Tag Archives: Brewery Tour

Mainstream Microbrews

Sleepy Dog Brewery, Tempe, AZ

Sleepy Dog Brewery, Tempe, AZ

Over a year ago I repented and confessed my beer bigotry. When we left Manhattan I expected to find most of the country awash in “light and refreshingly boring” American pilsners. I’ve since reformed but am still continuously amazed at the quality and variety of beer we find virtually everywhere we go.

When we rode into Tucson, Arizona, I wasn’t really surprised to find nine different local breweries. We’ve come to expect that. But one in a huge shopping mall? That was indeed a first.

After catching a rare movie at the Foothills Mall, we wandered into Thunder Canyon Brewery. In ages past, such a place would likely have served a line-up of similarly tasteless beers with various amounts of added coloring. The “brewery” a simple marketing gimmick designed to lure adults away from the food court.

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Divine Intervention

Bar Harbor Brewing, Maine

Ben Franklin is often misquoted as having said “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” I imagine he’s pretty pissed that he didn’t actually say it, because not only is it a great quote, it is also undeniably true. And if ever there was proof that God wanted us to drink beer, we found it in Bar Harbor.

We had no intention of stopping that day; figuring the chances of getting a parking spot in the middle of the city on a Saturday afternoon of a holiday weekend were pretty close to zero. We were just driving through to check out the town and were more than a little surprised to see an opening across the street. A deft u-turn captured the spot, and a few angry gestures from other motorists. Before we even stopped congratulating ourselves on our good fortune, we noticed the even more improbable location of our improbable parking space: directly in front of Bar Harbor Brewing. Surely divine intervention.

Bar Harbor Brewing was already on our to-do list, if for no other reason than to taste their award winning stout. While the stout lived up to its reputation, the rest of the line-up was pretty mediocre. None of it was bad, but none of it was really exceptional either. We also tasted some of Bar Harbor’s ‘malt wines,’ which are beers brewed with a higher alcohol content and sweetness. These reminded me of the Belgian style we so much enjoyed at Alagash. But the downside of Belgian experimentation is that you probably end up with a lot of stinkers and, unfortunately, these fit into that style as well.

Notwithstanding the clear hand of God, we had only a partially successful outing at Bar Harbor Brewing. But an average day tasting beer still beats a great day doing just about anything else. So we left happy, just like God intended.

Curieux, To Say The Least

Allagash Brewing, Portland, Maine

Even if you don’t like beer, you owe it to yourself to try a Belgian brew (and if you do like beer, make it a double). The Belgians brew such fantastically flavorful and endlessly varied versions of the stuff that they really need a distinct classification to set them apart. Calling them ‘beers’ is just too limiting. But whatever you call them, Belgian beers are some of the best in the world.

What makes them so good is hard to say. It could be because they’ve been brewing beer seriously since the middle ages. But more likely it is because they’re not governed by some requirement or orthodox notion about what beer should be, they experiment with just about any combination. They add spices and sugars. They bottle them using the same methods applied to high end champagne and age them in oak like wine. If you can think of it, they’ve probably done it. After several hundred years of such experimentation, you’re bound to create something special. And they do.

So it was with great anticipation that we visited Allagash Brewing Company in Portland, ME. Allagash was one of the first artisan breweries to spring up in the 1990s that dedicated itself to the Belgian style of beer making. We had the opportunity to taste their original beer, Allagash White, a traditional Belgian wheat beer that is unfiltered and spiced with Curacao orange peels, and coriander. If that combination of spices makes you think we’re in an entirely different universe of brews, it’s because we are. But surprisingly, the spices are so well balanced and subtle that all you notice is that this golden hued beverage is deliciously different from what you normally get from similar looking beers. White is what we consider an everyday drinking beer; something refreshing on a hot afternoon or with a meal. It is a bit expensive to fill that purpose, but it would be nice to have a couple of bottles around for a change of pace every now and again.

Allagash Brewing, Portland, Maine

Barrel aged beer! Curieux?

Then we moved on to tasting the Dubbel and the Triple, which are heavier, more flavorful, and sweeter beers. We think of these as “dessert brews,” to be savored slowly and deliberately for their own sake. The mahogany-colored Dubbel knocked our socks off with its rich malty flavor and hints of sweet chocolate. We picked up a couple of four packs and have been doling them out sparingly like fine truffles. The Triple was also excellent, with a fruit and honey flavor, but we were more intrigued by a beer we didn’t get to taste, Allagash’s Curieux.

The name, Curieux, means ‘curious’ in French, which couldn’t describe our reaction any better. To make Curieux, Allagash cellars their terrific Triple in oaken Jim Beam barrels for eight weeks, a process that has us ‘curious’ to say the least. We know what oak does to wine, softening Chardonnay and giving it a buttery vanilla flavor. But we’ve never experienced it in a beer before. We imagine the Triple picks up hints of vanilla and bourbon from the casks, but at this point, we can only imagine.

We were curious enough about this brew to snatch two 750ml (wine sized) bottles without ever sampling it. So far we’ve remained disciplined and haven’t yet gobbled them up. We don’t have a special occasion in mind to crack them open, but eventually our Curieux will get the better of us, no doubt.

Number 9, Number 9

Magic Hat Brewery

It’s a shame that the only Magic Hat beer you typically see is their #9, Not Quite Pale Ale. #9 is reportedly the brewery’s best seller, but I don’t know if that is because it is the most popular or because it is the beer that is most widely distributed. It’s a little hard to buy the beers that aren’t on the shelf.  But maybe they’re not on the shelf because no one buys them.

This is clearly the kind of riddle that would confound Buddha; what is the taste of a beer not drank? We could meditate on this eternal puzzle, or we could take a pilgrimage to the Magic Hat brewery in South Burlington, Vermont and judge for ourselves. This was obviously a tough call: meditate in hope of enlightenment or drink beer.

Well, after indulging in a tasting of Magic Hat’s full lineup, we did indeed find enlightenment. We also learned that #9 isn’t their best beer.  It’s probably not even in the top three. That’s not to say #9 is a bad beer. We actually like it a lot. It’s certainly a far, far better beer for Magic Hat than it was a song for the Beatles (not exactly high praise, I know). But we just like some of their other offerings better.

The surprise standout was Circus Boy, their Hefeweizen. I say surprising because neither of us typically likes wheat beers, but this one struck us as just right. Blind Faith, one of their original IPAs, and Single Chair Ale were also extraordinarily good. A beer that we probably owe a second tasting to is Encore, an interesting blend of an American wheat beer and a traditional pale ale.  It has tons of flavor and a terrific mouth feel but just hit the wrong chord somehow.  It is a unique enough beer to warrant a tasting, or in our case, a second chance; so give it a try if you see it.

The brewery offers self-guided and guided tours free of charge. Beer tasting is also served up at the delicious price of zero dollars. They do ask you to kindly refrain from stealing their glasses.  If you want a souvenir, buy a growler. You’ll enjoy it more, anyway. And don’t forget to tip the bartender. Remember, you are drinking for free . . . cheapskate!

Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance

After the debacle in Boston, Shannon the Wise planned our next brewery stop so that it coincided not only with a tour, but also a buy one case and get the next case for half-off promotion; known in some quarters as four-for-three.  Hooray!

The actual tour of Red Hook’s Portsmouth, NH, brewery was pretty standard fare; really nothing more than a perfunctory review of the beer making process and a quick look at the stainless steel brewing vats.  It’s not exactly the theme park experience you get at the Heineken brewery in Amsterdam, but we didn’t go there for a Six Flags ride.  We went to taste great beer.  And on that front, Red Hook delivered.  On tap was a golden ale, two pale ales (an IPA and an ESB) and a seasonal summer pilsner.  All were terrific.  I expected the ales to be good, but the pilsner surprised me with a little more malt than you usually get from a “summer brew.”  Very tasty.

It was also nice to see Red Hook harkening back to the days when tasting rooms were run to distribute promotional samples rather than as profit centers.  No tightly controlled pours here.  Tour admission costs a single dollar.  And had our guide simply filled our four ounce tasting glasses with each beer, we’d have sampled a full pint.  A pretty good deal.  But he didn’t just fill our glasses, he filled pitchers and let us have at them.

But it got even better for us.  A well-placed question encouraged our pliable tour guide to pour a pitcher of the company’s current “brewer’s selection” beer (available only at the on-site pub); an oatmeal stout.  It wasn’t planned, but it should have been.  After the bitter hoppiness of the two pale ales, the stout hits you in the face with a sweet, chocolate, coffee flavor that goes down like liquid desert.  What a way to finish the tasting.

That was the most fun I’ve had for a dollar since The Doll House in 1989.

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