Thursday, 12 September 2013

An American Adventure

I love America.  It is my number one holiday destination for many reasons.  Before our son was born we hopped over the Atlantic most years and for both of us, New England is our favourite area to visit.  For me, the proliferation of micro breweries has always been an attraction.  New England has many great micros and, wherever you go, you are never far from one.  The arrival of family changes many things and it has been 8 years since our last visit so we decided to throw caution to the wind and take our boy on his first American adventure (not strictly true as we did take him on our last visit when he was less than a year old). Archie has autism so lots of careful planning was required.  It was never going to be a beery adventure like trips of old but there were a few places I was hoping to visit.    

On our first day in Boston I immediately saw how things had changed when we visited a supermarket.  The beer section was truly impressive and I had to restrain myself from buying a ridiculous amount that I could not possibly consume in the time we were there.  In the past I would sneak a few bottles back in my carry-on but with liquids no longer allowed through security it was a case of what I bought I had to drink.

In the past most American breweries would sell beers in 330ml bottles in packs of six.  The supermarket aisles would be stocked with these boxes from floor to ceiling.  Mix and matching was not always possible so trying a variety of different beers and breweries was always a challenge.  Not any more.  We now have bigger bottles (22 fl oz) sold individually.  The picture above taken in Hannafords is more typical of days of old with many six-packs on offer.  The 'warm beer' section had a number of 22 fl oz selections.  Shaws supermarket was the better of the two with many more interesting beers to select from.

My first selections were a couple of beers from Slumbrew.  This is the brand of the Somerville Brewing Company although currently the beers are brewed at Mercury Brewing Company in Ipswich Massachusetts. I also picked up a Tripel Threat (a Belgian tripel) from the Cambridge Brewing Company.  

The Slumbrew Porter Square Porter (6.5% ABV) was absolutely delicious.  I love American stouts and porters and this was one of the better ones.  Jet black in colour it was very smoky with lots of strong roasted malt and coffee, chocolate and nutty notes.  Coming in at quite a high strength it was nevertheless extremely drinkable.  A full-bodied, robust porter.                    

The Flagraiser IPA from Slumbrew (7.5% ABV) was equally impressive.  It was a lovely golden colour and it had a lovely citrussy hoppy aroma.  However, the immediate flavour was somewhat earthy.  I do like my IPAs to be citrussy and refreshing but I am also a fan of the intensely earthy flavours too that come from certain hop varieties.  This beer is lovely and it has four hop varieties (Galaxy, Mt Hood, Crystal and Colombus) which combine beautifully to create a superbly complex American IPA.                

My final beer from my trip to Shaws supermarket in Boston was the Triple Threat.  Coming in at a mighty 10.5% ABV I was really looking forward to this.  I love most Belgian tripels but this was highly disappointing.  It was golden in colour but it was distinctly flat and lifeless in the glass.  It had a sourness to it along with an underlying sweet sickly taste.  I could not actually manage to finish it.  I have had some very nice beers from CBC prior to this so either there was a problem with it or it is just a beer not for me.        

After a couple of days in Boston we headed out to New Hampshire and the White Mountain Hotel.  Hotels (and restaurants) in England and many other parts of the world are way behind when it comes to the range of beers they offer.  This is not the case in much of New England.  In Boston I had a superb Harpoon IPA (5.9% ABV) in what was a family restaurant the equivalent of which in England would stock UK brewed lagers with continental names.  In America these establishments always seem to stock an excellent range of local craft beers.  Harpoon is actually quite an established brand in New England now having begun brewing back in 1986 but it is a brewery I have always enjoyed on my trips to this part of America.  Their IPA is a delightful citrussy hoppy beer with a little earthiness and spiciness thrown in for good measure.  The finish is long, dry and bitter.      

The White Mountain Hotel did not disappoint either with a fine range of locally produced craft beers.  On our first night I enjoyed a Peak Organic IPA (7.2% ABV) that turned out to be my favourite beer of the entire holiday.  I could smell the citrussy aroma instantly without having to get too close to it and the intense grapefruit and lemony notes were an absolute joy.  It had all the characteristics of what I love about American IPAs.  It was a stunning beer.  Peak Organic Brewing are based in Portland, Maine and they were not around when I last visited New England so this was a great find.
Later in the week I got to enjoy a Woodstock Brown Ale.  This deep copper coloured beer had an instant maltiness to the taste but it became a little spicy and smoky towards the end with a rich sweet finish.  Another local brew I tried at the hotel was a Tuckermans Pale Ale.  This was possibly the blandest beer I tried all week.  It had a gentle hoppiness to it but everything was too restrained.  It needed a few more buckets of hops in the mix to give it some taste.

Many of the micro breweries in the US are attached to restaurants and in the past I have found that many of them stick to a proven formula.  They all tend to have a similar beer range.  This will include a pilsner, a stout, a brown and an IPA.  They will all offer light to dark colour graded samplers.  They will generally be good quality beers brewed to a proven recipe but there will be little in the way of experimentation.

The Moat Mountain Smoke House and Brewing Company in North Conway, New Hampshire is typical in many ways.  The food menu is typically American with lots of chips, burgers and big portions.  More than any normal human can consume and when you have a selection of beers to get through too it all becomes a bit hideous.  Not that I was complaining.  It's a perfect holiday eatery with great beer thrown in for good measure.        

The beer menu featured all of the house beers along with two local guests and one mass produced lager for the uninitiated.  I actually had a tour around the Coors brewery in Denver many years ago.  Never have I seen such an enormous structure.  It could have housed a football pitch inside but they had chosen to fill it with rows and rows of massive stainless steel tanks all full of the same tasteless fizz.  After showing off these monstrosities they proudly offer samples of what they produce.    

My sampler arrived and of course it contained a pilsner, a pale ale, a brown and a stout and they were arranged from light to dark.  No surprises then.  The first beer was a little different though.  Violet B's Blueberry was essentially the pilsner with a hint of blueberry and it was very pleasant.  I'm not a fan of fruit flavoured beers but this one was quite drinkable.  The other beers were all of the same high quality but offered nothing unusual. My favourite was the Square Tail Stout but it was similar to many stouts I have had elsewhere in the US.  This is not a criticism at all.  I do not remember trying a bad stout in America.  It is a style they do extremely well and this was no exception.  

Where the Moat Mountain Brewing Company did surprise was the availability of their beers in big cans.  It must be years since I had canned beer.  I tried both the Bone Shaker Brown and Iron Mike's Pale Ale from a can and I was mightily impressed with both of them.  I would go as far to say that the can of Iron Mike's Pale Ale tasted better than the sampler I had from the glass.        

High marks all round then for the range of beers from Moat Mountain without offering me anything a little bit different.  What they do they do well.  

After our week in New Hampshire we made our way to Kennebunkport in Maine.  For reasons I need not go into the hotel there was total unsuitable and after some deliberation with the holiday company it was back to the White Mountain Inn.  This was a little disappointing as I was looking forward to trying some of my old favourites from Maine.  However, I was able to stop in at the Shipyard Ales shop where I purchased three bottles that I could enjoy at my leisure over the next few days.

The first of these was the Double Old Thumper.  Shipyard Ales have brewed Old Thumper under license from the Ringwood Brewery back in England since they began brewing in 1992 as far as I know.  Alan Pugsley, the Shipyard brewer, learned his trade at Ringwood before heading over the pond.  Double Old Thumper is exactly what it says.  It comes in at a massive 11.2% ABV which is exactly double the strength of the original Old Thumper.  I have always liked the rich malty taste of the original so I was a little concerned as to whether this double strength brew would disappoint.  I need not have worried though.  It is a classic barley wine that comes with all the delicious characteristics of the original.  I loved it.  Selling an 11.2% ABV beer in a 22fl oz bottle is somewhat insane but I am not complaining.  It slipped down rather easily.

My next Shipyard Ales beer was the XXXX IPA (9.25% ABV).  I was expecting this beer to be equally impressive but I was a little disappointed.  It had a light copper colour and it was a lot more malty than I was expecting from an IPA.  It was a complex mixture of grapefruit and orange citrus notes from the hops along with a rich malty base.  This all gave way to a dry bitter aftertaste which was quite pleasant.  It was enjoyable but not quite the beer I was expecting it to be perhaps.             

My trio from Shipyard was completed by the Blue Fin Stout (4.7% ABV).  This was one of the first Shipyard beers I fell in love with.  It has lots of roasted malts giving it plenty of intense coffee and chocolate notes.  It is a classic American stout and is a marker for all other stouts I come across.        

The drive back to the airport was to include a stop in Portsmouth.  Portsmouth New Hampshire bears no resemblance to Portsmouth Old Hampshire I am delighted to say.  It is located on the coast but that is where the similarity ends.  The New Hampshire coastline stretches for a very short distance indeed stuffed between the immensely long coastlines of Maine and Massachusetts.  It has a delightful town centre with many old buildings and the building I was looking for was the one housing Portsmouth Book & Bar.    

I read about Portsmouth Book & Bar a few months ago and penciled it in as the one place I really wanted to visit.  Part bar, part bookshop and part coffee shop is the best way to describe it I guess.  The books are second-hand but there is a superb selection to browse.  I was very lucky to immediately find a 2012 edition of Beer Lover's New England by Norman Miller for less than $10.  It is a comprehensive guide of all breweries, brewpubs and beer bars in New England and essential for anyone planning a beer trip to this part of the world.  

The building itself was very grand with high ceilings and plenty of light streaming through the windows giving a feeling of great space.  There was free wi-fi and plenty of tables seemed to be occupied with customers who appeared to have been there for some considerable time and looked as if they were using the place as an office.  To the front there was an outside patio area which was also proving popular.  The main seating area was central and adjacent to the bar area.  The bookshelves were scattered around the edges and in various nooks and crannies.  A very clever use of space to maximise room for customers as well as giving room to browse the rows and rows of books.    

The bar menu was excellent.  There were 8 draft beers on tap with a similar amount of ciders and bottles available.  A selection of coffees and food completed the options available.  The beers were from a selection of New England micros and included a Belgian white, a saison, a wheat , a white, an IPA and a porter. Something for everyone.  

I was driving so I chose the weakest beer on the menu, Ishmael from the Rising Tide Brewing Co of Maine at 5.1% ABV.  Rising Tide began brewing in 2010 and are described as a nano-brewery due to their 'tiny' 15 barrel capacity.  This would make them a micro in the UK but scale is all relative.  Their beers are unfiltered and unpasteurised.  Ishmael is a delightful copper coloured ale and is an American interpretation of the altbiers of Dusseldorf.  The Munich malt is combined with American hops to produce a very satisfying beer.  The malts certainly shone through ahead of the hops but there was a nice gentle bitter finish to it.

Before I sign off on what has been a very troublesome post to compose I must mention three very different IPAs I got to try from three very new micro breweries located in or near to the Lakes region of New Hampshire.  They were all purchased from a supermarket in the Lakes region of New Hampshire and they all came in the larger 22fl oz bottles.  

The first of these is a 9th State Red IPA (ABV unknown) from the 603 Brewery.  This micro based in Campton, New Hampshire only started brewing last year.  Sadlers Ales in the UK brew an awesome Red IPA and this one compares well.  It has a lovely deep red colour but the aroma is one of hops.  I found it to have quite a strong malty base and the hops gave it a sweet rich fruity taste before giving way to a clean bitter finish.  I loved it               

Next on the list is a Squam Brewing Golden IPA (8.5% ABV).  Squam Brewing began brewing in 2010 and they are located near to the beautiful Squam Lake and not far from the 603 Brewery.  This very strong IPA is truly complex.  It has a lovely golden colour to it as expected and the strong hoppy aroma was no surprise either.  It is very earthy and there is an interesting bittersweet finish to it.  A very challenging IPA with plenty to enjoy.  Should be handled with care I think.    

Finally I tried the Hop Slinger IPA (6.5% ABV) from the Henniker Brewing Company which bears the name of the New Hampshire town they begain brewing in a couple of years ago.  This was a more traditional American IPA.  It had a very pleasant golden colour and it was giving off plenty of citrussy aromas.  In the taste test there was a perfectly balanced commbination of citrussy and earthy hop flavours before giving way to a delightful dry bitter finish.      

America is a beer lovers paradise and within this vast country there are certain areas that stand out above the others when it comes to the choice of beers on offer.  Portland in Oregon has a great reputation but Portland, Maine and the surrounding New England states are not far behind.  With Boston being the shortest flight from the UK to the US mainland it makes for a relatively easy trip.  I have always recommended the area to my friends and colleagues and every time I go back the beer scene has improved further.  New England is a three season holiday destination popular with the Autumn leaf-peepers, the Winter skiers and the Summer hikers.  Decide which season suits you best and head out there.

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