Earth Eagle Brewings Continues to Offer Delicious Surprises

Seaweed, mushrooms and curry are just a few of the unusual ingredients you'll find in the distinctive - and tasty - beers at Earth Eagle Brewings in Portsmouth
That's Alex McDonald and Butch Heilshorn in the background.
By Jenna Freitas

Earth Eagle Brewings officially opened its doors as a nanobrewery in Portsmouth back in November of 2012. Since that time, it has become a flourishing-yet-intimate brewpub featuring some of the most complex and surprisingly tasty flavors in New Hampshire. Co-owners Alex McDonald and Butch Heilshorn say the business is always exciting. “The moment we opened the doors it’s been a blur to us,” says McDonald.

The brewery is located behind A&G Homebrew Supply, the shop that McDonald owns and runs with the help of his wife, Gretchen, who is also Heilshorn’s sister. “I met Butch through his sister and we just started brewing together,” says McDonald, who built their original, all-grain system from scratch. “He used to do piping for the navy so he’s got all his welding skills and thermodynamic shit down,” laughs Heilshorn.

Alex traces his desire to open a brewery back to when he used to work for Steve Allman, who now owns Canterbury Aleworks. “I lived on his farm about 10 years ago doing work trade,” McDonald explains, “He used to have a keg of Smuttynose in his barn/man cave. We’d all sit there and drink pints for a buck [to pitch in for the keg] and he used to talk about opening a brewery back then. So the notion was there but it was never a reality until I met Butch.”

Heilshorn, a former high school guidance counselor, began working full-time at the brewery about a year ago and has largely taken over brewing with their signature gruits. A gruit is essentially an assemblage of herbs and spices used instead of hops to flavor the beer, although you could use hops in a gruit if you wanted to. As Heilshorn puts it, it’s not any one style of beer but rather “all the styles times how many herbs and additives you can come up with.”

Many of the herbs and spices used in gruits are found naturally in the wild as it may be hard to find any fresh ingredients in stores. Luckily Heilshorn’s wife, Jenna, runs an apothecary shop and supplies the brewery with fresh ingredients regularly. “Jenna goes out and cuts the stuff, brings it to us and we put it in a beer,” Heilshorn explains, “it’s truly local and it didn’t go through a distributor.” Not that they have any problem with distributors since they often rely on them in the winter when wild, local ingredients are in short supply.

The gruit style beers have been a huge success, sometimes acting as “gateway beers” as Heilshorn calls them. “We discovered a lot of people who say they don’t like beer, will try one of these gruits and be like ‘That’s beer? I like that!’”

Coming soon in the fall will be their curry-pumpkin beer brewed with real pumpkin, curry and rum-soaked coconut. Also in the works is a beer that takes advantage of the brewery’s Seacoast location. “I have her [Jenna] looking for a certain type of seaweed I want to use in a Belgian chocolate sea salt stout,” says McDonald, “I think we do a lot of different styles.”

Alex McDonald and Butch Heilshorn
By Jenna Freitas

For a two-barrel system they certainly get the most out of it. “We have 12 fermenters and four of them are dedicated just to [IPAs and pale ales]” explains McDonald. “We have six lines and four fermenters just for one line. We brew four times a week usually.” The small batch size requires more work to keep up with the demand. Heilshorn says some of the IPAs and pale ales are gone within three to four days. But small batch sizes also allow for greater variety. “There's so many different styles of beer out there and I wanted to be able brew all of them,” says McDonald. “A lot of it was that we couldn’t find a lot of the beers in NH that we wanted to drink. So we started creating them.” They are currently looking at expanding up to a five-barrel system.

For McDonald and Heilshorn, staying excited about beer is never an issue. “I think the beauty of the partnership is that we have such different ideas in the brewhouse, we’re both doing our own things,” says McDonald. “It’s kept a very open palate and concept in the brewhouse and on the taps.” Heilshorn compares the experience to his past as a member of several rock bands. “The bands that I was in that really got along and really grooved on being together were the ones that registered well with the fans, people get a hit of that energy. And I think the same thing happens here,” he says. “We see a lot of repeat customers here, which is swell, and they’re not just people who live down the street. They’re people from Philly and Cali and all over the place who stop in every time they’re in town.”

If you ever walk into Earth Eagle, at 165 High St., hopefully you’ll feel a hit of that same energy.

“It starts by looking around on the walls, and then they see the menu and then they meet the people and then they start to taste the food and taste the beer,” says Heilshorn. “And it seems like a lot of them get kinda hooked.” Whether you come for the food, the beer or the people, Earth Eagle is a place where communities can come together. Maybe you’ll even run into an old friend as I did while sampling some “Chaga Groove,” a dark but smooth beer brewed with 50 percent maple sap instead of water, chaga mushroom, spiced with nutmeg and then aged in a rum-barrel. This complex tasting brew is perhaps the very embodiment of Earth Eagle: unique, intriguing, exciting and the perfect way to end a long day.


Categories: Beer Features