There is one last thing I have to do on my way out of Massachusetts and that is to eat more whole-belly clams. Several people I met along the way and a neighbor from back home insisted that I visit Woodman’s in Essex, MA. Of course, the main purpose of my trip is uncovering local craft beer, but on the East coast, seafood is a colossal part of the appeal of this trip for me. Plus, after yesterday’s four brewery visits, I am in favor of a lighter ABV day. The drive to Woodman’s is on par with the other driving through this beautiful seaside land. To say Woodman’s is a Massachusetts institution is putting it mildly. On a day when the temps are around 90 degrees and the humidity makes it feel like you are wearing an invisible snowmobile suit, people are packed into this non-air conditioned roadside eatery. Years later, I may very well look back at this day to pinpoint when I got mercury poisoning. I looked at the menu and there are all kinds of options, but I am here for one thing and one thing only: whole-belly Ipswich Clams. I order an amount that will not make people raise an eyebrow, but enough to hold me til whenever I get out this direction again, a medium box. I am not sure if it is the lack of air movement, but the kitchen window of the restaurant seems to be playing out in a mirage. The smells of this place were making my stomach growl like a grizzly bear in a studio with Fran Drescher recording a laugh track. My order is up and I get my cardboard box of clams and tartar sauce and sit down to enjoy. Each bite is a parade down the mainstreet of Deliciousville, USA. Sadly, it is time for me to leave Massachusetts and head to New Hampshire because I need to get to Smuttynose before they shutter their doors for the evening.
Smuttynose Brewing Co. is fairly large and surrounded by tall pine trees and a frisbee golf course. The brewery has a modern look to it and I am thirsty and ready to try their beer. They have a tasting room, but really, it is a small bar in the end of a room that looks down a huge row of tanks in the brewery. There is limited seating and I just stand at the bar and prepare to take some notes on the beer. Having never tried their beer before, I am impressed with the variety of styles that they are pouring. They limit patrons to 4 samples so I have to choose wisely. My decisionmaking is tested as there are way more than 4 beers that I want to try.
I start with their flagship, the Finest Kind IPA, on the recommendation of Carolyn, the bartender for the the taproom. She has only been working there for two months, but already knows the craft beers that Smuttynose pours backwards and forwards. The Finest Kind IPA is a really delicious beer, one I think falls into the category of a more traditional IPA. It has a nice citrusy start, but finishes with noticeable bitterness and reminds me of IPAs that I am used to. It is not super juicy and hazy like many of the other IPAs I have been tasting lately. I am on to the Shoals Pale Ale next and this is a fine example of why this style is still a go-to for me. This particular iteration of the style is the brother from another mother to Summit Brewing’s EPA. The Shoals Pale Ale focuses on balance and the taste starts with some citrusy hops and then goes into a more biscuit malt territory to stand up to the bittering hops in the beer. This beer is smooth and has a great complexity to it. I could drink this beer every day of the year because it is so versatile. My next taste was the Old Brown Dog, a Brown Ale filled with roasty and burnt caramel notes that are fulfilling and robust. It has a toothsome nature to it which I find most Brown Ales missing. This former GABF Silver Medal winner is definitely worth your consideration as it has a memorable flavor and mouthfeel. The Big A IPA lives up to its name in ABV and IBUs. It is an 8.2% IPA with 98 IBUs and has a ton of flavor. The bitterness is a lot higher on this than the Finest Kind IPA and although that sounds intimidating, there is enough malt in the beer to balance out the flavors. That being said, this is one that those who crave high octane hoppy beers will love and light beer drinkers will probably want to steer clear of. Smuttynose has a line of beers called Smuttlabs where the brewers can experiment with rare and unusual styles. Being that the temperature is hot and humid, the Blueberry Short Weisse sounds too good to pass up because I want something refreshing and effervescent. This berliner Weisse is tart and acidic, a flavor profile that I am always happy to drink. Some folks don’t like the tart, but this truly is a wonderful flavor and a nice gateway into more complex sour beers. The blueberry gives the beer a purplish hue and is present in the aroma. The Blueberry Short Weisse is perfect because the blueberry doesn’t overwhelm the beer, in fact, it is a perfect accent to the tartness and acidity in the beer. Finally, it is time for the second Smuttlabs offering, Gravitation, a Belgian Quad weighing in at 12.3%. Sweet fancy moses, what a great craft beer! Lots of dark fruit, caramel, raisin, and booze flavors combine to make this a special treat. Belgian Quads are always beers I gravitate towards, but the time of year for when I enjoy these beers the most is when the temp is not so hot. The fact that I am head over heels in love with this beer in this heat is a true testament to its flavor prowess.
As I am taking notes, I am also noticing that there are a lot of other Smuttynose fans here at the tasting room. Chris and Jessica are preparing to celebrate ten years of marriage and are on a beer visit from Connecticut. Chris is an education consultant and Jessica works with preschoolers. They are both very nice and excited that I am here visiting. We are all able to toast the summer schedule that teachers are able to enjoy. Another couple, Mike and Lauren hail from Tewksbury, MA. Mike is an engineer and Lauren is a project manager for a construction company. They are also visiting a few breweries in the area and are gracious enough to tell me about some of their favorite breweries as I head up the coast. While the beer is great, the company is even better and I am happy that I have fellow craft beer enthusiasts to pass the time with. Carolyn, all the while, is chatting with visitors and filling glasses. She really has a passion for craft beer and I think that her personality and congenial nature go a long way in making visitors like myself feel at home at Smuttynose. It is getting to be dinnertime and I head across the patio to the brewpub. While the inside is nice and air-conditioned, the outdoor seating is picturesque and I can’t pass it up. I need a break from heavy food so I order a salad and a Vunderbar Pilsner. The beer and salad arrive in remarkably timely manner and soon I am enjoying a great meal. The Pilsner is crisp and refreshing. It has a nice bite to it and is incredibly drinkable in this heat. The salad is huge and has lots of tomatoes, shaved carrot ribbons, raisins, and chickpeas. It is not over-dressed and that is good because the greens have a nice crunch and freshness to them. There is a slight breeze and despite the temperature, I am able to really enjoy my outdoor dining experience. Of course, I still order another Pilsner because a man needs to stay hydrated.
Dusk is fast approaching and I head to my Airbnb to get some rest. Tomorrow will bring a full day in Portsmouth and I want to be able to get the most out of it. The Airbnb is an adorable house right on the river that separates New Hampshire from Maine. Jim and Crystal are the ideal hosts. There is all the information I need for the wifi and they even provide breakfast in the morning. I am able to get a much needed night’s sleep and I am reinvigorated when I get up the next day.
My first stop of the day is the Red Hook Brewery. Red Hook distributes in MN and I am familiar with some of their catalog, but I hope to try some things that don’t make their way to the Midwest. Luckily, my gamble pays off because they have several beers I haven’t heard of before. Some of the highlights include the ESB, which had a great bready and biscuity element that I yearn for when I drink an ESB. Their Belgian IPA had a fantastic yeasty tang to balance out the crisp hoppiness of the beer. Other than those two, everything was fairly ordinary. Given the sprawling size of the brewery, I am hoping to find a colossal tap selection, but they choose to pour quality over quantity. Red Hook branding is everywhere, from the mural on the wall to the five gallon kegs that are hanging from the ceiling acting as light fixtures. It is clear that there is a lot of money behind this brewery and having AB-InBev owning 32% of the brewery has something to do with that. I have to be honest, Red Hook has good food and good beer, but it felt like a chain restaurant. Compared Smuttynose, a large brewery that felt homey and welcoming, Red Hook feels corporate and generic.
The beer train continues as I pull up to Stoneface Brewing Company, perhaps the polar opposite of Red Hook. Stoneface is a brewery that many locals rave about and have implored me to visit. Despite the fact that there is no AC and it is muggy and really hot, I grab one of several high top tables in their cozy taproom. I walk up to the bar to grab a menu and a friendly and beer savvy bartender asks me what I am drinking. I ask if they do flights and she says yes, but they do them her way. She then began pouring me a couple samples at a time to ensure that they didn’t warm up too fast. I love this! It shows that not only does she know the craft beers at Stoneface well, but also how best to present them to a patron. She gets extra points for that. The beers are good. Some of my favorites were the Summer Vice which is grapefruit in color and has a great tartness to it. It is refreshing and in this heat, a welcome treat. The Full Clip IPA is the same recipe as their regular IPA, but with a different yeast strain. This beer is aromatic and citrusy with subtle bitterness; also refreshing given the heat. One of the craft beers that is blowing my mind is the Porter. It absolutely captures what I love about roasted malt in a beer. They brew this to the level of magnificent and even on a hot day, I cannot get enough of it. Stoneface knows how to use hops in inventive ways and I really appreciate that their hop flavors are diverse and well-crafted. I wish that they heat isn’t so oppressive because I want to stay here all day. Throughout the duration of my time here I am seeing a steady stream of people coming in for growlers and pints. For being relatively new in this space, they certainly have a staunch following and it is well-deserved. It is time to head to downtown Portsmouth to check out Portsmouth Brewery.
Portsmouth Brewery is more in the older part of Portsmouth, NH right off the Piscataqua river. They have a cool sign above their door that makes it feel like a classic British pub. Carolyn from Smuttynose told me that Portsmouth Brewery is their sister brewery so my expectations for the beer are high. I am seated and thankful that the AC is on full blast. There are many craft beer options brewed there as well as several guest beers. The food menu is enticing and expansive. In a rare non-seafood mood, I order a grilled chicken sandwich and a taster flight. The taster flight comes with six beers and while a couple stand out as unique and delicious, for the most part, the offerings are a bit underwhelming. Perhaps it is unfair for me to expect that they be on the level of Smuttynose and that is my fault for assuming that to be the case. I am also thinking that the fact that the server is acting inconvenienced by having to wait on me is also playing into my not enjoying the beers as much. I can understand if the brewpub is completely packed and they are understaffed, but that is certainly not the case and as a result, I am wishing I had stayed at Stoneface. However, Portsmouth’s Lime Berliner Weisse is a great beer. Citrus paired with tart and crisp, when done well, will always garner my attention and high marks. The Zwickel monster is also a hit. Crisp and drinkable, but with a hoppy aroma, give it a nice balance. After that, things begin to blur together as just average or slightly below. For what seems like the amount of time between seasons of Game of Thrones for the server to come, I contemplate the meaning of life and if I will ever be able to leave. Finally, I get the check and vamoose. I hope that I have the opportunity to come back here again and give Portsmouth Brewery another shot. I never like to judge a place negatively just off of one experience, but I am thankful to have them in my rearview mirror for now. My sites are set on the great state of Maine and before I hit the road, I am going to walk around and get some photos of this peaceful town that has a fantastic amount of character to it.
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