Thinking Outside the Keg
From meat and foraged herbs to wild fermentation and off-the-grid breweries, here are some New Hampshire brewers who aren’t afraid to experiment
A primary goal at Throwback Brewery is to source ingredients as locally as possible, which constantly forces them to come up with funky beers.
By Melissa Boulanger
Local beer lovers have no shortage of options here in the Granite State. Thanks to a loosening of requirements, a crucial change to laws left over from the dark days of Prohibition and licensing fees that don’t require loans, New Hampshire is an ideal spot to open a brewery — especially a small one with a focus on keeping it interesting.
New Hampshire recently became the first state to recognize nanobreweries with a law that differentiates them from larger-scale businesses. This, and a reduction in fees for nanobreweries that puts them on the same footing as larger companies, makes it more feasible for small operations to start brewing beer.
Although there are many great brewpubs, gone is the requirement that breweries serve food with tastings. No longer will brewpubs open out of necessity and the brewers who want to remain devoted to the science of beer have more freedom to do so. With fewer requirements comes room to experiment.
And, with less time, effort and money spent on jumping through legal hoops, Granite State brewers can do what they do best — create unique, small-batch beers you won’t find anywhere else.
For some brewers, staying small is the goal. “The nano model is good for me because of the direct contact [with customers and vendors],” says Tim Roettiger of the newly opened Belgian Mare Brewery. “If it weren’t for that, then a lot of the enjoyment would be gone.”
Plus, it seems like it would be difficult to get much larger when your brewery is an off-the-grid, wood-fired operation. It doesn’t get much more uniquely New Hampshire than that.
Belgian Mare opened its doors officially on May 31, 2014. It’s a small, one-man operation out in rural East Alstead. (If you go, bring an actual, physical map with you — a Google map doesn’t know where it’s going out there.) The barn, which houses the brewery, was built on top of the site of another barn that existed back when the property was still a farm. “This building has no power to it,” explains Roettiger. “The only automated part is a little chugger pump.” The actual brewing system embodies the term “Frankenbrew,” which refers to brew ing systems created from a random assortment of parts rather than paying a company to fabricate everything and ship it over.
As Roettiger explains, “We couldn’t get any financial backing. In a way, that was good because it really forced me to think about what I need to do this. I need something to boil in, I need something to mash in and I need something to ferment in.” He searched around and eventually found a few tanks that he could repurpose and someone to craft lids for them. His neighbor handled the sanitary welding.
Once the system was assembled, Roettiger got to brewing his first-ever ale, the Hemlock Stout. He adheres to a traditional brewing style by leaving his ales unfiltered and then bottle conditions them. This allows him to experiment with aging and taste evolution. “When it [the Hemlock Stout] first comes out of the fermenter, it’s almost undrinkably strong,” explains Roettiger. “So that one usually takes two to three months before I can even sell it, and then sometimes it will be woody, sometimes piney and sometimes [there’s a taste of] banana.” In fact, he’s had a few bottles in his cellar for more than a year. For a while, Roettiger thought he was the only brewer with a wood-fired system in NH until he heard about Canterbury AleWorks.
Owned by Steve Allman, the picturesque Canterbury AleWorks also features an off-grid brewing system, which is powered by propane and wood, and uses gravity to transport the product throughout several stages of the system. Allman focuses on using historical yeasts and fine-tuning the fermentation process in order to extract the most flavor and aroma possible. He plans to eventually experiment with oak aging as well. “Part of this whole project is going to be to potentially ferment in oak and cask in oak,” Allman says. “What you end up with ultimately is just a much, much deeper complexity to the beer that you just can’t get with stainless steel.”
Though there are obvious upsides to keeping things small, larger size doesn’t always preclude bold experimentation.
Bill Herlicka of White Birch Brewing in Hooksett, which is well beyond the nano stage, also dabbles in interesting styles. His ultimate goal is to brew exceptionally flavorful beer you can’t buy just anywhere. He was never interested in trying to clone commercial beers back in his homebrewing days and he certainly isn’t interested now. “If I can get it at every store and gas station in the state, then why would I make it myself? I want to make something I can’t buy in the store,” he says. This is a similar philosophy to Canterbury AleWorks and Earth Eagle Brewings in Portsmouth, which do not distribute at all.
White Birch brews a variety of beers including, but not limited to, Belgian ales, barley wines and wild ales. Wild ales are brewed with Brettanomyces yeast strains, often in open air conditions. You’ll also find interesting beers brewed in this fashion at Schilling Beer Co. in Littleton. (You can read more about them here.) Among White Birch’s most popular beers are the Berliner weisse and its blueberry and raspberry variants. The Berliner is a type of sour beer, which is made by adding acidifying bacteria to the ale and just letting it age for a year or two.
The Berliner used to be the summer seasonal but was so popular it became a year-round brew, as did the blueberry and raspberry. “We used to have another beer for summer seasonal but Berliner was so popular that no one bought the other one,” says Herlicka. In a market currently oversaturated by super hoppy IPAs with high ABV (alcohol by volume), White Birch stands out with its wild-sour ales, as does Belgian Mare and Canterbury AleWorks, which are more moderate in terms of ABV and hops.
Though they recently opened a new and much larger facility at Towle Farm in Hampton (including a state-of-the-art brewery and brewpub), Smuttynose Brewing Company isn’t letting their growing size and reach overshadow their love for trying new things. When planning the new brewery, they set aside a small-batch brewing system specifically for experimentation and collaboration called Smuttlabs. As the company puts it, “Our brewing staff has many ideas that can’t be done on a large scale.” So Smuttlabs is dedicated to brewing “rare and unusual beers” that sometimes will be bumped up to larger production or will never be brewed again. It’s what allows Smuttynose to innovate and retain some of their craft brewing character. You can read much more about the new brewery online at nhmagazine.com/beer.
In Portsmouth, Earth Eagle Brewings is also creating beers that stand out by using non-traditional — some would say outright crazy — ingredients. Aside from the several meat-based beers they have dreamed up, Earth Eagle uses gruits (actually a very old style of brewing) in many of their beers rather than sticking to only hops. (Learn more about the unique brewing process here.)
A gruit is essentially a mixture of herbs and spices that can be used to flavor beer instead of hops, although one could use hops in a gruit. Much, if not all, of the herbs used in their gruits are foraged locally in New Hampshire (you can read much more about foraging here).
Butch Heilshorn, a co-owner of Earth Eagle, is married to an herbalist and is responsible for brewing the vast majority of beers with gruits. He says he likes using gruits in many different styles of beer because of the unique and unlimited flavor combinations, “It’s all the styles times however many herbs and additives you can come up with.”
Another brewpub that uses many non-traditional ingredients is Throwback Brewery, which is now located on the beautiful and historic Hobbs Farm in North Hampton. One of their primary goals is to source all of their ingredients as locally as possible, which forces them to constantly come up with funky beers that defy the normal, such as their popular jalapeño pilsener, chai tea porter and even a beet wit. “Our customers loved it because it’s a wit, meaning it’s nice and light and a little bit citrusy,” says co-owner Nicole Carrier. “But then you get the earthiness from the beets and it’s fuschia-colored so it’s just beautiful. We converted some people who thought they didn’t like beets.”
Eventually, Throwback will be able to use their own hops, but for now their hop yard is still in its nascent stages. Canterbury AleWorks is also working on similar goals to stay local by growing their own hops and base malt.
Despite their differences, these breweries all have striking similarities: Many of them started on (or are still using) some sort of small-batch frankenbrewery; they set out to experiment and learn more about their craft every day; they are all dedicated to brewing and serving delicious craft beer.
Perhaps the most telling consistency to the NH beer scene is that, anywhere you go, you will find some of the most friendly, open-minded and knowledgable people in the world who are all just as excited to meet you as you are to drink their beer.