Carla Jean Lauter

The Beer Babe

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I’ve Got My Beer To Keep Me Warm

There will always be a place in my heart for high-strength beers and an ideal time to enjoy them: in the darkness of winter in Maine. I first discovered the warming power of alcohol when my grandmother splashed a tiny bit of whisky into a glass of tea she poured for me when I came in shivering from an afternoon spent playing in the snow. As an adult, I initially turned to fortified wines when the wind howled outside.

Then, in the early 2000s, there was a push by brewers to create “extreme” craft beers — with flavors and alcohol contents stronger than their competitors — in a frenzied attempt to keep the new and fickle beer consumers’ attention. There were a flurry of beers released whose strength exceeded wine and even some spirits (I once tried a beer that was a stunning 55% ABV, which, unfortunately, tasted like a combination of rubbing alcohol and lager). Eventually the pendulum of tastes began to swing in the other direction, and the popularity of lower-alcohol “session” ales took hold. The ABV arms race subsided, but it left a permanent niche for stronger brews.

Enter the barleywines, imperial stouts and barrel-aged beers.

Imperial stouts are probably the most flavorful and booze-packed beers of the bunch, and Maine is home to several breweries producing these world-class stouts. Due to the exceptionally high cost and intense effort required to produce them, imperial stouts are usually once-a-year releases, and are rarely widely available. Thankfully, they do age well, so if you find one you like, you can squirrel some away for the following winter.

The top of my list is Sexy Chaos, from Marshall Wharf Brewing, in Belfast. Released seasonally, it’s an aged version of their Chaos Chaos (an excellent Russian imperial stout in its own right) to which they’ve added vanilla beans and toasted oak chips. This 11.2% ABV beast will warm you up on the coldest nights, and the notes of vanilla give it a decadent flavor.

Arguably harder to find than Sexy Chaos, but just as worth the search, is the Russian imperial stout from dTributary Brewing Company, in Kittery. Brewer Tod Mott’s reincarnation of his famous Portsmouth Brewery recipe, now named Mott The Lesser, has been delighting dark-beer fans since its return a few months after the new brewery opened. This incredibly complex beer offers up flavors of plums, raisins, and dark chocolate, and is divine when warmed up ever so slightly. At 10.5% ABV, its smoothness surprises me — the hidden booziness manifests as a feeling of contentment when you’re about halfway through a glass.

There are few releases I look forward to in wintertime more than Sebago Brewing Company’s barleywine. Sold this year in unique two-packs of cans sealed together with a wrap, Sebago’s Single Batch Series Barleywine stands out on the shelf. A strong and assertive barrel-aged ale, this beer is rich with notes of vanilla, oak and bourbon, and instantly warms you from the inside out. It also lacks the sticky sweetness that can be cloying in other barleywines. I believe this is the best batch of the Barleywine Sebago has made to date, and it’s also the highest in alcohol content. The 2015 batch weighs in at a hefty 11.8% ABV — you’ll definitely taste the booze. If you want it to mellow a bit, try putting it in a cellar for a few years to round it out.

My final go-to for the season is actually available year round: Allagash Curieux. Traditionally, I bring a bottle of this to New Year’s Eve celebrations. It’s a Belgian-style tripel ale that’s been aged in Jim Beam bourbon barrels for nearly two months. If you’ve not yet taken the opportunity to tour Allagash’s Portland brewery, do so and make a point of walking into the room where these barrels are kept — the sensuous aroma of vanilla, oak and sugar will stay with you for quite a long time. Coming in at 11% ABV, Curieux is great for sharing with a few friends and inspiring a reflective mood — pour it into a glass goblet and stare into the fire for awhile for best results.

So, what do we care how much it may storm? We’ve got our beer to keep us warm.

Palate Experiment: IPA-free January

Living in the land of Lunch, Calcutta CutterEpiphany, and Swish, it’s far too easy to end up drinking hoppy beers by default – and I’m beginning to worry that my hoppy “habit” is causing me to miss some of the other styles that deserve more attention.

I thought about how to remedy this, and I came up with a bit of an experiment.

For the month of January, I will ban IPAs from my beer choices.

I know that this is not as hard as giving up beer altogether. However, it does give me a guideline that will help me to make choices when at the bars, bottle shops, and breweries that I regularly visit.

This experiment isn’t really designed to determine how difficult it would be to stay away from IPAs. Instead, it’s a way for me to re-focus my beer tastings to other styles (and maybe even other breweries).

Want to join in? Here are the guidelines as I’ve set them out:

  1. Drink no IPAs or Double/Imperial IPAs.
  2. Drink no American Pale Ales (APAs) because they can be very similar to IPAs.
  3. Branch out your drinking to as many other styles possible.
  4. Discuss the results. #noIPAJan

I am leaving myself two exceptions:

 1. If I am offered a friend's homebrew. (I.e., I'm not going to let this experiment turn me into an ungrateful jerk.)
 2. If I am required to drink one because of a writing assignment.

I know that, to many of you, this sounds like a simple task. There are a wide diversity of beer styles available, and it shouldn’t be hard to find beers to fill the gap, especially in winter. But, to me it is still worth trying.

If anything, it’s an exercise in being more aware of what I’m drinking, staying outside of my comfort zone, resetting my palate, and seeing if there is anything that can be learned from the experience.

Wish me luck and let me know if you plan to participate!


The Beer Babe’s Best – 2015 (The Bollard)

“What’s your favorite beer?” is the most loaded question a beer writer can be asked. I view it as highly conditional. Do you mean the beer I most like to sit on my porch and sip? The beer I’d drink to accompany my last meal? The beer I’d drink if I could only drink one beer for the rest of my life?

I’d like to propose a compromise. I can offer my opinion on Maine’s best beers this year, but only in their own contexts. The following list showcases Maine’s best brewing talent, embraces the creativity characteristic of most Maine brewers, and features beers I’d be happy to order at any bar — or be stuck with on a desert island.

Maine’s Best New Brewery

During Portland Beer Week last month, I attended the Maine Brewers’ Guild’s “Freshman Class” event, which showcased breweries opened in the past year, and sampled beer from all five of Maine’s newest breweries: Lubec Brewing Company, Marsh Island Brewing, Orono Brewing Company, Blank Canvas Brewery, and Square Tail Brewing Co. Of those, Orono Brewing Company stood out. They technically opened on New Year’s Eve, in 2014, but that’s close enough for me. For a new brewery, their mastery of a variety of styles, from their Ozone IPA to their White Nitro Cream Ale — poured with nitrogen, instead of CO2, like a Guinness — demonstrated an impressive level of quality and creativity. They’ve recently released collaboration beers with Geaghan Brothers (of Bangor) and Banded Horn (based in Biddeford), so look for them to have a strong presence on the Maine beer scene in the upcoming year.

Best New Maine Beer

A wide array of wonderful new beers were birthed in our state over the past dozen months, but none caught my eye (and my taste buds) like Foundation Brewing Company’s Epiphany. This hoppy and balanced beer has enchanted so many locals and visitors that the Portland-based artisanal brewery must struggle to meet the demand. Visit their brewery on Industrial Way on a day a fresh batch is released and you’ll find that the wait for the four-pack of orange cans is more than worth it.

Best Maine IPA

During Portland Beer Week, The Great Lost Bear hosted a Maine IPA tap takeover that featuring nearly 20 varieties of pale ale. After sampling almost all of them side by side, I finally determined my favorite: Rising Tide’s Calcutta Cutter. Technically an Imperial (Double) IPA, this is a super-pleasing, hop-forward beer with perfect balance. At its freshest, it presents a citrus and piney taste complemented by just the right amount of bitterness. If you like hops at all, this is the best presentation of them Maine has to offer. Available a few times a year, the current batch is better than ever, so grab it if and while you can.

Best Maine Stout/Porter

IPAs tend to take center stage in the beer world. About 25 percent of beer sales were in that category this year. But stepping outside the realm of hops, there are several stand-outs in Maine for those who like to dwell on the darker, roasted end of the beer spectrum. Banded Horn’s Jolly Woodsman Coffee Stout is a blend of two different stouts (Norweald and Mountain), with the addition of wood-roasted espresso from Matt’s Coffee. The result is an intense, coffee-laden beer with some exceptionally pleasant and bitter notes. This one’s for the true lumberjacks among us, and deserves the praise.

Maine’s Most Creative Beer

Though Maine is famous for seafood, few brewers have had the courage to incorporate the ocean’s bounty into their beer — for understandable reasons. While there have been a handful of good oyster stouts, this year saw the debut of a beer featuring Maine’s iconic crustacean: the lobster. Oxbow Brewing Company’s Saison Dell’Aragosta (aragosta is Italian for lobster) was brewed with lobsters added to the boil kettle (and later reportedly consumed in a beer-soaked feast). Rather than a fishy flavor, this saison attained a lovely balance of brine and funk, surpassing expectations and receiving some worthy national press.

Best Label/Can Design

bbcansAs a graphic design enthusiast, I spend more time looking at beer labels than your typical consumer. Cans arguably provide more space for creativity, but few breweries take advantage of the whole canvas like Portland’s Bissell Brothers Brewing Company. Bissell Brothers has expanded and elaborated beyond its original black-on-sliver design for its flagship ale, The Substance, and now its line of beers is available in a variety of colorful, yet consistently branded, cans. The Bissells’ ability to push creative boundaries while maintaining brand integrity is a skill nearly as impressive as their brewing.

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