How Brewers and Beer Lovers Banded Together to Save Beer
The ups, downs and opportunities in a very strange year for beer
What can’t beer do? It makes us happy, it tastes good, and there are even health benefits associated with raising a pint or two: lipoproteins, antioxidants and vitamin B and such. More importantly, though, it creates and nourishes a sense of community.
Mike Frizzell was behind the bar in the taproom at Able Ebenezer Brewing Company just before St. Patrick’s Day when the news broke that all pubs and restaurants would shut down at midnight, leaving him and the group of regulars gathered around the TV stunned and unsure about what was coming next.
The first thing that happened, virtually overnight, was that the price of aluminum cans went up 40%. Frizzell and his partner, Carl Soderberg, founded the brewery in 2014 near the top of a small hill in Merrimack, not atop a giant pile of cash.
Things were about to get tough.
That’s when New Hampshire’s beer culture revealed itself.
“A bartender came up to Carl and me and said that there was a customer out front who wanted to buy a $2,000 gift card,” Frizzell says. “He just came in and gave us $2,000 and said, ‘Go buy your cans.’ He wanted to see us make it through and succeed. On his way out, he said, ‘I believe in you. You got this.’ He didn’t even bat an eye.”
“Beer has always been one of the most communal industries,” says CJ Haines, executive director of the New Hampshire Brewers Association (NHBA). “Everyone wants everyone else to succeed, not only because a rising tide lifts all boats, but because of the higher tourism factor. It creates a destination.”
Five years ago, there were roughly 40 breweries throughout the state. Now there are more than 90. New Hampshire ranks eighth in the nation for breweries per capita, and the industry employed 4,177 people in 2019, at an average annual salary of $41,161.
The word is out: If you love beer, you want to get to New Hampshire. It’s a sentiment echoed from between the stainless steel tanks and from behind the sticks in taprooms from Nashua to Colebrook.
“It’s the opposite of what most people think an industry would be like,” Branch and Blade Brewing co-founder Trevor Bonnette says from his Keene brewery. “A lot of people think, ‘You’re a brewery. There’s another one down the street, so you guys are in competition.’ We see it as no, these are people with the same interests as us. They’re all about their craft, just like we are. It’s one more opportunity to make more friends. And we can promote our brewery through theirs, and theirs through us.”
And in a time when access to third places like cafés, bookstores and parks has been curtailed or shut off entirely, breweries, pubs and taprooms have become more important to sustaining social connections (and maintaining sanity) than ever before. They are meeting houses, town halls and community centers rolled into one. With beer.
In some ways, it’s the same as it ever was. No doubt beer was in New Hampshire long before Barrington’s Frank Jones ruled as the largest ale producer in the country by 1882. After all, the Sons of Liberty were making King George’s life difficult over pints in the Green Dragon 100 years earlier, just a little south of Jones’ Portsmouth brewery. More recently, Anheuser-Busch opened its Merrimack plant 50 years ago. Though it only brewed two brands at the time, it became a significant employer in the region and set the stage for growth that now sees it produce 20 different brands at the plant. The Portsmouth Brewery filled its kettles in 1991, leading the proliferation of microbreweries throughout the state, and in 2011, the Nano Brew Act made it even easier for smaller players to enter the world — all of which created a rich, vibrant culture. If we lose that, we lose more than an opportunity to simply hoist a cold one.
“On one level, beer is important because it provides a gateway to commune with your neighbors,” says Michael Hauptly-Pierce, co-founder of Lithermans Limited Brewery in Concord. “Having a beer with someone is a different experience than having a glass of water with someone — and no one ever talks about getting together to have a glass of water. They always talk about having a glass of beer. It signifies that you’re off the clock. It signifies that it’s a social engagement, and it leads to different results.
“I see a lot of folks having meetings in the taproom. Instead of going to a coffee shop or Panera at noon, they go to Lithermans at 4 to meet with someone, work on a charity project together or to hire someone. I’m a matchmaker.”
The brewing industry employs roughly 4,000 people statewide, according to NHBA numbers, with an economic impact on state coffers totaling $425 million in 2019. The good news (or the not-as-bad-as-we-expected news) is that the New Hampshire brewing industry is no better or worse off than the national median. The NHBA surveyed its membership, and found that it’s “right on par with the national trend,” Haines says. On average, most breweries are down 20-25% through the pandemic period. So at least we still have beer. For now.
“If we lose that, we’re going to be in an awkward spot,” Hauptly-Pierce says. “It’ll be like the early ’80s when there were only three companies selling beer and, if you turned off the lights, you couldn’t tell the difference between them.”
While the COVID-19-related shutdown did put pressure on brewers, it hasn’t been all gloom and doom. Opportunities have presented themselves, and there have been wins.
“I think the breweries that were able to pivot have done OK for the most part,” Hauptly-Pierce says, citing Able Ebenezer’s quick reaction. “Some people were able to change on a dime and reassess things overnight. They were able to build a parachute on the way down.”
For his part, Hauptly-Pierce says Lithermans has begun pairing its brew with food trucks and live music for what have become wildly successful get-togethers.
“They’re these synergistic events,” Hauptly-Pierce says. “We’ll have an old-school DJ, maybe Dos Amigos making tacos — we’ve used 7-8 other food trucks. It’s a huge draw and people hung out for a long time. Two Sundays ago, we did more than we did on a Saturday. It shows that people are dying for that. Most venues are either not operating or not offering anything like it.”
It’s that innovative approach that will keep the lights on in taprooms throughout New Hampshire, Haines says — not just evolving as a brewer, but changing the business model so it’s ready for something like another pandemic, and changing mindsets so the industry can best meet the wants and the safety needs of consumers. To wit: Many New Hampshire breweries have shifted to a beer garden model. It’s safer for patrons, complies with mandated restrictions, and yet still puts beer lovers in their natural habitat — elbow to elbow.
“It’s funny, but you can find birthday parties in taprooms for people ranging from 2 to 80,” Haines says. “With the communal tables, you get a better sense of community. It’s not pushed on you, but it’s inferred. And that’s the experience you hope for when you get there — you interact with your neighbors. Any time I sit down, I end up talking to the people next to me, finding out why they’re there. It’s not just the beer, it’s the atmosphere, and that promotes a sense of community.”
That approach has worked for Branch and Blade, which quickly found itself ready to offer a spot where people could gather (carefully) again.
“It’s actually been really good,” Bonnette says. “We’re fortunate to have a really large outdoor area. When we first opened, we only had three picnic tables inside. The whole goal of that was to have groups of people sitting with different groups of people, no TV, hoping conversations would start over beer and lead to other things. There have been a lot of people who have made new friends, made new connections in the taproom. We drive that stuff as much as we can.”
Frizzell and Soderberg took advantage of the downtime in the spring to renovate the taproom at Able Ebenezer — taking down walls and adding air conditioning, and then creating an outdoor beer garden with crushed stone and a welcoming space for guests to gather.
“During COVID, we started up home delivery and that took off,” Frizzell says. “I think that, even when people were stuck in their houses, beer was that thing that was somewhat comforting to have.”
The team at Able Ebenezer had a hard time keeping up — May was the brewer’s busiest month ever, in terms of volume. Branch and Blade Brewing co-founders Bonnette and Jesse O’Bryan also had their hands full keeping up with orders.
“We have a distributor we use, and when the shutdown started, we ended up sending them way more beer than we ever have,” Bonnette says.
At the Copper Pig Brewery in Lancaster, owner and brewer Mike Holland sold out of growlers in early August.
“Our growler sales are through the roof,” Holland says. “Normally, we get three shipments of growlers a year. We’ve had three shipments since March.”
Copper Pig also expanded its outdoor space, building a space for guests to relax, dine, and order growlers and pints over looking the Israel River, which runs right through the middle of the White Mountain village.
“The customers have been great,” Holland says. “The locals have always been there, but we’re getting a lot from tourism. Two weeks ago, we had a couple drive over from Rochester for the day. That seemed like quite a drive, but they had the Beer Passport, and they were trying different breweries, getting as many notches in their belt as they could.”
For those newer to the local craft beer scene, the passport was created by Brew NH, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting New Hampshire breweries. Craft brew adventurers can download the passport to collect stamps to get beer gear prizes. It’s another example of how people in the industry have banded together to create a support system for all.
While it sounds simple enough to just pick up and move outside, it’s not. New Hampshire brewers had to be quick on their feet dealing with a variety of details and challenges. When the hops hit the fan in mid-March, Soderberg fell back on his military training. He shared a final beer with those in the tasting room at Able Ebenezer, drove home to pack a bag, and then bivouacked to the brewery where he lived (mostly) for the next four days.
“I didn’t spend the night there because I’m married, and my goals were: Don’t lay anyone off, and don’t get divorced,” Frizzell says, laughing. “But there were 16- to 18-hour days. Luckily, Carl had done a lot of the legwork on the back end because we self-distribute. We had the capability to track orders and do all those sorts of things, but we didn’t have an outward-facing part
to it because we do it ourselves.”
So Soderberg went to work and stayed there, putting together a system that would get Able Ebenezer beer into the hands of customers. That meant creating a new storefront, figuring out how to track orders, converting bartenders into dispatchers, planning route efficiencies, and creating a distribution network “to anyone’s house.”
“Essentially, that’s what Carl was doing,” Frizzell says. “By the end of the shutdown, we got pretty good at it. People don’t think of beer companies as technology companies, but when you’re doing your own distribution, that’s what you are.”
With more than 90 breweries in the Granite State, collaborations are yet another example of the sense of community within the industry.
Branch and Blade Brewing in Keene recently completed its first traveling collaboration with a brewery in Georgia. And with the current state of air travel being what it is, the duo is preparing for a 20-hour drive to the Peach State. Just prior to that, co-owners Trevor Bonnette and Jesse O’Bryan traveled to Montana to collaborate with Mountains Walking Brewery in Bozeman, where they created a double IPA with citra, stratus and galaxy hops, and 160 pounds of honey.
Able Ebenezer has collaborated with Ancient Fire Mead & Cider in Manchester, and a second with Martha’s Exchange in Nashua. While the team hasn’t nailed down a definite recipe at press time, Frizzell has some definite ideas about what style he’d like to craft.
“We’ve had some talks that it’ll be a California Common,” he says. “It’s a lager, but fermented at ale temperatures. If you think of Anchor Brewing Company, it’s like Anchor Steam. I’ve always wanted to do it because I’m from California, and Anchor Steam was my gateway into the beer industry back in the day.”
Able Ebenezer’s collaboration series is called “Team of Rivals,” named for Abraham Lincoln’s renowned ability to bring perceived adversaries together.
“When he was elected, it was a sectional election — he won with less than 40% of the popular vote,” co-owner Mike Frizzell says. “So he filled his cabinet with rival politicians to help the country get through hard times. And now that we’re all going through hard times, it was inspiring to us. The biggest thing is to just start doing.”
On the Horizon: What’s New This Fall?
The road back to normal also means having the ability to look ahead. What can beer aficionados expect this fall?
“We have a lemon lactose sour coming up,” Copper Pig owner and brewer Mike Holland says of his plans for the fall (look for it in the basement taproom, which has a tangible speakeasy vibe). “And we’ve got a couple of barrel-aged beers — a bourbon barrel-aged porter and an Irish red aged in Buffalo Trace rye barrels. We’ve got our four staples, IPA, porter, Irish red and a Czech pale lager. Other than that, it can be anything.”
CJ Haines of the New Hampshire Brewers Association says the wet hop beers this season will be worth tracking down.
“You take the fresh hops that have just been picked, and that day you brew your beer,” she says during a drive to a hop farm in Gorham, Maine. “It’s literally from the farm to the fermenter.”
Michael Hauptly-Pierce says Lithermans Limited Brewing in Concord is all about variety — new releases every two weeks.
“It’s great for novelty-seekers,” he says. “When the old ones are gone, new ones will be coming right out. And people may also find a familiar brand they haven’t seen in four months coming back into rotation.”
So it’s familial, fun and economically important. What can’t beer do?
“Unfortunately, I don’t think it can change your mind,” Hauptly-Pierce says. “But it can open you to being a human being again. Instead of having a keyboard conversation, you can be sitting across the table from someone you don’t know, instead of an office where you’re just a keyboard cowboy. It might lead to you having a conversation like you had before the internet. You can actually allow words to wash over you before you respond. Beer may not be the way to changing your mind, but it can be the way to the conversation.”
And, apparently, it can lead to someone walking into your taproom to buy a $2,000 gift card. A gesture like that, Frizzell says, puts things into perspective.
“Someone like that — he’s betting on us. He wants us to succeed. So when someone does that, packing a bag and staying here all night doesn’t seem like that big of a deal.”
New Breweries to Explore
Despite the upheaval and uncertainty caused by the pandemic, new breweries are opening their doors and patios, or offering their brews in local stores and restaurants. Here’s what’s new since our last beer issue. Note that all information about seating was current as of press time (mid-August), so make sure to check with each brewery before heading out.
Bradford / bradfordbear.com
The family at Bradford Bear makes hard cider from local apples. There’s no tasting room, but you can find a list of restaurants and stores that carry their products on the website.
The Czar’s Brewery
Exeter / (603) 583-5539
According to royal decree, at The Czar’s Brewery “it’s always 68 degrees and it never rains.” Stop into the pub for a bite and a brew, and make sure to check Facebook to see what’s on tap.
Exeter Brewing Co.
Exeter / exeterbrewing.co
For the time being, Exeter Brewing Co. is focused on manufacturing, so there’s no taproom just yet. Visit their Facebook page to see what’s brewing and where it’s available.
Modestman Brewing Co.
Keene / modestmanbrewing.com
Located in a former bank, seating is available at the Main Street patio, back biergarten and inside taproom. You can order food from their food truck Guru, their sister restaurant Odelay (located up the street) or you are welcome to bring your own food.
Springfield / protectworthbrewing.com
Protectworth does not yet have a taproom. Currently, you can find their beer in stores in the Upper Valley. Visit their Facebook page to see what’s brewing and where it’s available.
Exeter / sawbellybrewing.com
Sawbelly Brewing is open for both indoor and outdoor seating, and they offer live music outside from the afternoon until closing — visit their Facebook page for a schedule. The menu has appetizers and hearty entrée offerings.
Smuttlabs Brewery & Kitchen
Dover / smuttynose.com/smuttlabsbeer
Hampton-based Smuttynose Brewing Company is known for its familiar favorites like Finest Kind IPA and Old Brown Dog — the related Smuttlabs is where the experimentation happens, and now home to its own at Smuttlabs Brewery & Kitchen, an innovative test kitchen and craft brewery.
Stripe Nine Brewing Co.
Somersworth / stripeninebrewing.com
Reservations are recommended for both indoor and outdoor seating (the outdoor area is under cover). The food menu features wood-fired pizza, salads and rotating specials. Visit them on Facebook for updates and restaurants serving their beer.
Topwater Brewing Co.
Barrington / (603) 664-5444
The bar is open for both food and beer, and as of late summer they expanded their hours to be open for lunch.
Twin Barns Brewing Co.
Meredith / twinbarnsbrewing.com
Located in gorgeous twin antique barns from the 1850s, you can sit inside our outside in the beer garden, where you’ll often find live music. They also offer a menu with salads and flatbreads, burgers and sandwiches. See their Facebook page for up-to-date events.
Vulgar Brewing Company
Franklin / vulgarbrewing.com
Vulgar Brewing, which also serves wood-fired pizza, is offering outside seating on their patio.
West LA Beer Co.
Swanzey / westlabeercompany.com
The LA, by the way, refers to Lower Ashuelot, not the West Coast city. The patio is open, and make sure to check their Facebook page to see what’s on the schedule for music and food trucks.