was not just a bar. This place had a significant impact on its rapidly changing neighborhood, on the landscape of craft beer on the peninsula, and on the community that gathered around its taps. And the CrowBar isn’t simply going out of business. Its closure is the culmination of a long and tangled legal battle between Henley and the building’s owners — which is a particularly painful way for a well-loved establishment to meet its demise.
Though its story is unique, the closing of the CrowBar seems symptomatic of the development pressures affecting the now-trendy Munjoy Hill neighborhood, as well as working–class enclaves facing gentrification in other cities. “I think what’s happening to this bar is happening to little huts and taverns all over the place,” Tricia said when I paid her a visit at Mama’s last month.
This 10-stool Congress Street bar, formerly George’s Tavern, had been sold and was operating as Awful Annie’s Irish Saloon for several years before Tricia took it over in 2009 and made it Mama’s. She arrived with a mission. When she first sat down with the beer distributors to place orders, eyebrows raised over her refusal to serve Pabst Blue Ribbon (on grounds that it contains corn syrup). People told her she couldn’t run a bar in this town without carrying PBR. Tricia raised more eyebrows when she insisted on making Allagash Black (her favorite beer) a flagship of the bar, instead of the much more popular White. Her opening tap lineup consisted of Allagash Black, Allagash Curieux (a bourbon-barrel-aged tripel), Brooklyn Lager and Sebago’s Frye’s Leap IPA. The draft list made some people think she was crazy.
Allagash Black has remained a fixture at Mama’s. I’ve yet to find another bar (or even brewery) that features a Belgian-style stout atop its offerings. Mama’s CrowBar has also been a supportive home for new breweries. “I met Nathan Sanborn [co-owner of Rising Tide] right here, sitting at the end of the bar with an unlabeled beer in his hand,” Tricia recalled. “Oxbow delivered their first keg for the bar on a skateboard.” Not one can of PBR has been served.
As we sat and talked, Tricia checked in with everyone coming and going. She made sure her customers had what they needed, even if all they needed was to sit at the end of the bar and read a book. As one of the relatively few female bar owners in Portland, Tricia has been an outspoken advocate for women in a male-dominated environment where bars are often considered places for men to either pick up or get away from members of the opposite sex. She established the CrowBar as a “safe space” where harassment of any type — hate speech or degradation of anyone based on their beliefs, race or sexual orientation — was not tolerated. As patrons witnessed Tricia and her staff make good on their promise to intervene when harassment took place, the number of female customers grew along with the overall diversity of the clientele.
Any new bar on the Hill will have a hard time replacing or replicating the ethos Mama’s established — assuming its owners even care to do. “New businesses in Portland are disconnected from the people in Portland,” Tricia said. “The people of Portland do care how their actions affect other people, and then these businesses roll up and they open and they don’t [care]. They don’t think about their neighborhood.”
It would be naïve to believe our favorite neighborhoods and taverns will never change. My hope for Portland is not that everything remains the same. I hope that throughout the inevitable changes, bar owners and brewers and proprietors of small businesses of all kinds will have the courage to defy conventional wisdom and stand up for the people and the values of their neighborhoods. If the story of Mama’s CrowBar can teach us anything, let it be that.