Thursday, July 23, 2009

Portland and Burlington Trip

So many cool and fun things happened on our recent trip up to the lovely cities of Portland, ME and Burlington, VT that I could write and write about it for days. However, for the purposes of this space I'll keep it as short and sweet as possible, and all about the beerz. Here are some of the highlights:

Portsmouth Brewery: We stopped in New Hampshire on the way up and were quite impressed with the city of Portsmouth. Kind of like a Portland Lite. The Portsmouth Brewery is affiliated with Smuttynose Brewing and we stopped in for lunch. Skipped the Smuttynose beers since we can get those pretty easily at home and went with the house offerings.
I rather liked the Dirty Blonde Ale, their standard brew pub "entry level" beer. I've been really interested in trying these beers at brewpubs - is this the red headed stepchild of the brewer that just gets thrown on to serve something to the Bud Lite crowd, or do they actually put some care and pride into brewing a tasty light flavored beer? Dirty Blonde didn't disappoint. Light but not too light. Had some specialty malt character (Victory? Biscuit?) without being too full bodied. The Thaizenheimer was an American Wheat beer flavored with lemongrass and kafir lime leaves. An interesting twist and definitely thirst quenching, though I would have a hard time putting back a second one - lemongrass wears on me pretty quickly. The food was excellent. We got a very healthy portion of nachos and I enjoyed a pulled pork sandwich.

Portland, ME: The Land of Ringwood

$3 Dewey's has $2.75 Shipyard Pints all day Sunday: I haven't heard the best things about the brewery tour at Shipyard, so that wasn't really on our agenda for the trip. So what better way to try a bunch of their beers! The atmosphere at $3 Dewey's was a little "young", to say the least. There were some very young and intoxicated people in there who made for some interesting entertainment.

As for the Shipyard beers go, what can be said that hasn't already? If you can't stand diacetyl and Ringwood beers, move on. I seem to have a higher tolerance than most, so I was not deterred. I thought that the Chamberlain had enough hop character to keep the diacetyl down and be nicely drinkable. The Fuggles IPA on the other hand was intensely bitter, and not in the most awesome of ways.

Oh, and I should mention that after our trip to $3 Dewey's we went straight to J's Oyster, one of my favorite restaurants in the entire world. Just thought I'd throw that out there...

Novare Res: You know, I want to like this place so much. It's a fantastic space - both the indoor and outdoor seating. And they have a tremendous beer list. But the service is horrible. Just so bad.

We ordered beers at the bar and took them outside. I had a Spezial Rauchbier that was one of the best beers I had on the entire trip. Bravo to Novare Res for serving an imported beer of low alcoholic strength that tasted so fresh. But big thumbs down to the waitress who took our second beer order and then disappeared to play Baggo and never return. We just left. And it would be one thing if this were the only time we experienced poor service at Novare Res - it wasn't.

Gritty McDuff's: Yay, more Ringwood!!! Didn't eat at Gritty's this time around, but I had a sampler at the bar. I don't know if it's their most popular seller and the beer they move the most of, but to me the Pub Style always seems to stand out and taste freshest. I'm sure that's just coincidence. I might disagree with the comment on their site that it has a lot of hop character, but it's an easy drinker and doesn't disappoint. The Bitter was also nice - hoppy, lightly carbonated off the cask, dry bitter finish.

Great Lost Bear: We've been saying that we wanted to get out to this place since our first trip up to Portland many moons ago. Unfortunately it's not walkable from the peninsula and it's either a drive or a cab ride away. We made the wise decision to cab it.

The food is decent pub grub off of a massive menu. It always makes me nervous when a place has such an extensive menu, but we stuck to standard burger and salad stuff to be safe.

One look at the draft list and you can see why this place gets so many accolades as a great beer bar. There's no place in the area that shows off Maine brews as well as the Great Lost Bear. Not even close. I was able to try some Maine beers that we didn't see anywhere else downtown - Sheepscot Boothbay Bitter on cask, Andrew's Old English Ale. They also serve 5 oz tasters, which is great. I did a round of six Allagash brews (everything they had minus the white beer). The dubbel and trippel were great examples of their respective styles - balanced, strong, spritzy. The Burnham Road on the other hand had some really strong band-aid phenols going on, presumably from the smoked malt in the beer.

Rabelais: OK, so not exactly beer related, but it would be completely wrong for me to not give a quick shout to one of the coolest book stores in the entire world. Rabelais is a book store - new and used stock - all about food and drink. Check out the site. Visit the store. Allow your mind to be blown. All that and the owners couldn't be more friendly and accommodating.

Sebago Brewing Company: Stopped in here for a couple of happy hour drinks (didn't try any food though). Sebago's beers don't typically jump out at me. Nothing terrible, nothing overwhelmingly great. The space itself leaves a lot to be desired. You kind of feel like you're drinking in the mall when you're there. And though the happy hour prices are fantastic (you'll never see $3.50 24 oz beers in Manhattan), they have to do something about that light that comes through the window when the sun goes down. Even with the shades drawn it's blinding! One thing I'll give them is that they're not using the same yeast as 60% of Portland's breweries...

I had their light ale, and this one missed the mark a bit for me. I found it to be a bit too thin, though that's probably what they're going for with the Bud Lite crowd - which actually may make it one of the better examples of a light brewpub ale around, when you think about it. They also definitely lost some points for the little beer stone floaters I saw in my glass. The Frye's Leap IPA was more like it - nice American hop character, though not brutal like the dank nuggz you get in the west coast IPA's.

Maine Brewing Supply: I've been trying to check out any of the local homebrew shops when we visit new towns, and amazingly, Maine Brewing supply is right next door to the Great Lost Bear (they weren't open when we went to GLB for dinner). The owner told me that it's just coincidence. And thankfully he let us in when we showed up twenty minutes before they opened - see we have a bad habit of constantly showing up at stores, restaurants, any kind of place, when they're closed and then freaking out when we realize we've been shut out yet again. The owner was kind enough not to take our gesturing at the door personally when he opened it for us. Nice shop, lots of stuff, totally knowledgeable.

Bray's Brewpub: On our way out of Portland towards Burlington, we stopped for lunch at Bray's Brewpub in Naples, ME. It's one of three brewpubs on the long... drive... west between the two towns, and Bray's was the one not represented at the Vermont Brewer's Festival, so it was our choice for lunch.

Holy food! We got massive portions of food and practically had to roll ourselves out the door when we were done. It was hit and miss though - a huge pile of really well done nachos, but the bruschetta was something you'd probably get run out of town for in New York. The BBQ platter I had was also hit and miss - sweet pulled pork, but the brisket was chopped up very strangely and kind of dry.

The Orien Oatmeal Pale Ale was one of the more inspired beers I had on the trip. It was a very balanced pale ale - just the right blend of malt sweetness and toastiness with a restrained hop profile, and a dash of oatmeal silkiness thrown in. Great stuff.

Burlington, VT: Brewpub Nirvana

Vermont Pub & Brewery: Quite possibly my favorite brewpub in the world. To the left you see R and a couple of VPB samplers (sorry for the dark pic). Every single one of the beers that we had there was somewhere between very good and fvcking incredible. I'll start off by saying that the Burly Irish Red is probably the best brewpub beer I've ever had. Smithwick's wishes it was Burly Irish Red. Imagine a rich, slightly roasty, malty beer like Smithwick's just with a clean dry finish, minus the caramel and lingering sweetness. Perfect. There were also quite a few fruity/funky/spicy things on tap that I usually shy away from, but were home runs at VPB. Like the raspberry tartness of their Forbidden Fruit and the funky and sour Spuyten Duyvil. And Handsome Mick's Smoked Sstout is always a winner too, even in July.

We also ate at VPB for the first time on this trip. I was blown away at how reasonably priced everything was. Like, downright cheap. It's not exactly haute cuisine, I know, but very good pub grub. A massive plate of beer-battered onion rings, deliciously juicy and equally massive beer-battered Atlantic scrod. And I don't think that a single thing we ordered off the menu was over $6. I miss VPB already...

American Flatbread: OK, so maybe I spoke too soon. Maybe Flatbread is my favorite brewpub of all time. First things first, the flatbreads (pizzas, basically) are unreal. Perfect dough - chewy and crusty at the same time. Delicious sauces, meats, cheeses, and vegetables as toppings. A nice simple menu with a couple of fresh seasonal specials - it's really all you need. I can't say enough about how great the food is there.

And the beers were exceptional. I didn't love the London Calling - had kind of a licorice thing going on that I didn't love. But everything else I had was great - Boognish Brown, Christina Pils, and Albee Bock. Yes, that's right - two lagers on tap at a brewpub!!!

Three Needs: Of any brewpub that I've ever been to, Three Needs is by far the most like a neighborhood dive. Pool table, rock music, a couple of small tables off of the bar. The beers were pretty decent. Liked the Chocolate Thunder Porter - it was nice and chocolatey, just as advertised, and smooth. No harsh roastiness that you can get sometimes from porters with too much black malt. Also had a lambic, which was quite overwhelmingly sour. Good, but definitely would not have gone back in for a second.

Vermont Brewer's Festival: Went to the afternoon session on Saturday. The rain messed with us for the first hour or so of the festival, but a couple of umbrellas and numerous tents located throughout helped. I'm not going to get into the beers we tasted at the festival - it was more or less the usual - most good (Otter Creek's Mud Bock and Vanilla Stovepipe Porter), a few lame ones (Hopfenstark's super-watery Berliner Weisse), and towards the end the palate starts to wane.

I wish that I had taken greater advantage of the events in the Meet The Brewer tent. We only went to the last of the four sessions; "The Power of Flavor & Aroma & Your Perception", tasting lead by Matt Nadeau of Rock Art Brewery. He served a pair of Vermont cheeses with a barleywine from the brewery. The dry, earthy tarentaise really brought out the hop character of the barleywine, while the smoked gouda really enhanced the maltiness. Very educational and fun. I really felt like I learned something. As a matter of fact the tarentaise was so good we bought a block of it at a market on the way out of town.

Lastly, I'll say that the VBF does it right. Entry is much cheaper than most festivals you find around this area - $25 for the VBF as opposed to $45 for the upcoming Brewtopia fest in NYC. But there's a catch. You get 15 tickets for the VBF that you exchange for samples. What that means is that there are far fewer people getting wasted at this festival. It's not quite the drunkfest that you get at most of the beer festivals I've been to around NYC. And that includes me - I've done a pretty good job of getting my money's worth at beer festivals around here lately and I left the VBF in much better shape. And I was happier for it. So was R.

If only I had known that Charlie Papazian was at the same session that I was! I definitely would have gone out of my way to get a picture with him. How did I miss the great guru of homebrewing????

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