A Day With Granite State Growler Tours

Hop on Greta the Growler Getta for a day of local beer, food and spirits.
All aboard! Mark Chag Jr. of Granite State Growler Tours (right) welcomes us as we board Greta the Growler Getta.

I like beer, but not in the sense that I regularly lurk Beer Advocate forums or can wax at length about the mouthfeel of a particular IPA. I’m more of a casual beer drinker, which is to say that I’ll try pretty much anything, especially if it’s a local craft brew, and then I’ll probably try it again later, you know, just for good measure.

One of my friends regularly hosts beer-sampling parties that probably wouldn’t have been possible just a few years ago, when there wasn’t exactly a highly evolved retail beer scene in New Hampshire. Now, we imbibers are lucky that craft beer stores have been popping up all over the state, helping to make beer geeks out of us all. Even the supermarkets are getting in on the craze and diversifying their beer aisles.

This speaks to a much larger trend in the beer industry: craft beer is booming, thanks in large part to Millennials like myself. About half of all Millennials are craft-beer drinkers, according to a recent survey by market research firm Mintel, which also predicted that the craft segment of the beer industry would more than triple from the $5.7 billion it had in 2007 to $18 billion by 2017.

This represents a big opportunity for craft-beer brewers, so it’s no surprise that along with the rise of beer retailers, the last decade has seen an absolute explosion in craft breweries as well.

And perhaps nowhere in New Hampshire have more breweries sprouted up than on the Seacoast, which has become something of a 21+ playground for the New Hampshire beer lover. The well-established fixtures of the Seacoast beer scene – Redhook Brewery, Smuttynose Brewing Co. and its sister, The Portsmouth Brewery – are being joined by a number of scrappy upstart microbrewers (and even a rum distillery, yarrrr!).

So it was kind of a no-brainer for David Adams, an engineer at a Manchester product design firm by day and a craft beer enthusiast by night, to start Granite State Growler Tours, which takes riders on a behind-the-scenes tour of some of the region’s brewing upstarts. With David at the wheel and his longtime friend Mark Chag Jr. as the tour guide, the pair drives a custom bus of up to 14 people around to three or four stops on the Seacoast, all the while expounding on the region’s long, frothy beer history.

It was a grueling assignment, for sure, but someone had to do it, so I decided to take one for the team and hop aboard the beer bus with my friend and colleague, New Hampshire Magazine Assistant Editor Erica Thoits. What follows is a blow-by-blow account of our trip on Sunday, Aug. 25.

10:15 a.m.: My kindly boyfriend/designated-driver arrives in Manchester to pick me up. Except for a St. Patrick’s Day or two in college, this may be the earliest I’ve ever woken up with the express purpose of going morning drinking. (Yeah, a pretty impressive accomplishment, I know.) We pick up Erica, who moved into a new house just a few weeks ago, which means that we’re on a mission to populate her new fridge with beer. When we arrive, she is finishing up a plate of hash browns, which will serve her well after the day of drinking to come. Pro move, Thoits. (Erica's Editor's Note: Well, I didn't turn 21 just yesterday. Or last year. Or the seven years before that…)

Our chariot for the day, Greta the Growler Getta

11 a.m.: Taking one from the Erica playbook, we stop off in Epping so I can carbo-load on a bagel and coffee. Like Erica, I’ve gotta line my stomach for the endurance day of drinking ahead.

11:25 a.m.: As we pull into the Community Oven parking lot in Hampton, we get our first glimpse of the glorious Greta the Growler Getta, the modified bus that will be our beer chariot for the next four hours. Or, as she is affectionately known, the “Ambeerlance.” We meet Dave and Mark, easily spotted in their Growler Tour shirts, as well as the six other people who are going along with us for the ride today. All seem thirsty and up to the sacred task at hand.

11:35 a.m.: Aboard the bus, we learn its few rules: No jumping out the windows (OK, should be do-able, but maybe lock them just in case); and no drinking on the bus – water excluded, of course. Sorry bros, this isn’t a frat house on wheels – you have to treat Greta like the lady she is. We get booklets for writing tasting notes, stickers to differentiate our growlers and also sign waivers that, among other things, make sure we know that the pretzels we’ll get in a few hours weren’t made in a commercial kitchen. With some trepidation re: the pretzels, I sign.

Noon: We drive through Strawbery Banke, slowing down as we pass Stoodley's Tavern, the famed tavern that poured cold ones for the likes of Paul Revere when he came to Portsmouth to warn of a British attack on Fort William and Mary. Mark entertains us with other tales of Portsmouth ales, all the while promising The Beer is Coming, The Beer is Coming.

12:15: We pull up alongside A&G Homebrew Supply and its related brewery, Earth Eagle Brewings. At A&G, which sells everything you’d ever need to turn your home into a Prohibition-era speakeasy, bartender Zach Field gives us grains to taste, which are more notable for how loud they are to chew than for how they actually taste. We move into the brewing room, where we meet and get to ask questions of co-owner Butch Heilshorn. Earth Eagle is known for brewing gruits, an old-style way of making beer with spices, herbs and roots instead of hops, which I’ve never tried before.

Yes, you're in the right place when you see the A&G Homebrew Supply sign. Earth Eagle Brewings and A&G share a building.
Co-owner Butch Heilshorn explains the brewing process before we head to the tasting room.

12:40: The real fun begins when we move into the adjoining tasting room, where Zach is pouring samples of the six beers they have on tap. Because they don’t open to the public on Sundays until 1 p.m., we have the room to ourselves, and get pours of everything they’ve got, from the Mayan Mayhem – brewed with chili flakes and cacao nibs, yerba santa and maqui berry – and ’Murican Revolution ESB, which is made with Earl Grey tea, meaning it’s basically the beer they would drink on Downton Abbey if they were always getting tanked in the servants’ quarters. I get a growlette of the ’Murican to give as an offering to our DD, and Erica gets a growlette of the Shepherd’s Crook, an American wheat ale with champagne-style bubbles. (Erica’s Editor’s Note: Beers swap out fairly often meaning you’re likely to find something new when you visit. Keep up with what’s on tap by checking out Earth Eagle’s Facebook page.)

Kathleen (she's on the left) and I taste our first beers of the day at Earth Eagle Brewings.
Zach Field explains what each beer is and what we can expect to taste.

1:05: Mark collects our growlettes to put on ice aboard Greta, and the rest of us soak in the sunny day as we stroll to our next stop, The Coat of Arms Pub in downtown Portsmouth, where we’ll get to try their cask beer. It’s the first time the tour has stopped at the Coat, and – even though the pub has three cask engines – unfortunately, only one is in commission today. We get a choice of one pint of any single beer, or two half-pints of different varieties from their wide-ranging draught list. I opt for a full pint of the Moat Mountain Hoffman Weiss, which is on cask, and I don’t regret it – a golden wheat beer with fruity notes, and it’s brewed in North Conway, to boot. The Coat, FYI, is the only cask account for Moat Mountain and Throwback Brewery. (Erica’s Editor’s Note: I stopped in at the Coat in early September to find that Moat’s Bone Shaker Brown had replaced the Weiss. It was, unsurprisingly, delicious. Also on cask were two Maine brewery selections, Geary’s HSA and Shipyard’s Old Thumper. Cask beers change often, so make sure to check out the Coat’s Facebook page to see what’s offered.)

The Moat Mountain Hoffman Weiss was on cask during our stop at the Coat of Arms Pub. There are typically three cask beers to choose from.
Snacks are a must on all-day drinking tours, and the Coat of Arms Pub was happy to provide a much-needed bite to eat.

1:20: Out comes an array of appetizers – vegetables and a boursin spread, Scotch eggs and sausage rolls, which are made-in house and are so good that they’re almost worth seeing the sausage get made.

Sitting around a table together gives us a chance to get to know the other tour guests: a young, craft-beer-loving couple from Lowell, Mass. who dabble in homebrewing; a couple from Franklin celebrating the man’s 50th birthday; and a couple from Nashua who had heard about the bus just the day before at Gate City Brew Fest. They’re trying a hair-of-the-dog strategy to nurse their hangovers, and so far it seems to be working, though I don’t think the sausage rolls are hurting. A couple beers in, and the woman from the birthday couple is talking about setting me up with her son. He sounds nice and all, but I’m not so sure the DD/boyfriend would be keen on it. (Then again, if we break up, that means I would get to keep the ESB, right…?)

1:50: OK, so I have a question for you, Mother Nature. When did you let the sun get so bright? Was it this bright when we went into the Coat? There’s just no way. On the way back to Greta, I make Erica take a requisite photo (Erica's Editor's Note: I think she meant to write "awkward" photo), grabbing the two people who happen to be standing closest to me to pretend to be my friends for the sake of a nice snap.   

Intrepid reporter Kathleen Callahan with pen and notebook in hand!

1:56: Now we arrive at the part of the tour where we pay homage to the granddaddy of Portsmouth beer, Frank Jones, the man so intertwined with the city’s brewing history that not to mention him would be New Hampshire sacrilege, like putting together a list of the state’s most famous rock formations and just totally, awkwardly forgetting the Old Man. Greta pulls up alongside an empty brick building on Islington Street, which, we learn, was once just one small part of his massive beer empire. Standing near the building, I hope to absorb some of his surviving greatness through osmosis. It must work, because – out of nowhere, I swear – I suddenly have an urge for more beer!

Mark Chag Jr. gives us the historical background of Portsmouth's brewing industry and Frank Jones.
One of the few remaining Frank Jones Brewing Company buildings on Islington St.

2:25: But the beer will have to wait, at least for now, because our next stop is Sea Hagg Distillery, located in a nondescript strip mall in North Hampton that from the outside seems more like a podiatrist’s office than a micodistillery. But once inside, it’s very clear there is some serious rum-making happening here.

Owner/distiller Heather Hughes and her friendly poodle, Zoe, greet us, and as much as I am enjoying hearing about the distilling process – notable for the local fruits they use and the fact that the rum is crafted in a traditional copper alembic pot – I can’t help but feel burned that Zoe obviously prefers Erica, who never thought to tell me that she’s some sort of dog whisperer. (Erica's Editor's Note: News to me!) Not to fret, though; soon I’ll have some rum to help drown all my dog-related insecurities.

My new best friend Zoe
Bottles are hand-dipped and labeled
The traditional copper alembic pot
Owner/distiller Heather Hughes

2:40: Though rum is neither my favorite nor Erica’s, we both agree that this rum is something else altogether. Let’s just put it this way – it’s good enough that after sampling the seasonal blueberry and the silver rum varieties, we decide it’s time for some blurry selfies taken with a DSLR in front of the mermaid painting on the wall. #YOLO, right? (Erica's Editor's Note: It is my absolute favorite photo of the day. It just encapsulates the experience perfectly.)

Selfie #fail.

2:55: As we board the bus, Dave hands us the previously promised pretzels, which were made by his wife with Watch City Brewing Company Titan Ale. Maybe I’ve just got a nice buzz on, but could this be the best pretzel ever twisted by human hands? Yes. A definitive yes. Well done, Dave’s wife. On the downside, should I ever attempt to make my own soft pretzels, I have been set up for a lifetime of disappointment. Thanks for that, Dave’s wife.

Pretzels were handed out at just the right moment. We are in beer munchie heaven.

3:00: Though we don’t get to stop at Throwback Brewery today – that’s reserved for Saturday tours – Greta does drive by a big white farmhouse that, we’re told, is the future home of the expanded Throwback. (Confession time: Here’s the only part of the tour I seriously consider breaking Rule #1, leaping out Greta’s window and running toward the farmhouse for some of their notoriously good Spicy Bohemian, which is brewed with jalapenos.)

Throwback Brewery's future home.

3:15: Greta pulls back into the strip mall parking lot where we started, and hey – look at that – there’s a brewery in here!  It’s the Blue Lobster Brewing Company, and at the bar inside, we get samples of all five brews they have on tap, lined up by hue like a rainbow of beer. And wait – my samples, lined up next to Erica’s samples, makes a double rainbow of beer. Double Rainbow. All the way. Whoa. So intense.

Seated at the bar behind us is owner Michael Benoit, who shoots the breeze with tour-goers about all things beer and the Blue Lobster brewing process, which eschews fruit and the other flavor accompaniments that have become so trendy in the craft beer world. A standout is the Gold Claw, an American pale ale that is one of the brewery’s flagship ales.

Normally, this would be the last stop on the beer tour, but the Isle of Shoals Steamship Co. has offered riders of the beer bus a discounted rate on tonight’s Redhook Cruise. Being a generally fun-loving bunch, everyone agreed to the boat ride. But since it doesn’t leave the shore until six, we have time to kill – and bellies to fill. But Dave, our faithful captain, has a plan in mind.

Lined up samples at Blue Lobster Brewing Co.
Blue Lobster was the last brewery stop of the day.

4:15: Greta turns down a dead-end street, slowly passing a motel on our right. Wait, where are we going? Is Dave kidnapping us all so he can hold us ransom for some outrageous demand, like the last remaining bottles of Kate the Great?

But I should know better than to question Dave. He’s brought us to WHYM in Portsmouth, a new craft beer café that has become something of a mecca for beer geeks from the Seacoast and beyond. For good reason: it’s got a great draught list of beers from near (called “neighbors”) and far (“long-distance relationships”).

Figuring I’ve had plenty of local beer today, I go for an Eau de Benite, a tripel from one of my favorite breweries, Unibroue in Quebec. (It’s marketed as “holy water on draught,” so – aside from the attendant Catholic guilt – how could I not order it?) To eat, I get the shrimp po’boy with truffle fries, while several others in the party order, and subsequently rave about, the mac and cheese. (Erica’s Editor’s Note: Confirmed. The gouda stout mac and cheese was fantastic.)

Selfie attempt #2 at Blue Lobster before the bus departed for WHYM. Points for getting both faces, but major deductions for not being in focus. We titled this photo "Evidence of Why You Should Have a Designated Driver." Thanks again, Ben!

5:20: After finishing up our meals, we get back aboard our faithful steed, good old Greta. She brings us to Portsmouth, where we will board the boat for even more beer fun.

After a beautiful sunset cruise – which, despite offering three stories of beer to sample, turned out to be a largely sober affair for Erica and I, thanks to general drinking fatigue – Dave and Greta brought us tour-goers back to where we started for the long journeys home.

It was sad saying goodbye to Greta. I don’t know, it just seemed like she and I got along really well. Do you think she’d want to, maybe, like, hang out sometime after the tour is over? It’s totally cool if not.

My tally for the day: Seven new drinking buddies; one growlette purchased; about 60,000 carbs consumed (an exact scientific calculation); a new favorite Seacoast attraction; one article about daytime drinking that, much to my mother’s chagrin, will come up for decades whenever my name is Googled. All in all: well worth the $55 price of admission. (Erica's Editor's Note: Agreed!)

For more information, visit nhbeerbus.com or on Facebook.


Categories: Beer Features