Carla Jean Lauter

The Beer Babe

Category: The Bollard (Page 2 of 6)

The Good, The Bad, and The Buttery

Originally published in the April edition of The Bollard.

As we begin the annual ramp-up toward the busy summer season in Maine, there are a few issues on the tasting-room table that warrant some attention…

The Good

This summer will bring more people to Maine for beer than ever before. A recent report by the University of Maine School of Economics and the Maine Brewers’ Guild determined that Maine beer and breweries brought nearly $228 million into our economy last year, a growth that is forecast to continue. Beer has become a significant part of our state’s draw for tourism, and the beer industry is one that our state lawmakers would be wise to support.

Last month, brewers and other workers in the industry testified in favor of bills aimed at making some behind-the-scenes logistics of brewing and selling beer more straightforward in Maine. One key measure would clarify laws regulating the transfer of packaged beer from one brewery location to another; a second would give retailers more freedom to host tastings and provide free samples. Though these are not high-visibility issues, they are important to ensure that the growth Maine’s beer sector is experiencing can continue. So if you really like beer, you should totally come to Maine, and you can try the best beer there is around, you can even bring your own mug, and if you don’t have one you just need to visit the Top 9 Best Copper Moscow Mule Mugs 2017 – Top9Rated.

In January, Bissell Brothers announced tentative plans to start brewing and selling their beer in the founders’ hometown of Milo, located in Piscataquis County. Without the ability to legally sell beer produced and packaged in Portland at this second location (and vice versa), the brothers’ dream may not become a reality, and Piscataquis could remain the only county in Maine without a brewery.

The Bad

During my visits to Portland breweries over the winter months, I was pleasantly surprised to find most of the tasting rooms full of enthusiastic patrons. But some brewery owners I spoke with expressed unease about the high numbers of customers coming in during what’s normally a slow season. A few admitted they were nervous about their capacity — not just from a production standpoint (can they brew enough beer to meet demand?), but as a matter of crowd management. Many tasting rooms have a modest amount of space for seating and standing, and a small staff whose primary job is to serve beer, not manage crowds.

With more people come more potential problems. In addition to the issue of glassware theft that I’ve raised before, it’s prudent for everyone who supports the industry to be aware of other inappropriate behavior happening at tasting rooms and to do what we can to intervene. If you see patrons drinking beer in the parking lot, acting intoxicated or vandalizing property, let a staff member know. Even one serious or dangerous incident at a brewery tasting room could ruin the relatively generous amount of freedom these establishments have enjoyed, and no one wants that to happen.

The Buttery

It’s disheartening to order a favorite beer only to find it doesn’t taste like it should. Or worse, to take a chance on buying a bottle or a six-pack and get a slick, buttery feeling on your tongue when you drink it. I’ve had both experiences in the past few months, and I’m putting my foot down: We should not tolerate this.

The culprit for these flavors is diacetyl. Pronounced either dye-ass-uh-tull or die-a-seat-ill, this byproduct of fermentation produces flavors reminiscent of buttered popcorn or butterscotch. In most beers, the amount of this chemical that’s present is small enough not to be noticed, or it’s entirely absent. In some English styles, a hint of diacetyl is desired and is produced naturally by some of the yeasts. But you should still be able to taste the beer beneath that slight buttery flavor.

Brewers can rid their beer of diacetyl by adding a few days of “rest” to the fermentation process, giving the yeast a few days to re-absorb the compound so it doesn’t show up in the finished beer. Beer that is rushed to market can often suffer from this unfortunate flavor. Infections from dirty tap lines can reintroduce diacetyl to a beer, as well, which makes it difficult to determine if the brewer or the bar manager is at fault.

In any case, it’s important to recognize this flavor and bring it to the brewer’s or bartender’s attention so they can correct the flaw. I’d rather that we give that $228 million to the breweries and bars that are doing it right, wouldn’t you?

Surrender to the Dark Side

Originally published in The Bollard. Header photo by Benjamin Moore 

Porters and stouts are polarizing. Start talking about a craft beer made in those styles and you’ll likely hear one of two responses: “Does it taste like Guinness?” or “I don’t really like dark beers.”

It’s a shame that so many beer lovers have such a narrow idea of what a stout could taste like. This is due to some stereotypes, some misconceptions, and the fact that before the craft-beer boom of the early 2000s, Guinness was the only widely available stout on the market. But darker styles are showing up more widely on shelves and tap lists in Maine, not just next to the corned beef and cabbage.

First, let’s address the toucan in the room. When poured correctly, and when it’s at its freshest, Guinness is an impeccable beer. It has a thin body that makes it easily drinkable, and the nitrogen (instead of the traditional CO2) used in its draft lines provides a yielding creaminess. The roasted flavors perfectly accent any hearty comfort food, or even a plate of oysters. But this style of stout, a Dry Irish stout, is certainly not representative of the full spectrum of dark beers brewed today.

The Beer Judge Certification Program (an organization that establishes criteria for competitions) recognizes Stouts and Porters as the two main categories of dark beer, each containing a variety of sub-styles. Stouts were traditionally considered stronger, or stouter, than porters, but that line has been blurred and even crossed, of late. Stouts have six officially recognized sub-styles (Dry, Sweet, Oatmeal, Foreign Extra, American, and Russian Imperial) and porters have three (Brown, Robust, and Baltic).

Brewers across our state have taken on many of these styles, and arguably some of the best dark beers around are made in Maine, both because we have long winters that pair well with these varieties, and because we’re fortunate to have water that’s very suitable for brewing them.

Unfortunately for Guinness fans, there are relatively few craft stouts made in the Dry Irish style. Many brewers go straight for the bolder and heavier flavors of Imperial stouts, or use barrel-aging to impart flavors of bourbon or rum into their brews. Thankfully, Fore River Brewing Company, in South Portland, has a delicious analog to an Irish stout, dubbed John Henry. It’s an inky black, yet light-bodied milk stout with a familiar roastiness and a slight sweetness. Fore River’s tasting room often offers John Henry on nitrogen and CO2 draft lines. Try them side by side just to experiment.

If you’re not a fan of the bitter or smoky flavors found in a lot of dark beer, go for some of the slightly sweeter porters. These tend to be rich, but without the vaguely “burnt” notes that more than a few drinkers dislike. A great local example is Foundation Bedrock, a robust porter that carries flavors of dark chocolate and coffee. Its balance makes Bedrock an excellent introduction for those new to the style: it’s packed with flavor but doesn’t feel heavy, and with an ABV of 6.7%, it’s not a booze bomb, either. Bedrock is also one of the few porters in Maine that’s available in 16 oz. cans.

Drinkers venturing into the Dark Side may also enjoy Baltic porters, which typically have plum-like flavors and a subtle sweetness. Dirigo Brewing Company’s Baltic Porter and Bunker Brewing’s Dark Wave are both stellar examples of this style, available at the breweries’ tasting rooms and elsewhere.

Though they’re often considered to be seasonal beers, the right stout or porter can be just as satisfying in the depths of winter as it is served alongside backyard barbecue. In my book, Baxter Brewing Company’s Per Diem Porter is just such a beer. Per Diem, which made my “Best of 2016” list for its can design, is one of the few dark beers included in a Maine brewery’s lineup year round. It’s on the dry side, which makes this porter crisp but still flavorful, and its light body and 5.5% ABV are such that it isn’t limited to being a sipper.

So when St. Patrick’s Day has come and gone, don’t forget about the stouts and porters. There’s a lot more on the Dark Side worth exploring.

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

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!

Taste Blind, and Now You’ll See

Every time a new brewery opens in Maine, brewers struggle a little bit more to stand out from the crowd, to be recognized and remembered, to have their beer mentioned in the first few breaths when a newcomer asks a local for recommendations. The events on tap for this year’s Portland Beer Week (for which this publication is the media sponsor) are designed to showcase breweries you may not have heard of, or had forgotten about, or those that simply aren’t at the top of the hype list.

My favorite event each year is usually the Freshman Orientation, a speed-dating-style sampling of beers by the local breweries that opened in the past 12 months. This year’s Orientation takes place Nov. 5 at Coffee By Design’s Diamond Street location, and features over a dozen new craft beer-makers. It’s a fun and efficient way to meet the new breweries on the block.

Another way for breweries to get noticed seems counterintuitive but is actually quite effective: don’t tell tasters what beer they’re drinking ahead of time. At blind tasting events, the maker of the beer is not revealed until after the drinker has evaluated the samples or voted for their favorite. Tasting notes are usually provided so participants have some idea what to expect, but this method is a great way to erase your preconceived notions and open your palate to pleasant surprises.

Here are two Beer Week events that employ the blind-tasting format, and a third that you can easily turn into a blind tasting with a few friends.

1. Salvage BBQ Pro-Am (Tues., Nov. 7, at 6 p.m.)

The beer community in Maine is incredibly supportive of those looking to learn how to brew, and an opportunity to partner with a professional brewer can be a memorable one. The annual Pro-Am competition, hosted by Salvage BBQ, gives amateur brewers the chance to flex their creative muscles by partnering with pros to brew pilot or full-sized batches in a production brewery space. The judging is by popular vote, but this year the tasting will be blind. Competing brews will be numbered and a description will be provided, but the brewers will remain anonymous until the votes are counted. I expect there’ll be a wide variety of styles at this year’s event, so creativity will likely be a bigger factor than the execution of a traditional type of beer.

2. Blind Belgian Tasting (Thurs., Nov. 10, at 5 p.m.)

The Blind Belgian Tasting at Slab is all about the perfection of a particular style. Participating breweries will enter beers that meet specific criteria — they must be made with a particular strain of Belgian yeast, be light in color, and have an ABV below 5 percent. The lineup this year is an exciting mix of “freshman” breweries (Foulmouthed Brewing and Mast Landing Brewing Company), up-and-comers (Foundation, Austin Street, SoMe) and more established competitors (Sebago, Rising Tide).

3. GLB Maine IPAs! (Thurs., Nov. 10, at 5 p.m.)

Only a local institution with as many draft lines and as much history as The Great Lost Bear could even attempt to host a happening where nearly every available Maine-brewed IPA is on tap. For this event, the servers aren’t intending to pour flights blind, but it would be simple for a pair of friends or a group to turn this opportunity into a blind tasting. One person orders the IPAs and the other (or others) tries to find their favorite — like a hopped-up version of the Pepsi Challenge. IPAs are perfect for this type of game because, though they’re all the same style, the flavor can vary quite a bit. Come prepared to have friendly disagreements and maybe even change your own mind.

You’ll be amazed by what’s revealed when you stop looking and start tasting.

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