Carla Jean Lauter

The Beer Babe

Category: The Bollard (Page 1 of 10)

Into The Woods

Walk into a modern American or European brewery for a tour and you’ll most likely encounter towering steel tanks and a maze of shiny pipes glistening with condensation. For most commercial brewers, the brewing process begins and ends in these metal chambers, which are designed to be sterile vessels that leave the developing beer unperturbed while it undergoes its transformation. But some breweries have a corner, or a room, or an entire building that’s devoted to a very different approach, an organic process that involves a key element typically left off the list of ingredients: wood.

Compared to steel tanks, wood barrels are a whole new (or, really, much older) ballgame. Wood is porous and, as a result, it’s nearly impossible to keep its interior completely sterile. Thus, brewers aging their beer in wood may inadvertently introduce native yeasts, bacteria and other bugs that can change the flavor. The brew may also pick up traits from the wood itself, depending on the type of tree. Done correctly, or when adjusted by blending multiple batches together, you get beer that’s entirely new, fresh and unique, and the drawback of wood becomes a benefit.

Brewers have been barrel-aging beer for centuries — mostly out of necessity, before the advent of modern industrial production. In the early years of the new millennium, as craft beer got more popular and the first mainstream barrel-aged varieties, such as Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout, hit the market, a new era of experimentation began and attempts to create the most robustly wood-flavored beers reached a fever pitch.

Perhaps as a consequence of palate fatigue, the barrel-aged craze slowed for a while, but lately it’s been making a comeback in more subtle and refined ways. Instead of smothering a stout with boozy bourbon, brewers are creating new mash-ups that result in remarkably creative and complex craft beers unlike anything you’ve tasted before.

As I noted, the characteristics of the wood can be imparted to the beer. Oak barrels, for example, can give beer a vanilla-like taste without the introduction of a single vanilla bean. The previous contents of the barrel can also infuse flavors into beer, as happens when brewers use barrels (or chips of barrels) that were once used to age bourbon, rum, tequila or other spirits.

Some brewers have found creative uses for cast-off wine barrels, making beverages that begin to blur the line between beer and wine. Fruit and other natural additives can also be introduced into the barrels to give the beer more depth and nuance of flavor. The barrel-aging process — which can last for weeks, months, or even years — can completely change the character of the beer that’s initially poured inside.

The creativity of craft brewers, combined with the increasing availability of local ingredients and of barrels from small-scale distillers, has introduced a wide variety of new styles to a sub-market that was previously dominated by heavy, booze-steeped stouts. There’s a golden opportunity to sample the new diversity of wood-kissed brews this month. On Sept. 23, at the Portland Company Complex on Munjoy Hill, the folks from BeerAdvocate, a magazine and online forum based in Boston, are teaming up with Allagash Brewing Company to host a festival called Beer Meets Wood. The event boasts the largest selection of wood-barrel-aged beers on the East Coast. Over 200 varieties are slated to be poured, including brews made in the United States and in Belgium, where the practice of barrel-aging has been steadily developing for hundreds of years.

Maine has a number of breweries that excel at this tricky art. Barrel-aged beers that would be rare in other places are almost commonplace around here, like the infallible Allagash Curieux, a tripel aged in bourbon barrels that was first brewed in 2004. The aptly named Barreled Souls, in Saco, has had great success experimenting with their small batches. The tequila-barrel-aged version of their tart, limey Space Gose tastes just like a margarita. Oxbow recently released a barrel-aged version of their flagship Farmhouse Pale Ale that resists definition. The wood adds a slightly funky character to the refined base beer, teasing out just a hint of vanilla from the French oak barrels in which it was aged.

The sterile predictability of steel has its function, for sure, but what better time and place than autumn in Maine to get lost in the woods?

Bring it On Home

Finding local craft beer to take home in Portland seems simple — just go to one of the bottle shops that carry Maine micros. Bier Cellar (299 Forest Ave.) has a highly knowledgeable staff who’ll help you navigate their curated selection and will provide recommendations. RSVP Discount Beverage (887 Forest Ave.) is a big store that also stocks liquor and wine. A bit further down the avenue, at 1037 Forest, Friendly Discount Beverage has a big beer cave. And in the Old Port, Craft Beer Cellar recently reopened in a new location, 320 Fore St.

Here’s the problem, though. Only a fraction of Maine breweries have packaged products that reliably make it to retail, and it seems like they all do it differently.

For the smallest breweries, it can be logistically impossible to brew enough beer to make it worth the cost of packaging it. Many use growlers to fill the need for take-home beer in the interim. For example, in South Portland, newly opened Island Dog Brewing does not currently offer packaged beer. You can go to the tasting room on John Roberts Road to sample beer or have a growler filled, but I don’t expect you’ll be sipping Island Dog from a bottle or can until they grow.

Third-party packagers, including mobile canning companies that bring their equipment to breweries, can help crafters get some of their product to the masses on the go. This saves new breweries from having to invest in expensive, permanent canning or bottling lines, but it can be cumbersome to do this regularly, so many brewers save the mobile operations for special releases.

Fore River Brewing, on Huntress Avenue in South Portland, has offered bottles of a barrel-aged version of their stout and other special beers, but they’ve yet to put their flagship brews into take-home packages. Foulmouthed Brewing, a brewery and brewpub that’s also in South Portland, does occasional large-format bottle releases, but I recommend a visit for samples rather than waiting for a release – there’s too much good food and beer available now to wait.

When in doubt as to whether a favorite beer is available for retail sale, your best bet is to go straight to the source. Lone Pine (in East Bayside) and Battery Steele (on Industrial Way) are beginning to flesh out their packaging schedules, and though both make it into bottle shops, it may be easier to find on premises.

Austin Street Brewery (also on Industrial Way) just installed their own canning equipment. They’re now releasing Patina Pale Ale in cans on a semi-regular basis, much to my delight. Breweries’ websites and social media pages are generally the best sources to track releases. Bier Cellar’s Twitter account and e-mail notifications keep you informed when new batches of popular local beers arrive, like Bissell Brothers’ hazy and hoppy cans, but you still have to hustle — they don’t last long there, either.

Larger breweries whose year-round lineup of beers is reliably available in stores also offer smaller batches of specialty releases on a catch-as-catch-can basis. For example, some of Allagash Brewing Company’s rarest seasonal or specialty releases are available for take-home sale only in their tasting room on Industrial Way.

Foundation Brewing Company (Industrial Way) and Rising Tide Brewing Company (on Fox Street in East Bayside) have worked out a nice balance between beers available exclusively in their tasting rooms, those with retail distribution, and the handling of special releases. They both pilot varieties in the tasting room which can then, as interest or demand dictates, graduate to become beers brewed in larger batches and packaged.

I’ve also been seeing more beer from Portland’s Liquid Riot (250 Commercial St.) and Bunker Brewing Company (17 Westfield St.) make it into distribution lately, but special releases are still best acquired at their respective locations. In Westbrook, Mast Landing Brewing Company has been ramping up their can releases via their tasting room on Main Street and through limited retail distribution. (Their Facebook page is the best source for the skinny on new releases.)

Breweries that consistently produce enough product to be available in craft beer shops, supermarkets and convenience or neighborhood grocery stores are in a final category. The three founding breweries in Portland — D.L. Geary Brewing Company, Gritty McDuff’s and Shipyard Brewing Company — are well distributed throughout the state, and Sebago Brewing Company’s beers are also more widely available these days. I love that even in a pinch I can pick up a six-pack of Sebago’s Simmer Down summer session ale or a 12-pack of Geary’s HSA – two great beers to drink with friends at a cookout.

Ain’t No Party Like a Craft Beer Party

Originally published in the May 2017 issue of The Bollard


You’ve dragged your patio furniture out of the shed, dusted off the umbrella, and now you want to throw a party. Maybe it’s a barbeque. Maybe it’s tacos and a rousing round of Cards Against Humanity. Craft beer is a must, but what do you pick to serve your friends?

Something hoppy is mandatory. Thankfully, the Maine beer world is inundated with excellent IPAs and double IPAs. If you don’t have the time to wait in line or search for some of the rarer choices, go for some of the hopped-up brews that are widely available, like Rising Tide Zephyr, Baxter Stowaway, or Maine Beer Company Peeper.

Breadth of style is also important, though. To be inclusive and cover your bases, pick something light but decidedly not hoppy — Allagash White is a great choice for this — and then something with a maltier body, like a Geary’s HSA.

If you’re in a rush, there’s a new option that many breweries are offering these days: the mixed 12-pack. Twelve-packs of cans have gotten a bad reputation. They remind some of us of picking up the cheapest beer possible from the corner store by the college and drinking it as quickly as possible. But times have changed. Craft companies are including three or four different kinds of beer in the same 12-pack box. Sebago Brewing Company and Baxter Brewing Company regularly produce mixed 12-packs of cans that are great for gatherings of friends with diverse tastes.

In addition to the crowd-pleasers, I like to serve at least one oddball beer for people to discuss, like Banded Horn’s Samoan Drop. “Have you had this one?” I’ll ask. “They brewed this porter with Girl Scout Cookies!” Serving an unconventional or limited-release beer is a good way to display your craft beer fandom without being snobbish about it. Find something that piques your curiosity and take a risk.

In the same vein, there are a lot of interesting fermentables that double as great conversation-starters. Maine Mead Works has a series of “session” meads called Ram Island. The meads in this series are really palate friendly, not overly sweet, limited to 6.9% ABV, and come in a variety of flavors, including an Iced Tea Mead, Lavender Lemonade, and Ginger. These meads are much more satisfying than the so-called “malternatives” (malt alternatives) that include artificial flavorings.

Don’t be afraid to stray from local beer. There are some excellent out-of-state breweries that have recently begun distributing in Maine. Colorado’s New Belgium Brewing Company has finally crossed the heartland to bring their Fat Tire amber ale to our backyards. It has a different hop profile than what we’ve grown to love here in New England, and the departure is a welcome one. From across the pond, the makers of Guinness have released a beer in the U.S. that they had been brewing specifically for the Belgian market for years. The Antwerpen Stout is nothing like a regular Guinness. It has its own distinct body and some really fine, dark flavors.

Lastly, it is wise to consider the macro drinkers. Despite the growing popularity of craft beer, the macro brands (those owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev and SABMiller) still dominate the market, though they’re losing share every year. The gracious thing to do is to try to accommodate these drinkers, but rather than running out to grab a rack of Bud Light, find a locally made pilsner that won’t turn them off and may turn them on to the wonders of the micro world. I’d grab a six-pack of Bunker Brewing Company Cypher, Banded Horn Pepperell Pils, or Peak Organic Brewing Happy Hour. Dirigo Brewing Company will begin canning their flagship Dirigo Lager this month, which is another good option. These flavorful, lighter-bodied beers will be familiar enough for non-craft drinkers, and you won’t be stuck with beer you won’t drink if there are still some cans floating in the cooler the next day.

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