New Hampshire Craft Beer: Big Ideas in Small Batches

In pre-Prohibition days, nearly every town had its very own brewery. Though we’re not quite back to that level, there are more than 70 breweries currently operating in the state. All offer a sense of place and community you can’t find on grocery store shelves. Meet some of the state’s small local brewers devoted to making real New Hampshire beer.
photo by bruce luetters
Marlaina Renton and Ian Dowling of Rek'•lis Brewing Company in Bethlehem

It says something about the pervasiveness of small-scale commercial beer production in New Hampshire when I’m touring a brewery in an old friend’s garden shed. It’s a mile from my childhood home in Amherst, and I might easily have parked there and walked through the woods. I’d have to go farther to buy a cup of coffee.

“Welcome to New Hampshire’s smallest brewery,” says John Harvery, maker of Laughing Crow beer. Whether or not this is New Hampshire’s smallest, it’s tiny.

A lanky and ruddy-complexioned man, Harvery started brewing six years ago and sold his first bottle in April 2016. Since his brewery is on residential land, he’s not considered a nanobrewer but is instead licensed as a “beverage manufacturer,” which means he can only sell to licensed distributors. Harvery produces a scant 44 cases of 12 bottles each month.

“I can’t sell you a beer,” Harvery says, “but I can give you one.” He disappears into the house and returns cradling five bottles from his kitchen fridge.

“I like to start with my pale ale,” he says, popping the top on a bottle decorated with black script beneath a picture of a crow dancing a tipsy jig. “My Bud Light-drinking friends like this one.” As he pours me a generous draft, my eyes wander to the other bottles on the counter, and I wish I had come on foot if this is Harvery’s idea of a sample.

The pale ale is a mellow introduction. It has the straight, balanced taste of a yellow lager, with hardly any edge. It’s a flavor I don’t usually find inspiring, but this one leaves me wanting more — not just because it’s refreshing and easy to drink, but because it tastes good. My tall pour is getting shorter by the second, so I dash the remainder down the sink, thinking of other beers ahead.

Harvery is heartwarmingly diffident concerning his abilities as a beermaker. “I’m basically a homebrewer with a license,” he says, and he seems genuinely interested in my inexpert opinion of his beer. He tells me he’s still intimidated when he pitches his beers to potential distributors.

The next taste is of Harvery’s Citra Ale. He pours a glass of the version that’s in stores now, as well as a new prototype. Both have a marked citrus aroma that results from adding the namesake Citra hops late in the brewing process. The beers taste slightly of lime zest, but the second one finishes drier, with any fruitiness lingering only as an olfactory memory.

From these light, sharp flavors we migrate into dark, malty territory. The next beer is an amber ale. I can see why when its rich golden-brown slides down the side of my glass. It gives off a warm caramel aroma that sets a high bar as I raise the glass, sniffing. But the taste has none of the thick and lingering depth my mouth had been led to crave. I react similarly to the even-richer-scented porter, the last Laughing Crow I sample. Its dark, exotic aromas of chocolate and creamy coffee are the apex of the tasting cycle, but on my palate it’s a descent to a more moderated satisfaction. I tell him I want it to sink deeper into my taste buds and stay for longer.

“I’ll have to think about that,” he says.

photo by chris saunders
Henniker Brewing Co. Head Brewer Devin Bush

I was looking for a crash course in beer making when I found Devin Bush, who talks about brewing as if he were being interviewed on NPR. “To what extent,” I ask, “do you feel in control of the process, and to what extent do you feel like a mad scientist tossing things together and hoping for the best?”

He smiles at my apparently naïve question. “I’m pretty in control,” he says. “Some people compare brewing to stovetop cooking, but a more appropriate comparison is to baking. You need to be exact about what you add and how much and when. If you are, you can be nearly certain of your result.”

Bush ought to feel in control. He studied brewing in England and is certified by the International Guild of Brewers and Distillers. After brewing in Europe, Australia and elsewhere in the United States, he came to Henniker Brewing six months ago as brewmaster.

Henniker Brewing Company sits at the end of a quiet road near a lumberyard. The taproom is behind a garage door that opens to let in the sun. Pine tables line the painted concrete floor, and on a ledge surrounding the room perch growlers from microbreweries around the country. This is, comparatively, a benevolent economy; it’s hard to imagine visiting a Miller brewery and finding a tasting room decorated with Budweiser paraphernalia.

I ask Bush to take me through the steps of beer making. You begin, he explains, with barley. The grains are soaked in water until they sprout and then heat-dried in a process called malting, which converts the starch in the grains into usable sugars. Without these, there would be no fermentation. Malting temperature is an important determinant in the flavor and color of a beer. The malted barley is boiled in water to release the sugars into the liquid that will eventually become beer. Once this liquid, known as wort, cools, yeast is pitched into it, and the yeast feeds on the sugars, creating ethyl alcohol and carbon dioxide as byproducts. The carbon dioxide gives beer its fizz, although nowadays it is often allowed to dissipate and is reintroduced later in a more controlled process. The wort is left to ferment into beer and then allowed to condition and age in various ways for anywhere from a few days to a few years.

“And beer’s not technically beer without hops, right?” I ask, remembering this definition from somewhere.

“According to the German purity law of 1516, yes. Beer could have no less and no more than water, barley and hops. But really hops weren’t used until the Middle Ages.”

“So where do they go in?” I ask.

“Hops can be added anywhere along the way, and often more than once. Normally they go in during the boiling of the grain mash. They cook along with the wort and infuse it with bitterness. With dry hopping, you add hops after boiling. This gives the beer the aroma and flavor of hops without imparting a bitter taste.”

“Hops just add flavor, then?”

“That’s right.”

“And how distinctive are they, really?”

“They’re very different,” says Bush. “They range from anything like you’re sucking on a pine tree to earthy, like eating mushrooms, to fruity pineapple and tangerine aromas.”

photo by bruce luetters
Rek’•lis Brewing Company in Bethlehem

Ian Dowling has made an art of capturing distinctive hop aromas and putting them in his beer. I walk up the driveway of Rek'•lis Brewing Company in Bethlehem after a brisk jaunt in the nearby Kinsman Range. A van backs in at the same time, and out jump Dowling and his partner Marlaina Renton, hot off a nearby trail themselves and still dressed for mountain biking, which, along with good beer, is integral to their lifestyle. They’re an energetic pair. “It helps you drink more beer,” says Dowling.

The mountain air in Bethlehem tastes good. The brewhouse is a 12-by-12 square shed. Outside there’s a pebbled yard with a few chairs, a beer garden until they were told it was illegal. On either side of the door sits a pot with hops growing in it — two kinds, both of which wound up in a recent batch of Rek'•lis. The interior is unstained lumber with a clean shine, calling to mind a tidy workshop.

Dowling started homebrewing in 1990. A few years later, he tried marketing his beer but failed. He’s been in Bethlehem for 13 years now, and Renton joined him from California two and a half years ago. Before that, she explains, she wasn’t a beer drinker. “That’s because you’d never had my beer,” Dowling told her.

Dowling exudes a competence born of the conscious imposition of limits. He brews 15 gallons at a time and aspires to little more. He’s convinced that an increase in quantity leads invariably to a decrease in quality. At present, he opens the brewery for clients to taste beer and buy growlers to take home on Friday and Saturday evenings. He sells everything he’s made for a given week and likes it that way.

My visit unfolds organically. There are no printed descriptions. We wend our way toward the first taste along a trail of talk. Dowling holds a glass with a hose from the keg poised over it, but our conversation veers off a few times before he finally gets to pouring. He tells me the first beer is called Up in a Tree and is made with a blend of Mosaic and Eureka hops, which I’m to visualize kissing in a tree. From there we wander into a very fruity double pale ale. “We call it an Appalachian Pale Ale,” he says. At 8.3 percent, it’s mighty strong for its category. Then comes the Parkview Smoked Porter, and lastly Her Highness, an imperial stout that has the unusual characteristics of being light-bodied and hoppy.

Dowling has clear ideas about what he wants in a beer. “He’s not going to make a beer he doesn’t like,” says Renton, “but we’re learning that you have to respond to markets too.”

He nods his head but seems unconvinced. “She’s right,” he says, “but you’re not going to find me making Belgians or sours.” He makes no apologies for his love of hops. In none of his beers does he skimp on them, yet they never overpower. He deftly coaxes unequivocal tastes out of the evanescent herbal, floral and fruit aromas the hops offer, while masterfully keeping their bitterness in check.

But most of the deep-level flavors that Dowling concocts come from his elegant grain bills, as brewers call the combinations of grain they use to make their worts. I ask about grains and Renton fetches three buckets of malted barley. One has barley’s natural color, another is a light brown and the third looks like coffee beans. Dowling pops a handful into his mouth. I follow suit and am surprised that it’s more than palatable. It’s crunchy and sweet, and would make an excellent granola alternative. I try all three, and they all taste entirely different and entirely delicious. It’s not hard to imagine how these pronounced flavors can go so far in shaping a beer.

Despite its tiny size, Rek'•lis already has a scene too. It’s a mountain lover’s beer, geared toward those who live Dowling and Renton’s lifestyle — reckless and fully charged. When it’s time to brew, they fetch water from a “secret hippie stream” in 5-gallon buckets, injecting an element of terroir that’s lacking in most craft beers, whose solid ingredients come from all over the world and whose water is drawn through industrial plumbing. Their plan for the coming months is to open a small taproom on Main Street, where customers will be able to sip beer in good company with a little more elbow room and a bite to eat. “We’ll offer a few food items, but we’re going to focus on the beer,” Dowling says. “We plan to invite food trucks to pull up outside, and we’ll provide the seating. A problem with the brewpub model is that so much energy is put into the food that the quality of the beer goes down. My objective is to make beer.”

Distribution does not interest them. “Our sole ambition is to be Bethlehem’s brewery,” says Dowling. Thinking still of terroir, I remark that in Italy wines are named for the village or the valley in which they are made and are often not available elsewhere. Dowling’s eyes light up. A beer called Bethlehem.

photos by kendal j. bush
Left: Dave Page of White Mountain Brewing Co. in Ashland. Right: Ben Jones of Franklin's Big Water Brewery

Dave Page of White Mountain Brewing Co., in Ashland, sells most of his beer directly from a taproom in a hidden brick building south of Main Street. He distributes to two pubs in Plymouth and sells bottles in local stores. He’s hardly aiming for world domination, but he doesn’t necessarily share Dowling and Renton’s rigorously small-is-beautiful approach.

Although brewing is Page’s retirement project, he isn’t relaxing much. He envisages a 10-barrel system in two years, but first he wants to open a full-fledged brewpub next door. White Mountain’s tasting room didn’t even open until September 2016, so things are obviously going well. “I’d guess in the first year we’ve increased productivity tenfold,” he says. A homebrewer for 35 years, Page seems surprised himself that he’s been able to scale up so smoothly. He feels indebted to his customers for his progress. One of his biggest challenges — and successes — has been creating consistent tastes, which his regular drinkers expect.

But his hometown clientele is only part of the story. Page has noticed an increase in beer tourism in New Hampshire, where there are now about 70 breweries, mostly small and devoted to the production of craft beer. He says a lot of people who visit an unfamiliar town these days seek out a locally produced beer as a way of becoming acquainted with the place.

Page offers me a Kölsch, a bright-yellow German ale that tastes light and summery. It exhibits fruity notes and is delicately hopped — an eminently drinkable beer, in which I’m sure I can taste those 35 years of experience. “I like balanced flavors,” he says. “I used to be a hop-head but not anymore.” Balance is the keynote in the porter too, which uses roasted barley malt and only a small quantity of hops. There’s nothing disorienting here. Everything is in just the right place, with the parameters dictated by the beers themselves. They state what they’re going to be and then are that thing. They don’t blindside you.

White Mountain’s stout, finally, is made with peat-smoked grain. Unfortunately, I was in a hurry to reach my next appointment and had to drink it right off the tap, ice cold. “It needs to come up to room temperature before the flavors come out,” Page explains. He calls it a session stout — but my session, alas, was up.

photo by kendal j. bush
Inside the taproom at White Mountain

I was tired by now. It was Saturday evening, and I had only the faintest idea of where I was going next, armed with neither map nor GPS. I knew only that Big Water Brewery was somewhere deep in the woods of Salisbury, or possibly Franklin, not far from the birthplace of Daniel Webster. None of the other brewers I’d met had heard of it, and since this had become a mission to find the small places where people with big ideas were doing bold things, the circumstances boded well.

Driving along washboard roads in search of some sign of commerce among the trees, I watched the clock approach the hour for my rendezvous with Ben Jones, brewer, with still no shingle in sight. Eventually I found a hilltop with a cell signal and sent him a text: “I’m near Daniel Webster’s house.” He replied with terse directions, and three minutes later I rumbled down his long driveway.

Jones, a former math teacher who quit teaching to make beer full-time two years ago, produces 2,000 gallons a year and self-distributes to about 30 stores. His was the last nanobrewery in the state to get a license to operate on residential property.

Jones is serious. Something about his devotion to a particular idea of beer reminds me of Dowling at Rek’•lis, but his tastes are at the opposite end of the spectrum. Although he makes a wide variety of beers, he doesn’t care for hops and seldom uses them. He specializes in lambics and sour ales. These are Belgian styles that use natural fermentation and produce flavors that may seem “off” to the uninitiated.

I had tasted a sour ale at another brewery a few days before and made a note in my diary: “This is not for me. The coffee notes of a porter with the taste of fermented fruit — as if at breakfast you swilled your orange juice and coffee together in the same cup.” But even as I wrote these words, I thought I must be missing something. I had an inkling that if I only knew what a sour ale was trying to accomplish, then I’d be able to make a fairer assessment.

I tried to articulate this to Jones, who said it was a common reaction. Since he doesn’t have a taproom, he gave me a few bottles to take home. “This one’s a Petit Sour,” he said. “I think of it as a gateway sour.” I drank it later that evening in phases, and by the end my palate was showing signs of coming around. It occurred to me that sours occupy a borderland between beer and wine — so perhaps to appreciate them, you need to be bilingual.

Jones also gave me a bottle of his Backwoods Ale, which is reminiscent of root beer, with a slightly syrupy mouthfeel but none of the cloying sweetness. It seemed to taste a little of the woods, in fact, but faded fast, and with it the image of hemlocks in my mind. Finally, I sipped at the Aztec Ale, easily the strangest beer I’ve ever drunk. It’s brewed with cacao nibs, vanilla beans, cinnamon and árbol peppers. Sour, salty and spicy all at the same time, this beer was incredibly rich, and my palate had as little idea what to make of it as my pen does.

It may be a while before the average beer drinker is ready for the rarefied taste of an Aztec Ale, but just knowing these zealous, skilled and creative brewers are out there, working away in their makeshift laboratories in hidden corners of the state, makes me look forward to the future of beer in New Hampshire.

Categories: Beer Features