The Art of Craft Beer
A look at the past, present and future of craft beer in the Granite State
“Beer is a crisp, bubbly drink that tastes good and gives adult drinkers a buzz, so why complicate it?” said the person who has not yet read this story. Beware, or that person might be you.
Before we delve into what craft beer is, why do we care? We care because we have a national obsession about diversity in foodstuffs. It’s the same reason that we care, if indeed we do, about heirloom tomatoes and obscure apple varieties. The fact that the word generic went from a supermarket product category to a children’s mocking adjective to a term of obscurity in just 30 years tells us much about America’s buying habits. The surge of locavorianism and label-reading has reinforced the importance of quality in our purchases and community responsibility in our producers. That’s why almost every New Hampshire brewer I know has at least one partnership with a local charity. Some of us buy from local agricultural suppliers, and almost all of us give our spent grains to local farmers. You buy and we give back. So there is your cartoon-movie circle of life moment, New Hampshire.
Craft as a brewing concept is tied tightly to the land, and by extension to the inhabitants. These are ancient ties, as old as civilization at least. Minus the local connection, factory breweries have a hard time forging a personal relationship with their consumers. Half-time ads have switched from babes in bikinis to bearded, rubber-booted bros in a brewery, but a steadily increasing group of consumers recognize this as so much sizzle and not so much steak.
When I asked my social media circle to define “craft beer” in 10 words or less, it yielded a few hundred dissimilar, but not mutually exclusive, answers. A few of the best were:
“The realization that something basic can be deliciously complicated.” (craft beer fan)
“Beer created by brewers, not marketers.” (brewery owner)
“If your grandmother made beer instead of baking.” (local brewery supporter)
But my favorite reply came from my bar manager KenKen who quoted Bill McKibben from his book “Radio Free Vermont: A Fable of Resistance”: “… breweries are symbols of everything that’s right and good about a free local economy, where neighbors make things for neighbors — and so they actually bother to give them some taste, body, and character.”
At its heart, this is what craft beer is. After the effects of the 18th amendment, may it rest it peace, America was left with a shallow and shattered beer infrastructure. Breweries consolidated, commercial refrigeration became widely available, and by the ’60s, supermarket cooler shelves were stocked with national cereal-heavy (rice and corn) light (not much hops or flavor) lagers. Some regional brands made similar beers, and to some extent other, more interesting styles, but it was mostly the beer-drinker’s equivalent of Bruce Springsteen’s “57 Channels (And Nothin’ On).” We essentially had a whole bread aisle full of nothing but different brands of the same white sandwich loaves.
More significantly, we had this in the wake of centuries of creative and traditionally varied brewing styles, both European and American. But, as the philosopher Eazy-E once said, “The cookie cookie crook took all those things.” Uppercase “Beer” became lowercase “beer.” It took us until the early ’80s to recover from this brewing monoculture.
In 1976 Jack McAuliffe founded New Albion Brewing in California; it was the first new brewery in the US after the end of Prohibition in 1933 (just ponder that for a tic — 43 years and no new breweries in the whole country). Many point to this occurrence as the beginning of craft beer. Some say Fritz Maytag was already there at that time with his reinvented Anchor Brewing Company and their Anchor Steam Beer, also in California. In 1979 Jimmy Carter changed federal law to allow homebrewing, which had been illegal due to oversight (or overkill) in the language of the law. The first brewpubs in the country opened in the ’80s, including a few in New Hampshire. The one in my hometown of Fremont, California, was called Brewpub On The Green. Even at my tender age of 14, it changed what I thought about beer, just from going there with my dad. This beer smelled different than the Lucky Lager or Micky’s I was used to Dad drinking. If I stole a sip (never!) it tasted better — or at least less horrible.
Hop in the DeLorean at 88 mph to 2019, and we have people at the University of NH building curriculum for our state’s craft beer workforce. This should come in handy as there are over 80 breweries here and the number continues to grow. There’s even a “Beer Caucus” at the NH Statehouse that includes several dozen state reps who find they get things done better over a brew.
So craft beer is both a return to familiar ways and a path to better ones. It is remembering who we were, and imagining who we will be.
There are many milestones in the New Hampshire beer story, dating back to the pre-Prohibition era, with Frank Jones Brewing in Portsmouth. Jones was commanding the local beer scene by 1860, and became the largest ale producer in the entire country in 1882. Anheuser-Busch opened a plant in Merrimack in 1970 in a state essentially devoid of breweries. They produced what they had become famous for until the early ’90s, American light lager and its derivative styles. Then two things happened: Mysterious anomalies called microbreweries started appearing on the stately macrobeer map, spooking the factory brew folks, and then Mitch Steele came to town (cue Hugo Montenegro whistling soundtrack).
Steele had graduated with a degree in fermentation sciences from UC Davis — at the time one of the only US schools offering such a degree. After a stint in winemaking in Hollister, and a spell making small batches of beer for peanuts in his off-time, he took a job with Anheuser-Busch. Steele spent some time in Colorado absorbing that state’s burgeoning “micro” vibe. Within a few years, Steele was running the Bud Brewhouse in Merrimack, making a batch every 20 minutes. Before long, Steele met some folks from the Brew Free or Die homebrew club, one of the oldest clubs in the country, and the crosscurrent of New Hampshire brew creativity gained a layer of complexity.
Then, in 2011, came an important modern turning point for local craft brew: the New Hampshire nano-brew act, which lowered the barrier to entry for new brewers. So, like most enduring things, New Hampshire craft beer began in several places, at a few advantageous times, and, today, here we are all downstream enjoying the benefits.
AB had tried to emulate the burgeoning craft beer industry with minimal success. Great ideas often die or get dumbed down somewhere between inception and execution on the corporate scale. The general public was just learning the joys of craft beer, and while they might not know exactly how to define it, they knew what it was not. Craft beer did not come from a chain of multinationally held factories. As the beer barrel rolled on, AB became the largest brewer in the world. About a decade ago, they moved from creating their own “craft brews” to acquiring craft breweries, accumulating an inventory of over 400 brands, and helping to leverage them across the globe. As this new age of brewing fermented, Steele went on to a very successful career at Stone Brewing in California and he now owns New Realm Brewing in Atlanta, Georgia, though he can still occasionally be spotted sipping homebrew with old friends in random New Hampshire neighborhoods.
In my own research as a brewer, I’ve interviewed about 50 brewery founder/owners in the last five years, and virtually nobody started a brewery because they lost their job, or because their life was going nowhere. Most of them had decent-to great-paying jobs that would last into retirement, and most of them hated those jobs because they lacked a component of innovation and creativity. They weren’t responding to market forces to build a beer empire based on focus groups. They wanted to make something with their hands instead of watching as jobs and careers accreted a bit more of their souls every day.
When Dave Yarrington was hired to oversee production at Portsmouth’s Smuttynose Brewing in 2001, Smutty was making about 5,000 barrels (155,000 gallons) a year. There was still a “will this work out?” vibe around the craft beer movement. Clearly, it did, or you wouldn’t be reading this, but it was a different world for brewers back then. Supermarkets held the key to package sales, few out-of-state brands wanted to bother cracking into New Hampshire, so there was far less competition in state.
Yarrington helped usher Smutty through the next 15 years, growing their output to over 65,000 barrels, building a new LEED Platinum-certified brewhouse, and launching Smuttlabs, a research and development brewery. It was an amazing venture in an unprecedented era, but the call of the creative wild grew even louder. In 2016 or so, Dave and a few partners founded Chapel + Main Restaurant/Brewery in Dover. “The whole point of what we’re trying to do at Chapel + Main is to be very creative, very flexible,” says Yarrington. “I don’t want to chase trends though. I don’t follow any beer rating sites now. I just want to make deliciousness.”
Here’s where I’m asking about what that “deliciousness” is — what are they doing that’s new and interesting? Why should I go there?
Craft Beer Began With Homebrew
I feel like a meme of a guy sitting at a table with a sign saying “Prove me wrong,” but it’s true.
Homebrewing became decriminalized (yes, wise readers, for the public good) in the late ’70s, and the craft revolution started four or five years later. Of course, many folks had been working in secret at home to perfect their craft. Once the law banning homebrewing was lifted, the veil lifted with it and America immediately had a small, but thriving homebrewing culture that seemingly sprouted from nothing like Athena from the head of Zeus. This movement quickly wrote business plans and started buying used stainless steel dairy equipment and POW! craft brewing was born.
There were differences between what they were making and what the big regional and national brands were making. Little if any rice or corn was used, so the malt flavor was actually detectable in the beer; flavorful aroma-forward American hops, mostly Cascade, were used generously to give a different olfactory and gustatory experience than Americans were accustomed to in beer; marketing played no part in recipe development, so brewers made what they thought tasted good as opposed to what focus groups predicted would sell.
I recently caught up with Jesse Mertz, proprietor of Kettle to Keg homebrew supply in Pembroke. For the sake of journalistic integrity, I should tell you that I learned the fundamentals of the art of brewing under the wing of Uncle Jesse, and then taught classes with him, under his roof. He’s a solid brewer who has many fingers on many pulses in the brewing community, so I wanted to get his take on trends in the NH brew scene.
“From a homebrew level, I’m seeing the trend go toward developing flavor from specific hop combos, a focus on ‘purpose-bred’ yeast [i.e., cultivated with specific flavor results in mind], and minimizing oxygen throughout the process to preserve and enhance flavor,” says Mertz, “but my crystal ball tells me that we’re going to see a future with craft breweries getting in on the nonalcoholic beer scene, which is kind of an untapped market.”
Back to Cask
One emerging trend is really a throwback to the past — and in this case, a return to traditional methods.
We will skip most of the science and a great deal of the history here. You’re welcome. In simple terms, cask ale is (and I quote CAMRA, the ever-so-British “Campaign for Real Ale” as my authority) “beer brewed from traditional ingredients, matured by secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed, and served without the use of extraneous carbon dioxide.” The important part here is the “matured by secondary fermentation” part. Virtually all modern beer — macro, craft and nonbinary beer — is carbonated by introduction of the “extraneous carbon dioxide,” of which these chaps speak. Fully fermented ale or lager is chilled under CO2 pressure to accomplish Young Einstein’s dream of putting bubbles into beer. The pre-Industrial era technology upon which cask ale rests is simpler, resembling homebrew. Yeast and sugars in the cask/bottle ferment and create carbon dioxide that dissolves in the liquid as bubbles. Casks are solid things. Old-school methods to vent them and pour the beer usually involve big mallets.
This method was once the norm, and both breweries and taverns had people skilled to handle these living beer casks. As more breweries moved to kegs with external CO2 systems, these skills were almost lost to progress and the march toward profits. A few organizations recognized the need to maintain this tradition, and advocated for its return, so CAMRA in the UK and CASC in the US have brought cask awareness to the beer cognoscenti with events like NERAX (the New England Real Ale eXhibition) cask festival in Boston. But what about little old New Hampshire?
Enter Andy Day
Day is the funniest guy you have never met. He smiles when he tells you of his defeats, and he invites you to revel and share in his gains. He has hosted the only cask ale event north of Boston since the pilgrims, and he was recently given a scholarship by CAMRA and CASC to go to England to learn to be a proper cellarmaster. This is a big deal.
The first year Cask & Vine hosted an event like this it was called “300 Pints” because they hoped to pour that much cask beer. They poured 19 casks for 120 people, and it was much more than a proof of concept. “When you do something new, that people haven’t seen before, people get excited,” says Day about 300 Pints. It’s the leading edge of a growing movement. In addition to a yearly cask event, Cask & Vine puts on a cask a week except in the summer. The event is now over 30 casks, and sells out months before it happens. It is now called “CASK.ON,” a name it lives up to.
“Where Do We Brew From Here?”
In the last 10 or so years, quality has been a topic of constant discussion in craft beer circles. Just a few horrible craft breweries reaching enough people could ruin public opinion in general as far as craft is concerned.
Organizations such as the New Hampshire Brewers Association and the national Master Brewers Association offer comprehensive training for members, but that only reaches the folks already in the industry. How can we train the next generation of brewers, beer marketers, tasting room managers and craft entrepreneurs?
A few forward-thinking New Hampshire institutions of higher learning have taken that mantle upon themselves, and created programs to groom the next generation of beer experts.
Enter Cheryl Parker
Parker came to the beer world from the land of research science, quite a different landscape. After assignments around the globe, many dealing with climate change, she decided to apply her lab and field experience and her homebrewing skills to the job market. Eventually she returned to her New Hampshire roots and met with Annette and Nicole from the then-newly formed Throwback Brewery. She ended up working with them as they moved from their old warehouse space and into the current farm location in North Hampton.
When Throwback outgrew their old equipment, they sold it to UNH where a brewing program was being developed, and Parker got in at ground level. She developed a minor curriculum and built a small brewery that students from any major field of study could utilize. Along with teaching the hands-on process of brewing beer, the program has three brewing courses focusing on agriculture, science, sustainability, quality control and safety. She gets students excited about science, and helps them find career paths.
“Quality control and reproducibility are going to continue to become more important in the craft brewing industry. Everything I teach comes back to that,” she says.
For those interested in more of a toe-dip than a cannonball, NH Technical Institute in Concord offers the class “Brewing: The Science of Beer,” which includes in-brewery experience at Oddball Brewing, as well as judging of final project beers by multiple professional brewers.
This course is open to anyone who is interested in learning how to brew and in exploring all the cool science behind the brewing process. As an added benefit, students can count this class toward a college degree. Who said beer can’t help you get good grades? Oddball Brewing, which is owned by an NHTI alum and located in Suncook, provides not only their expertise but also a home away from the college classroom for the students to learn how to brew on a larger than homebrew scale.
My own Lithermans Limited Brewery in Concord works with biology students who are learning about brewing yeast for our beer. Partnering with local breweries gives NHTI students an opportunity to learn more about the brewing industry and opens their eyes to potential careers in this field, as well as how to tell a kolsch from a saison in order to impress their friends at parties.
The Future Is Female
Besides changes in actual beer, the future of craft brewing is beginning to evolve from a mostly male-dominated industry. Like other beer trends, it’s something of a return to historical roots — traditionally, beer-making was a task performed by the women who ran the house, be they servants or homeowners. Like baking bread and managing its yeast over time, keeping the hearth fire going or pressing grapes for wine, once upon a time men weren’t allowed to muck about in such things, and the only remnants of those times that made it through the years are the term alewife and such archaic aptonyms as brewster. Until recently. Here are three very different takes on women in New Hampshire brewing:
“I’m quite fortunate that everyone I have worked with in the beer industry has been entirely positive toward me and supported my goals. Unfortunately, there are many women who can’t say the same. That is one of the many reasons why I’m excited to be part of starting a New Hampshire chapter of the Pink Boots Society, whose mission is to assist, inspire, and encourage women beer professionals through education.” Sharon “Dropkick” Curley lead brewer, Lithermans Limited
“I would say the future of beer for women in New Hampshire is the same as it is for a man, and that’s a heck of a lot better than it was years ago. The simplicity, empathy, and skillset that women bring to the table are undoubtedly going to push the future of beer towards a more inclusive, approachable and respected industry.” Cathi Frakes, head brewer, Northwoods Brewing Company
“We have such a strong and supportive beer community here in New Hampshire that gender is really a nonissue for me. I feel like my peers have a lot of respect for me and my co-founder Annette, as well as the business that we built. What I find really awesome, however, is that even though craft beer demographics put women at right around 31% of beer drinkers, our customer base is around 60% women. I guess that’s a really wonderful benefit of being women-owned — all the support from the women out there!” Nicole Carrier, co-founder, Throwback Brewery
The Future Is Expansion
I recently caught up with Dan Leonard, one of the founder/owners of 603 Brewery, at his new beer hall in Londonderry. They have grown from a small side-gig in NO-CO (north of Concord) to the most recognizable brand in the state.
When I asked Leonard about the several jumps that got him to 2019, he had this to say:
“After seven years, it’s nice to not be in the basement. Our first facility can now fit into our function room — it’s gone from me and Geoff working nights and weekends to managing a 40-person crew. The evolution has been pretty crazy. We were the first brewery in Londonderry; now there are a almost a dozen within a few miles.”
The Future Is Local
On the surface level, success equals growing as much as you can, but for some, the future of craft is more about keeping things as local as possible.
With their clear, iconic branding and their compelling, memorable backstory, Able Ebenezer in Merrimack has grown one of the most dedicated craft beer fan bases in the state. I recently caught up with Carl Soderberg, co-founder and co-owner, and asked him about his secret to success and what the future holds:
“The five years since we opened Able have been a wild ride: Nothing went according to plan, but I suppose that’s added to the fun. This business moves fast. It’s a never-ending battle to deliver the consistency and quality our customers have come to expect, while also remaining relevant and interesting. Right now — as it’s always been — we’re focused on maintaining our independence as a company, as we see it as more important than any short-term expansion opportunity; there are no plans to go over state lines, enter contract production or outsource distribution. To our customers, that level of independence has meaning that comes through in every ounce of beer we produce, pour and deliver. Thus, we’re happy right where we are: serving the people of the Live Free or Die state, one pint at a time.”