beer, Special Report

Craft Beer Summit at Riverwalk Brewery

Special Post: Craft Beer Summit

Craft Beer- Riverwalk Brewing

Riverwalk Brewing Company

I can’t think of a better way to start off the week, then with great craft beer and conversation. On February 25th, Riverwalk Brewery hosted a mini craft beer summit at their Newburyport brewery, bringing together a small group of local brewers, craft beer bloggers and enthusiasts to discuss the current happenings in the craft beer industry, all the while sampling various selections of local craft beer.

In general, the public still held to several beliefs about beer drinking. First, that it was better than drinking water. Second, that beer was a foodstuff and a healthful supplement to the entire family’s diet. And third, that beer drinking was an acceptable way to promote social discourse, with an overall positive impact on the community.

— Gregg Smith, Beer in America

When I started on this blogging project, I wanted to share in the adventure with anyone crazy enough to appreciate the undertaking. One evening, while picking up a weekend Growler at Riverwalk, my local brewery (Doesn’t everyone have a local producer of great craft beer?), I mentioned my blog, and almost immediately, I was offered assistance, if I needed any. I knew I would require some help later in the year, when the states get far away, and the distribution system vanishes, but I thought it would be fun to do some collaboration earlier in the year, so I asked them if they would like to host week 6, Massachusetts. The idea was that it would be interesting to have the brewers select craft beer from the state and talk about it.  From that idea, the craft beer summit was born, however due to scheduling issues, we couldn’t all get together until I was covering New Hampshire.

The evening started out with the requisite introductions, and then we dove straight into sampling a few different breweries from New Hampshire. One of the things I wanted to get out of this sampling was a better understanding of how a brewer would approach sampling a craft beer. Brewers spend their days, perfecting their art, monitoring the quality of their own products and as a result, they develop a unique eye towards the product that the general public does not have. I was looking forward to a glimpse into this world, so I asked Steve, the head brewer at Riverwalk, what he looks for when evaluating a beer. Just like you or I, most times, a brewer likes to just sit back and enjoy a beer. It can’t always be about work. But when he does turn his focus to the product, he likes to get into what a beer is all about, and this starts by classifying the beer.

Sampled Beer Spotlight: Riverwalk Brewery – Uncle Bobs Bitter
Craft Beer - Uncle Bobs Bitter
As he was honing his craft, Steve from Riverwalk spent many hours traveling through Europe, experiencing, studying and learning from their brewing traditions. Uncle Bobs Bitter, a session ale, grew out of these travels. While in England, Steve experienced a variety of cask ales. A style of beer that is generally low in alcohol, at 4%, low in carbonation and very enjoyable. This beer is brewed with a lower carbonation to help establish a thicker mouthfeel, and coming in at 4.5% ABV, you can enjoy many pints of this beer.

Humans have a strong tendency to categorize. When we encounter something new, we like to place it in a category so we can better comprehend it, and craft beer is no exception. Walking down the beer isle, we are confronted with a large variety of craft beer styles, ranging from pale lagers to imperial stouts. It is these styles that help us establish a set of parameters so that we can communicate with each other about the beer. When someone tells you they had a wonderful IPA with dinner, you can easily picture what the beer was like, with its hop heavy taste and golden color. Using these parameters we can quickly get into the spirit of the beer, and better appreciate what it is all about.

The question about sampling craft beer was then turned to Matt from Review Brews, to see how as someone that writes about beer approaches the topic. Matt explained how his focus was less about the spirit of the beer, and more on the story of the beer and the brewer. His goal is to get to the inspiration of the beer and let the brewer tell the story. I loved hearing about this approach. There are plenty of review sites on the web today, but finding ones that look beyond the technical aspects of the beer and provide that link between the brewer and potential consumers, is a rare and necessary niche.

One of the things that makes this year-long blogging project interesting is that I am often constrained in the craft beer available from a specific state, and more than often I am forced to go with a beer style I wouldn’t normally choose for a typical weekend. In some instances, I have discovered amazing bottles of beer, but in others, I have found beer that I just couldn’t get into. Some of those hard to handle brews fall under the category of extreme beer, the next topic to come up at the summit.

The extreme beer movement is exemplified by Dogfish Head Brewery, with their slogan Off-centered stuff for off-centered People, Dogfish has brewed some crazy beer. Incorporating ingredients such as blue-green algae (to make a naturally green beer) and Botrytis-infected grapes, Dogfish has consistently pushed the boundaries of what could and should be included in a beer. It is this boundary exploration, and the use of  atypical ingredients, that established what is now referred to as extreme beer. This branch of craft beer brewing has increased yearly and has now grown large enough to have its own festival.

The general opinion of the brewers at the summit was that the extreme beer movement, while not a direction they intended to take any of their products, was definitely an important area for craft beer to explore. Brewing beer has always been, and always will be a healthy mix of art and science. And it is the art component that the extreme beer movement addresses. By constantly pushing the boundaries and testing the limits, new discoveries are made. And from the consumer point of view, there will always be a market for individuals willing to experience these boundaries, no matter how far they extend.

One point raised, that I completely agree with is that extreme beer should be sold in smaller bottles, making it easier to have the experience without the concern of wasting an otherwise expensive beer if the experience is unenjoyable.

While the extreme beer movement is on one end of the spectrum, the session beer movement sits on the other side of the craft beer movement, establishing its own fan base.

Beer Advocate has defined a session beer as:

Any beer that contains no higher than 5 percent ABV, featuring a balance between malt and hop characters (ingredients) and, typically, a clean finish – combination of which creates a beer with high drinkability. The purpose of a session beer is to allow a beer drinker to have multiple beers, within a reasonable time period or session, without overwhelming the senses or reaching inappropriate levels of intoxication.

In my experience, the session beer movement is really starting to take-off, and there are a few craft brewers in this area that have really embraced it. One particular beer that was mentioned at the summit was Tafelbier from Notch Brewing, and Riverwalk provided a sampling of their own session beer, called Uncle Bobs Bitter to help keep the topic on track.

Sampled Beer Spotlight: Cape Ann Brewery – Fisherman’s Sunrise Saison
Craft Beer - Cape Ann Brewery
Nothing brings about excitement at a tasting more than an corked bottle, with no label. And that is just what TJ from Cape Ann brewing offered up (along with other tasty selections). We were presented with not one, but two different versions of their Sunrise Saison, a summer seasonal beer. Brewed with a blend of Strawberries and Rhubarb, this beer was fun to drink. The first version we had was a special concoction, brew specially for an area synagogue, for Purim. This version contained fresh pomegranate juice. The second version, without the pomegranate juice was aged for a year in Bordeaux barrels. Both of these beers were excellent and worth the trip to Cape Ann Brewery.

Another topic that came up, multiple times actually, was sales and marketing, and we covered a full range of sub-topics here, from labeling to availability to tap lines, and it was very interesting to hear about the issues, constraints and concerns within the industry. One of the more interesting conversations pertaining to sales was the various constraints imposed on the brewers within each state.

This region of New England is small, and with just 2 hours of driving in almost any direction, you can quickly be in a different state, making it simple for even for a small craft beer business to sell their product in multiple states. This does present a problem, as each state has completely different laws regarding alcohol sales. We heard stories about unknowingly trying to make sales in Maine without proper approval, to a brewer not being permitted to pour their own product at events in New York state.

This topic really hit a cord for me, and gets at the spirit of this blogging project. As I have been trying to acquire beer from each state, I have also had the opportunity to experience first hand the odd rules and regulations each state applies to alcohol. The quote that summed it up best was: We are a bunch of small countries.

Overall, the biggest theme that cut through every conversation was education. For too many years, the options available for beer has been very limited and controlled by a few very large breweries. By educating the bar and restaurant staff, and not just the customers, about craft beer, the brewers can help the consumers establish a better categorization of what this movement it is all about. Through these educational efforts, the craft brewers win in the end, because not only did they develop a better, more enjoyable beer. They also helped to free us, the consumers, from having to settle on a tasteless beer designed for satiating a large market audience.

All in all, it was a great night, with 13 different beers sampled, and a wide range of topics about the craft beer industry discussed, I am looking forward to doing it again soon.

Thanks to Matt from ReviewBrews, for the excellent conversation and the IPA from Tree House Brewery, that was some good stuff.  And thanks to Ryan from 2beerguys, for bringing in a barely 12 hour old Royal Impy Stout from Portsmouth Brewery, and providing insightful and excellent conversation. Be sure to check out both of their sites, for plenty of content on local craft beer and the craft beer industry.

Also, thanks to TJ and his wife, both from Cape Ann Brewing, not only did they bring along 3 excellent craft beers for us to try, they also kept the conversation lively, providing insight into the daily live of brewery work.

And a very special thanks to Alyssa and Steve at Riverwalk Brewing for organizing and hosting the event. The group of people they assembled made the night fun and educational, and the beer they provided was excellent.

Sampled Beer Spotlight: Tree House Brewing – Julius
Craft Beer - Tree House Brewing
If there was one bottle at the sampling that brought intrigue, it was the bottle of IPA from Tree House Brewing. Brought to the event by Matt from ReviewBrews, this bottle, holding court at the center of the table, caught the eyes of everyone that entered the room. It was the most coveted sample of the night, and everyone couldn’t wait for the top to open. Oh, and when it did, it lived up to the expectations. The aroma from the hops was mind blowing, and amazed everyone on the room. The taste, oh, that wonderful taste, put this brewery on the top of my must visit brewery list. The brewers website says it all:
Bursting with 1.6 oz per gallon of American hops, Julius is loaded with notes of passionfruit, mango, and citrus.  At 6.5% alcohol, it is refreshing and freakishly drinkable.

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beer, History

New Hampshire: Live Free or Die

We are now nine weeks into this project, which brings New Hampshire into the union and along with it, the official ratification of the Constitution. New Hampshire, much like the other coastal New England states, was settled in the early to mid 1600s. One of the towns settled during the formation of New Hampshire was what is now the city of Portsmouth. Located on the western bank of the Piscataqua River, Portsmouth, originally called Strawbery Bank, was home to Captain John Mason, who is considered the first brewer in New Hampshire, with records showing his possession of malt as early as 1635. However, the first brewery in the state wouldn’t open for almost another 200 years, with the Frank Jones brewery eventually becoming one of the largest breweries in New England.

This doesn’t mean that the good residents of the state went without their daily libations. Far from it. If fact, the 200 year window without a recognized brewery was filled by taverns and home brewers, where the taverns brewed their own beer. At that time, taverns were essential to the health of a community. They were the social hub, the place people went to get news and gossip, and in some instances, they also doubled as churches and courtrooms. Call them the original brewpubs, taverns provided both food and drink to locals and travelers alike, welcoming in anyone passing through the area.

While the similarities are strong between taverns and brewpubs, the brewpub is a modern invention, popularized in London during the late seventies. With a brewpub, the patrons become immersed in the brewing process, separated from the product and equipment by nothing but a glass window, the patrons are given complete insight into the origin of their beer. While brewpubs are common across the US today, with 1072 existing in the US in 2012, this was not always the case. In fact, New Hampshire didn’t get its first brewpub, The Portsmouth Brewery, until 1991, just 22 years ago, 378 years after Captain John Mason was brewing beer in his house at Strawbery Bank.

The Portsmouth Brewery was my first experience with New Hampshire beer. The city of Massachusetts I live in is very close to the NH border, and closer to Portsmouth than Boston. That being the case, I have made many visits to Portsmouth, and have been to the  brewery many times. The Portsmouth Brewery is also the sister company to New Hampshires largest brewery, Smuttynose, making Portsmouth the brewing capital of NH. Both the Portsmouth Brewery and Smuttynose are represented in this weeks tasting.

Because I live so close to NH, I have always had access to their beer. Smuttynose is often found in my refrigerator, and everything from them is great. From their Shoals Pale Ale, to their Star Island Single, I often have such a hard time deciding that I usually just grab the variety 12 pack. So it was a huge surprise to me when I went to grab a few different varieties of NH beer for this week, to find out that getting beer from NH, in MA is actually quite hard. And that there are really only 4 (um, err, 3?) different breweries that are available for purchase, and to make things worse, the store I was in was out of one of them.

So for this week, the tastings came from Tuckerman, Smuttynose, their sister brewery, the Portsmouth Brewery and Woodstock Inn. To make matters worse, I found out mid-tasting that Woodstock, while based in NH, brews their beer in Maine, so making the true number of NH brewers available in MA 3. The missing brewery, White Birch Brewing from the three listed above did not make it into the tasting this week, however I did have their Indulgence Ale last week, and enjoyed it.

This weeks tasting was interesting in that it coincided with a mini-beer summit at Riverwalk Brewing. Because of these overlapping events, all but the Smuttynose beer was sampled amongst the attendees at the summit, (Look for the complete write up about the summit in a forthcoming post.) providing some interesting commentary and insight into each beer.

The first beer we tried was the Headwall Alt from from Tuckerman Brewing Company in Conway. The Headwall, is an altbier, which is a German beer style defined as having a nice cooper-brown color and malty flavors, so these were the characteristics we were looking for. In the glass, the first thing that stood out to me was the darker color of the beer than I expected. I think this was partially due to the fact that I misread the label and thought that it was an ale.

“It was nice, but it didn’t seem to have any character”.

The taste was nice, but it didn’t floor me. I would drink this beer again if it was around, but I am not sure if would seek it out.

Tuckerman's  Brewery in New Hampsire

Tuckerman – Headwall Alt

The next beer we drank was from Woodstock Inn. Right from the start, this beer hit us with a slight technicality. Woodstock Inn is located in NH, our target state for the week, but the bottle indicates that the beer was actually brewed in Maine. On the brewery website, you can find news about how they are currently expanding their on premise brewery, however at the moment, their bottled beer is not actually brewed in NH. So, if I wanted to be an extreme purist I could disqualify this beer, but, it was already in my hand just waiting to get consumed.

From Woodstock, we tasted two different styles of beer, a Brown Ale and a Red Ale. A Brown Ale is a warm fermented ale with colors similar to an altbier. While altbiers come from a German heritage, a brown ale hails from Britain. Woodstock Inns brown is called Pigs Ear Brown. The Pigs Ear Brown Ale is an award winner.

Pigs Ear Brown Ale won Grand National Champion for brown ales at the United States Beer Tasting Championships in 2004 and 2006. Medium bodied with a balance of roasted and crystal malts creating a hearty nutty flavor. Medium bitterness with a slightly sweet finish.

Woodstock Inn Brewery in New Hampshire

Woodstock Inn Brewery

The first thing I noticed with this beer was a higher carbonation than the previous altbier. And the beer had a taste of butterscotch. This taste is a result of diacetyl, a natural by-product of the fermentation process. In the Oxford Companion to Beer, they say that “at low to moderate level, diacetyl can be perceived as a positive flavor characteristic in some ales and stouts“, however for me, it because the driving force of the beer and I could not over come it. In the end, I was not thrilled with this beer, however others at the tasting really enjoyed it. That is one of the wonderful things about different beers and styles, there is something out there for everyone.

Following the Brown Ale, we dove into the Red Rack Ale. The brewer lists this beer as: Amber in color with slight caramel sweetness. Medium hop bitterness. Malty up front with a nice hop / malt balance. Maybe I drank this beer too close to the Pig’s Ear, but again, the strength of the diacetyl was the dominant feature and I quickly moved on from this brew.

After Woodstock Inn, the next NH beer was a beer brought to the beer summit by one of the attendees. This beer came from The Portsmouth Brewery and was a new beer released for Portsmouth beer week, which also happened to kick off on the same day. This beer was a Russian Imperial Stout called the Royal Impy Stout. This beer had an amazingly nice and smooth mouthful. The flavor was nice, with no one component overpowering the beer. I enjoyed this and would love to have more.

Portsmouth Brewery in New Hampshire

Portsmouth Brewery – Royal Impy

Finally, at the end of the week, to help prime the writing pump, I picked up some Smuttynose. Not only did I grab an old stand-by, Old Brown Dog, but I also grabbed a beer from their big beer series, called Zinneke Belgian Stout.

The Old Brown Dog is a Brown Ale brewed year-round at Smuttynose. This beer is an excellent go to beer and is well loved by everyone I know. I enjoy the malty taste, and supple hops. This is a very enjoyable beer, and if you can get your hands on it, I highly recommend it.

Smuttynose Brewery in New Hampshire

Smuttynose – Old Brown Dog Ale

The Zinneke Belgian Stout, was the first time I tried anything from the big beer series. I have often seen the bottles at my local store, but I guess I have never been intrigued even to deter from the variety 12 pack. In the glass, this beer was dark, it almost looked like a cola. It was aged in bourbon barrels, which seems to be a trend among many of the beers we have encountered lately, however the character of the beer didn’t seem to pick up the traits of the bourbon as much as some other styles have. It was nice, enjoyable beer. The mouthfeel was thicker than an IPA, or an Ale, but it wasn’t syrupy. The roasted-ness of the stout really stout out on this beer, overall making it a pleasure to drink.

Thanks again to Riverwalk Brewery, Cape Ann Brewing,  ReviewBrews and  2beerguys for all of their great comments and a fun evening. Look for an upcoming special post on our mini beer summit soon.

Next week, we head into Virginia, thanks for reading.

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beer, History

Massachusetts… Make It Yours

Massachusetts

January is gone and we are now entering February and 225 years ago from this week, on February 9th, 1788, Massachusetts became the sixth state in the Union.

From the Mayflower landing at Plymouth because of low beer supplies on the ship (a storyline left out of the Charlie Brown special), to the meetings of the Sons of Liberty at the Green Dragon Tavern in Boston, as they planned the start of the Revolution, Massachusetts has maintained a healthy relationship with beer.

Well known as the start of the American Revolution, Massachusetts,  it could be argued, was also the start of the extreme beer movement. As early as 1622, brewers in Massachusetts, dealing with a shortage of traditional supplies such as malt, turned to local ingredients, like Indian corn to produce beer. That being said, we didn’t dive too deep into the extreme beer this week, instead keeping it a bit more traditional. Due to an up coming special Massachusetts post later this month, the samplings for this week were indented to be keep short, however a Blizzard, and a few hours of snow removal might have voided that goal.

For this week, our Massachusetts beer come from a variety of brewers, some small and local, others more well known. The first beer is from

Massachusetts Craft Beer

Berkshire Brewing Company – Dean’s Beans Coffeehouse Porter

the west-central region of the state, a Porter from Berkshire Brewery. Two weeks ago, we had a coffee Porter from Georgia, and again this week, another coffee Porter joins us. Dean’s Beans Coffeehouse Porter is a blend between a Berkshire Brewery Porter and coffee from an organic coffee maker in Orange, Massachusetts, Dean’s Beans. In the glass, this beer was nice and dark with a thin light brown head. The taste, with its clean mouth feel, resembled that of the Terrapin Stout from Georgia, but in this beer, the hot pepper taste didn’t linger and wasn’t as prominent, making this a very flavorful and enjoyable beer to drink.

The next Massachusetts beer of the week comes from Notch Brewing, located on the eastern edge of the state. Notch Brewing has an interesting model for a brewer in that they have no physical space, instead, they use the resources of other breweries to make their products. Since the brewery they use for making their bottles is just three towns away, I discovered this brewer pretty quick, and loved them from day one.

Massachusetts Craft Beer

Notch Saison

The beer I chose for this week, was their Saison. Saison is considered a farmhouse beer. Originally brewed by French farmers for consumption while working the fields, a Saison (saison is French for season) served three major purposes: Provide beer for the field hands as they tended to the farm duties, Provide work for the farmhands in the winter months brewing the beer, and producing feed for the livestock from the spent grain of the brewing process. As anyone that has been around a farm can attest, as a farmer, you make due with what you have, and the brewing process of the Saison was no different. As a result, providing a strict definition of a Saison is very hard to do, however in the craft beer world, it has evolved into a beer that is fruity in character with high carbonation and often produce a dry mouth feel. This beer from Notch captures all of these characteristics quite well. In the glass, the beer has a nice, light color, slightly lighter than an IPA, and a totally different taste. While hoppy in nature, the dry mouth feel makes this really unique. This is a fun beer and worth checking out anytime.

In the early days of colonization, breweries were very regional. Because of the lack of refrigeration, and other modern conveniences that we take for granted today, brewers back then didn’t have the resources to distribute their product over large distances, as a result it was very common to have a local brewer that everyone frequented. Riverwalk Brewery is just that for me. With their operations only about a mile, at most, from my house, they have become one of my favorite local beers. Brewing only growlers at the moment, Riverwalk currently has three different styles of beer available. I have a hard time making a choice when  I stop in on a Friday night growler hour, however for this week, I went with the Gnomad, a Belgian Style Ale. This beer is very flavorful, with a fruity, almost citrus smell and a slight IPAish mouthfeel, from the hops. In the glass it has beautiful colors and a nice head. All around a wonderful beer, and don’t be too concerned about where to store that growler, because it will not last long.

Massachusetts Craft Beer

Element Brewing – Red Giant

At the end of this week, Massachusetts got hit with a Blizzard, and it kept everyone busy for most of the weekend, digging out cars, and clearing walkways. So after a days worth of snow blowing, I opened a bottle of Red Giant from Element Brewing. This was an interesting beer. In the glass, it was almost a honey color and due to the high carbonation, had a really thick head. There wasn’t much of an aroma for this beer, but that might have been due to the temperature, it was very cold when it was opened. The taste of this beer was clearly that of hops, with a strong hoppy bitterness. I really enjoyed this beer, and even when I came back to it after it had some time to warm up, it was very complex in flavors, and an enjoyable ale.

Since there was plenty of snow to move, the Red Giant needed some company, and that company was the final beer of the week, a Wheat Wine Ale from Mystic Brewery called Old Powderhouse. This beer is part of their 24° series, and it was definitely the most extreme of the week. In the glass, it was a nice amber color with not much of a noticeable head. The mouth feel on this beer thick, that of syrup. The beer let off fruity aromas, and had a taste much better than I ever expected. In the end, I enjoyed this beer. I knew going in that it wasn’t something to be consumed in large quantities, but when slowly consumed over the course of dinner, it was a pleasant beer.

This week, there was so much to choose from, I didn’t even know where to begin. As a result, I just grabbed a few that looked interesting and enjoyed the adventure. I still have some Harpoon Directors Cut in the fridge, that didn’t make it for this post, but I have heard great things and look forward to checking it out.

Next week, we head slightly south again, into Maryland.

 

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