I thought to myself, great, you’ve just had this intense experience tasting 55 or so new beers over the course of a weekend at the Beer Blogger’s Conference, but what new information did you bring home with you? Some of these beers were so rare we had mere sips and were transported by the experience. I couldn’t bring all that much home. I packed my suitcase intentionally half-empty and full of a lot of gym clothing to wrap around bottles, which worked nicely. Every bottle I did obtain I got home safely.
Out of all the many beers we were introduced to, which were the ones I’d really like to taste again, preferably in pint form? I leafed through my magic golden notebook full of tasting notes and presentation points. I pulled out the beers I’d put multiple stars next to and put them here. I’m a little embarrassed by how many there are -I’m going to blow my reputation for being really picky about what beers I’ll drink.
Saison Various by Harpoon Brewery (100 Barrel Project #47), MA Four Harpoon brewers were given the task of making a saison the way they thought a saison ought to be made. The results are each a little different – this one with coriander and orange peel, that one with long pepper, etc.. The four are/were served separately, but Various is a blend of all four. The aroma is fascinating, laying in layers, first with one spice and then another. It entices your nose. The drink is every bit as refreshing as a farmhouse style ought to be, with just a hint of sweetness to help it down. I loved drinking this beer. I love the collaboration, I love the lovingly blended result, and the 100 Barrel Project* is exactly the kind of effort that most intrigues me.
Various is so new it’s not up on Harpoon’s 100 Barrel webpage yet.Harpoon is a pretty darned big brewery, something like the 16th largest in the nation and 9th biggest craft brewery, making more than 60,000 barrels a year (they’ve just expanded and I don’t have the current numbers; it’s probably much more than that now). They are the makers of 1636, a delicious remake of an old recipe which of course is designed to delight my little ol’ historian’s heart. There is a separate brewing area where they experiment, 100 barrels at a time. You can only get these experimental beers in their Beer Hall at the brewery. If the beers prove popular there may be a remake in the Encore Series – still only available at the Beer Hall. It’s hard not to love a successful brewery dedicated to creativity and exploration.Besides all that, Harpoon seems to have great staff longevity. I’m guessing they have a very good training program, judging by how on the ball, friendly, and sharply efficient their servers are. Those people exude competence.
Farmhouse Cider by Woodchuck This is not new, but was new to me. Most of Woodchuck’s ciders taste great on a hot summer day, and where I live it’s often more than 95 degrees F with 90+% humidity in July and August. However,Woodchuck’s ciders are super-sweet, tailored to the American palate, versus the UK’s almost universally bone-dry versions – it’s rare that I can drink more than one Woodchuck, delicious as they are. Woodchuck Farmhouse is sweeter than a UK cider but has nothing like Woodchuck’s usual sugar level. It would go really well with cheese and crackers in the late afternoon of a warm sunny day.
Woodchuck freely admits they back-sweeten, that is, after fermentation’s done they make sure there can’t be any more happy yeasties fermenting any more, then add more apple juice. This helps make their brews sweeter and more flavorful, as fermentation tends to eat the flavor right out of a cider.
Sofie Paradisi by Goose Island, IL I’ve heard often enough that IPAs are meant to be crisp and refreshing and instead find their bitterness scouring and numbing my tongue. Sophie Paradisi answers my call for a “crisp and refreshing” beverage. Goose Island is a Belgian-style house, so all their beers are at least a little sour. In this case, they’ve taken one of their “Four Ladies” beers, Sofie, and added a fair amount of grapefruit flavor, whether through hops or fermentation I’m not sure. It works. It works really well. Sofie Paradisi reminds me of fresh cut grass and sunshine, lawnchairs and perfect temperatures, foot massages and pedicures and the sun glinting off water. I don’t know if you’ll find it so, since tastebuds are fickle creatures, but for my palate this beer was the definition of crisp and clean. I’d drink it any summer day and probably a lot of winter ones.
I don’t see Sofie P. on the Goose Island website. Their beerfinder shows stores in my area that carry Sophie; I guess I’ll have to start calling around to see if I can get the P.
Farmhouse Ale by Boulevard Brewing Company, MA I was not at all surprised when the brewer started reeling off ingredients and almost all the hops were noble. It has that gentler, rounder flavor and milder bitterness. The citrusy tones come through clearly. It was finished with American yeast, so it doesn’t taste like a European clone by any means. I don’t find a lot of American ales all that palatable, but I could see having a long evening with friends over a couple of pints of this.
Ginja Ninja by Portsmouth Brewery, NH We came to Portsmouth just a few hours after touring Allagash’s tour de force of a brewery, newly enlarged and very shiny. In contrast, Portsmouth’s brew room is tiny. They make 1200 barrels in a 7 barrel system, which is a very, very local production (admirably efficient on their small system). Compare that to Allagash’s 70 barrel system…it’s hard not to think of Portsmouth as adorable. However, adorable or not, they’ve got some very sound brewing going on. Everything I tasted there (about 5 brews) was absolutely clean and pretty well balanced, despite some of them being rather strong styles, which are always easy to overbalance. I think Ginja Ninja is an ale (rather than a lager), it’s the yellow gold of old straw, and the ginger flavor first rises to your nose, then you notice a very gentle hint of warmth in the back of your throat. It’s very well done, and I’d like to try a pint instead of a taster next time.
They have a very congenial, suitably dim pub downstairs from their airy and spacious restaurant. I recommend it. One of the brewers told me Ginja Ninja was one of his wedding beers. He married a redhead, so all the beers that night were themed in red and ginger. That’s so romantic.
Royal Imperial Stout by Portsmouth Brewery, NH Tod Mott, a former brewer at Portsmouth Brewery, made an apparently astounding and utterly memorable beer named Kate the Great. Kate the Great was only available on one day – May 1 – and more than 500 people were in line waiting the last time the brewpub had a Kate the Great Day. The entire 420 gallon batch emptied in one day, starting from the 10:45 opening time. RateBeer and Beer Advocate both gave it perfect scores of 100. Now that’s a sensation.
Current head brewer Tyler Jones didn’t want to try to duplicate Kate the Great, so instead he’s made the Royal Imperial Stout. It’s barely been released, if at all, yet – but they’ve got a winner here, and I think they should let the public know. It’s rich, it’s round, it leaves a smooth sweetness on the tongue. You want it in a snifter and you want to enjoy it slowly. Quietly. Almost reverently.
I did a double take at the label. You expect some formal portrait of a majestic figure decked out in Faberge jewels and ropes of pearl. Instead, it’s a picture of the Royal Russian Midgets, a Russian circus troupe dating to 1907 who (mercifully) were stranded on tour when the Russian Revolution began. It’s darling, it’s memorable, and it’s not Kate the Great. Well done.
Hampshire Special by Geary’s,ME Geary’s was the first craft brewery in all of New England, founded in 1983. The next year David Geary went to the U.K. for training and research at Heriot-Watt University, that venerable Scottish brewing college. Now, he didn’t say this when I met him at Cabot’s Farmers’ Annex in Portland, but according to their website he got a little help from one Peter Maxwell Stuart – the then-Laird of Traquair House, father of the current Laird Catherine Maxwell Stuart, whose beers I admire very much indeed. So it’s no surprise that I fell in love with Hampshire Special. Gorgeous gold, it has a very light toffee overtone that an IPA purist might find objectionable but that a wee heavy drinker would recognize immediately. It’s smooth, not actually sweet, and I finished my taster wanting a whole pint. I’d have to try one to see if I want two. I might.
In Scotland I discovered Innis and Gunn, whose beers have a very strong toffee top layer. Geary’s has the same flavor but less and lighter. It was just delightful.
June Joseph of Beer Makes Three mugs in front of the Allagash front door. Wait, that’s me in the window!
Golden Brett by Allagash, ME This was a showstopper, in the good way. After a brewery tour, about forty of us sat down for a tasting of Allagash’s brews: Fluxux 13, Golden Brett, Curieux, and Allagash White. Golden Brett stopped me in my tracks. I looked around and discovered that quite a few of us had stopped in our tracks for this beer. Complex, light…I can’t find it on their website, which is a pity. Medium gold, it doesn’t look like all that much, but if you get a chance, try this beer.
I liked Curieux (love the name), but one of the others was so sour I almost puckered up.
Allagash’s tasters are tulip glasses. You gotta love that. Shaker pints are awful, and miniature shaker pints for tastings aren’t any better. The glassware really does make a difference.