Carla Jean Lauter

The Beer Babe

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Maine. Yes, Beer’s Good Here.

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.

 

 

Finding great fall beer — without the P-word

How do you mark the change of seasons into fall? Do you order pumpkin-spiced lattés and put your favorite sweater back on? Or do you curse every time you see a new pumpkin-flavored product cross your path?

Many of my beer-drinking friends grumble about this time of year because the choices tend to be dominated by artificially flavored ales. But I embrace autumn as a time to discover new beers and styles that complement the season. There are plenty of entry points that don’t involve pumpkins or spices at all.

The advent of autumn typically heralds the arrival of more malt-forward beers, those with notes of caramel, biscuit and hearty breads. Sometimes these beers are spiced, but many of the original styles brewed for fall eschew any added ingredients — a throwback to an old German law that prohibited the addition of adjuncts in beer for the sake of purity. Modern American craft brewers, however, often take full advantage of the freedom and creativity available to them, and have come up with their own special brews to meet the tastes of this time of year.

For those reluctant to give up their summer obsession with hops, it’s possible to ease into the transition with Sebago Brewing Company’s Bonfire Rye. This rye-based brew has a notable hop presence on top of an earthy, malted backbone and a crisp finish. The rye also gives it a slightly more substantial mouth feel, which can be missing in similar seasonals. Bonfire Rye avoids becoming too sweet or too malty, yet still reminds you that the days are shortening and the leaves are changing colors. This year marks its debut in cans, and Bonfire Rye is now widely available in Maine.

If you’re into the Belgian styles or got hooked on saisons in the spring, seek out one of Rising Tide’s seasonal Entrepôt saisons. The one for autumn, named “d’automne,” deftly merges style and seasonality. This dark orange beer has an aroma that reminds me of pepper, oranges and grains, like a subtle fall potpourri. The taste is slightly fruity, with some peppery saison bites coming in at the end of each sip.

For those who are more in the traditionalist camp, looking for a true Oktoberfest (Märzen) lager, you could track down the imports or you could check out Sierra Nevada’s Oktoberfest, which is new this year. As part of an annual effort to collaborate with German brewers, Sierra Nevada’s team worked with brewers from Brauhaus Riegele to make as authentic an Oktoberfest as possible. It hits all the right notes, and blows most of the domestically brewed Oktoberfests out of the water. (Apparently I’m not alone in this opinion; Sierra’s Oktoberfest is currently the top-rated Märzen on the beer-rating website Beer Advocate.)

Another worthy fall beer from out of state (New Hampshire, in this case) is Henniker Brewing Company’s Hometown Double Brown. Henniker started distributing in Maine earlier this year, and their high-quality beers have been catching my attention. This one is a special release, and is without exaggeration one of the best brown ales I’ve ever had. It somehow manages to taste robust without being heavy, and has a slightly sweet but well balanced flavor. Look for it in 22 oz. bottles featuring a picture of a covered bridge and fall foliage. My only regret about this beer is that it doesn’t come in smaller bottles; otherwise it would have a place among my regular refrigerator stock.

Fall also marks the return of Bissell Brothers’ Bucolia, which is slightly different than last year’s version due to a change-up in the yeast. Bucolia is billed as an amber ale, but its color is closer to brown and its taste is hard to categorize. The aroma is all hops, and really a delight to experience. The taste, like most Bissell Brothers beers, is very hop-forward, but this one’s grain bill beefs up the back end with some malts. It tastes stronger than its ABV, which is under 6 percent.

Amber ales, brown ales, Märzen, rye beer, porters and German altbier can all be a good fit for fall. When in doubt this time of year, I just order something that matches the color of the leaves.

 

The Session #104 – Don’t Stop The Music

 

session_logo_no_friday_text_inside_200I’m starting with a plea: Please, if it doesn’t have to end, don’t stop The Session. 

The Session has been in existence as long as I’ve been a beer blogger, and has provided me with points of view and access to the minds of other writers and bloggers for years. You (collectively) have provided examples of thought-provoking and interesting writing when it used to be so much more difficult to connect to – and continue to be a place to find new perspectives when the general social media world is becoming saturated with fluff. Though I’m not what you would call a regular contributor (though I have hosted a few), I do read, share and comment – and the posts and collaborations and thinking involved in their execution gives me inspiration to reflect on my own writing.

I think gathering a community to discuss common topics in writing is still essential in any niche. There are so many bad pieces of writing out there about beer that it is still refreshing to find a chunk of dedicated bloggers actually talking about things beyond the clickbait and the listicles.

Maybe in our increasingly fractioned lives we need to just find another way to be reminded – or a swift kick in the ass to remember why we are all doing what we’re doing. Perhaps it’s a simple an email list? Perhaps a little more encouragement from colleagues and hosts reaching out to those who should contribute? I know this places more of the work on the host, but I think a small amount of effort there could make significant gains.

I admit I hadn’t paid attention to the slow decline of people willing to host – and I’d like to volunteer right here and now to host a future session. Sign me up.

If I do know one thing – if it must end, let’s end on a high note. Go out with a bang instead of a whimper. Let’s set a number – getting to the end of 2015 perhaps? Or hitting a convenient (albeit meaningless) round number of total posts (110? 125?).

The rationale behind this type of exit would be to announce it – promote it – and reap that last sentimental groundswell of effort.

Has anyone ever quantified it? How many posts? How many words? How many different writers {Yes, Alan, I’m calling them writers} have contributed?  If it must end, let’s end with a triumph and a swell to celebrate the original purpose and the work put in by all.

Cheers -Carla

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