April 09, 2013

Beer Travel-Portsmouth Craft Beer Week

A simple headline in my RSS feed set things into motion.  In October, after visiting New Hampshire and taking in many of the local breweries I promptly returned to Ottawa and began following every brewery I could find on as many forms of media as possible.  Imagine my delight and disappointment to learn about all the new and exciting things happening in New Hampshire’s craft beer scene and my inability to enjoy them on a daily basis.  

So when I read the headline - “2013 Seacoast Winter Brew Fest” - I followed the link to learn more.  Not only was there to be a winter brew fest but it would lead to the Portsmouth Craft Beer Week.  Even more intrigued I followed the link to the calendar of events.  Immediately I began to wonder if it was a trip we could make.  Instead of a weekend we could have a whole week celebrating great craft beer and enjoying a beautiful state.  

I began to keep tabs on the events as the list grew.  Each one that was added just made a more compelling argument for the trip.  I mentioned the Winter Brew Fest and beer week to our friend in New Hampshire.  His words, “Is it enough to make my two favourite Canadians come and visit?”  My husband and I looked at each other and decided that yes, it most certainly was.

Vacation time was booked and I began a list of the events we wanted to attend.  I was pleased to find out that many were walking distance from each other.  Timing was also important and while not many overlapped some did and choices had to be made.  The plan was altered a few times as we tried to fit as much in as we could without overdoing it and risking getting “beered out.” (I know, it seems far fetched but it can happen.)

First up was the 11:00 am VIP Session of the Seacoast Winter Brew Fest.  The list of breweries was impressive and the VIP allowed us tastings of rare whiskey, bourbon and scotch.  The fest did as promised and we spent four hours sampling some great beers and spirits.  Everyone we talked to was friendly, knowledgeable and engaging.  Some beers stood out with Allagash’s FV 13, Dogfish Head’s Bitches Brew, Sam Adam’s Vixen, Great Rhythm Resonation, Widmer’s South by Northwest being just a few.  

Sunday found our trio sitting at Earth Eagle sampling their beers.  We tried all six of their offerings.  The New England Gangsta and Chinese Rock were the favourites though I can honestly say all six were very much enjoyed.  The company was great including one of the brewers and another couple who were craft beer fans.

That afternoon we made the walk to RiRa’s for the Rollin’ Out the barrels.  Sam Adam’s and Smuttynose were hosting the kick off to beer week with some rare beers.  Here again the event’s description did not disappoint.  The bar itself is not to be missed (an old jewelry store that has kept the beautiful elements including the ceiling and vaults) and the beers were great. We had a chance to chat with Bill Harris from Smuttynose and Mike Lianza from Sam Adam’s.  Both were great guys to talk to.  

Monday we arrived at Thirsty Moose for the Founders tappings.  The bar itself was not my favourite of the trip though their selection did help make up for the marginal service and ambiance. We ran into Bill Harris from Smuttynose.  He gave us a few tips for restaurants to visit, including the event at the Black Trumpet.  Admittedly we had been torn between the East vs West event or that one but Bill’s recommendation on the food was enough to sway us.  We settled in for a shared flight and some individual pints.  Highlights included Founders Centennial Ale, Monk’s Cafe Flemish Sour Red Ale and Rogue Chocolate Stout.

We were not steered wrong.  The menu for the Early Blooms tap takeover was amazing.  We tried Smuttynose Paradox, Durty, Bloom and the Robust Porter.  Each was paired with two small plate tastings that were perfectly matched to the beer.  Highlight was the butterscotch pudding with molasse whip that was paired with the robust porter.  The group was in complete agreement that all the beers were excellent.

The next day was bright and sunny.  We spent the morning snowshoeing before heading back to Thirsty Moose for the Smuttynose food and beer pairing.  Good price and interesting mix. Not all the dishes matched as well as I had hoped but overall it was good quality.  The highlight for me was the stroganoff while my companions favoured the jerk pork tenderloin and the chocolate cupcake.

We took the short walk to TJ’s for the IPA tap takeover.  The best part of a group of three is everyone can order something different and drinks can be shared so that everyone gets to taste them.  This is the strategy we employed after looking at the list of fourteen different IPA’s.  Standouts of this delightfully hoppy night included Stone Ruination, Sixpoint Bengali Tiger and getting to try Sam Adam’s Grumpy Monk on tap versus the bottle.

Wednesday the guys humoured me with a trip out to Seacoast so that I could stand on the rocks in the pouring rain and ice.  What better way to reward them?  Lunch at the Black Birch in Maine.  Another recommendation from Bill that came with a warning to get there early or they are packed.  We did as we were told and got in before the dinner menu kicked in.  Hot soup, warm grilled cheese, house pickles and a great selection of beer took the chill away.  Oxbow’s Farmhouse Pale Ale was the lunchtime favourite.

To celebrate the great food we headed to the North Coast tap takeover at the Press Room. We found three seats at the end of the bar and ordered our beer.  Again we employed the divide and conquer strategy.  We tried the Scrimshaw Pilsner, Brother Thelonius and the barrel aged Old Rasputin XV.  Shortly after we sat down and our beer arrived we were pleased to meet Matthew Webster from North Coast Brewing.  He had some regular Old Rasputin out of the bottle to compare next to the barrel aged.  It should be noted that all craft beer fans should carry a bottle opener, you never know when you will be in a bar and unable to open a bottle to hand out samples. (Thanks to Ottawa brewery Broadhead, for the keychain bottle opener.)

Our last stop for this Wednesday evening was Portsmouth Brewery.  Not only were we in the mood for some dessert but they were hosting a collaborative brew night.  Head Brewer Tyler Jones was joined by Rik Marley from Flying Goose Brew Pub and Annette Lee from Throwback Brewery.  We were treated to two beers. The first was an oatmeal pale ale that was paired with corn and cheddar fritters.  The second was Holy Mole porter paired with chicken taquitos. Both were very tasty and the food, of course, spot on.

Our final day in New Hampshire found us seeking out Milly’s Tavern for lunch and White Birch Brewing for a tasting.  The trip back towards Portsmouth was not complete without a stop at the newest microbrewery, Blue Lobster.  We ran down the list of their beers, including a bit of a beer they were aging but ran out of room for.  (I believe it is to be the Lobster Genome Project)

From there we took the short drive to Throwback Brewery.  Again, employing the three man strategy we were able to try the Dippity Doo, the Hog Happy Hefeweizen, Donkey-hote, Campfire Smoked, Oma’s Tribute and the Chocolate Mint Stout.  

Our next stop was a quick jaunt over to Gary’s Beverages to sample some Sam Adams.  We had some bottles of the red IPA and the Grumpy Monk at the hotel but we were pleased to try Cinder Bock, Imperial White, Double Bock and Verloren Gose.  While the place was cramped, many people being in there to buy their evenings beverages, the woman was quite nice and the samples tasty.    

Our final two stops were close together.  First was Portsmouth Brewery for collaboration brew tasting number two.  Here Tyler presented the group with Cirque de Citron, the collaborative brew with Oxbow Brewing.  This was paired with a spring roll.  The second was a beer done with Great Rhythm brewery.  It was a wheat stout called Total Eclipse of the Stout.  This they paired with hazelnut brittle.  Again the chef had some winning combos.  

Second and final stop of our beer week was Coat of Arms British pub.  It was firkin night and there were three beers to try.  Lemon drop from Smuttynose, Double Dippity from Throwback and Imperial stout from Moat Mountain.  Each of us took one and toasted what was a wonderful week.

The week could not have been any better.  We ate some amazing food, prepared by some fantastic chefs.  We tried over 130 new beers across our entire nine days. (We did spend two days in Boston.) We also met some really great people who helped make our trip that much better.  It is nice to see that no matter where you go the craft beer scene is the same.  Friendly people who want to talk beer with anyone willing to listen to them talk about beer.  

This wasn’t our first trip to Portsmouth but it was our longest.  It was also our best which guarantees it will not be our last.  

Thanks to Bill, Mike, Tyler, Matthew, Sean and everyone else who showed us the best the week had to offer.