Carla Jean Lauter

The Beer Babe

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You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby

Originally published in the Februay 2017 issue of The Bollard

I am used to getting asked questions about the best breweries to visit in Portland, and where to track down the elusive New England-style IPAs that our region is known for. But lately I’ve fielded a few unexpected inquiries that had a common theme: “Where are the best family-friendly tap and tasting rooms?”

Bars and breweries generally don’t top any lists of family-friendly venues. For most of our adult lives they were considered dark, smoke-filled, loud establishments — certainly not a comfortable place for families with children.

Historically, however, the sight of kids at a brewery was not an odd occurrence. Bier “gardens” were similar to parks, and families could spend time there together while the adults enjoyed a few relatively low-strength beers. In Germany and other parts of Europe, it’s still common practice for adults to enjoy adult beverages while the whole family enjoys a meal at a pub. But America’s relationship with alcohol is tricky, and there are still some lingering fears dating back to when dens of liquor and drunkenness were certainly no place for youngsters. Thankfully, our new wave of breweries is helping to change that.

Brewery tasting rooms are becoming community gathering places, what social scientists call a “third space” apart from the home (the “first place”) and the workplace (“second place”). Cities that have an abundance of these third spaces have residents who are more civically engaged and more empathetic towards neighbors, as well as a host of other positive community attributes.

Breweries in Maine are using their tasting rooms for all kinds of activities beyond listening to bands and watching sporting events: political gatherings, history lectures, and even yoga are among the things happening in these beer halls these days.

New parents who’ve participated in the craft beer revolution are now seeking out family-friendly places and, by and large, Maine breweries are welcoming them. Erin Abraham, a new mom and craft beer fan living in Portland, has been happy to visit her favorite tasting rooms with her eight-month-old daughter Lily in tow. “Every tasting room I’ve gone to seems to be kid-friendly,” Abraham told me. “But also, I don’t really think of whether or not other people think it’s kid-friendly, or whether it’s ‘meant’ for kids.”

Several brewers I chatted with said they didn’t specifically promote or design their tasting rooms as being kid-friendly — families just fit in with the vibe that already existed. Tasting rooms tend to keep shorter hours, they’re open during the daytime, and many have communal or family-style seating, like picnic tables, so it’s easy to feel welcomed there. To attract more families, breweries could consider adding changing tables (to both men’s and women’s restrooms), and keeping a positive attitude about the tiny humans coming through their doors.

Coincidentally, many Maine brewery owners have also recently become parents. The folks at Foundation Brewing Company and Bissell Brothers have both begun to raise broods since opening their breweries and, unsurprisingly, they’ve created spaces where they feel comfortable bringing their own kids, while inviting others to do the same.

Tumbledown Brewing, in Farmington, has a tasting room that welcomes families. “I love having kiddos peek into the brewery and go ‘wow’ when they see all the shiny equipment,” said owner Matt Swan. Swan also sees an opportunity in the future to set an example for his son. “Just like we will teach our little boy to respect people and be kind to others, it is very important that he be brought into bars and tap rooms and be taught how to respect alcohol and understand proper consumption.”

Bars and restaurants that specialize in craft beer are also extending invitations to the whole clan. In Portland, Little Tap House regularly hosts “BYOB (Bring Your Own Baby)” events that encourage parents to bring their infants and toddlers with them for a parental happy hour that also features a photo booth for capturing some adorable portraits.

At The Thirsty Pig, in the Old Port, owner Allison Stevens says she sees positive family experiences in the restaurant “almost every week” even though the establishment doesn’t explicitly promote family-centric dining or events. “We had an eight-year-old girl enter our Oktoberfest sausage-eating contest against ten grown men, and she won!” Stevens said. “She then ordered a quesadilla after. I was so proud.”

So what’s the best way to find out if a brewery or bar in Maine is family-friendly? Stop by and say hello. More often than not, you’ll find what you need.


Header picture by ChrisGoldNY on Flickr

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!

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