Battle of the Microbrews
We pit ten Maine beers against each other in a blind taste test to determine the tops in hops.
When the microbrew revolution started to rear its lovely, foamy head on the West coast in the early1980s, it didn't take long for the trend of localized, small-batch brews to make its way east. The D. L. Geary Brewing Company was incorporated in 1983 in Portland. 1988 saw Gritty McDuff's become Maine's first brewpub since Prohibition. And at the turn of the millennium, the Shipyard Brewery produced and distributed more than 30,000 barrels of genuine Maine-made beer throughout the country and beyond.
What Maine beers are known for, though, is the quality that transcends both production numbers and history. The state's twenty or so breweries — some of them brewpubs that don't even distribute beyond their walls — all take pride in staying true to their craft, not taking shortcuts that more often than not come through in the final product.
At least, that's Maine's reputation. To test it, we've put a panel of tasters through a rigorous evening of blind beer tasting. Ten of the state's most famous brews were poured, and without knowing which beer was which, the panel was asked to evaluate the quality of each drink, so that preceding reputation or personal preference would not be a factor.
Most of these beers are widely available in Maine stores. Your local beer and wine shop can also special order microbrews.
Allagash Dubbel Ale
100 Industrial Way, Portland, ME 04103.
While sticking to one style of beer and one style only, Allagash has established itself as one of the premiere Belgian beer producers in the country. The Dubbel Ale is a fine example of their offerings. King's notes read: "Great lacy head. Citrusy, light aroma. Amped up!" Steve Corry got smoky banana. Both Tim Wissemann and Brian Norris commented on the lasting caramel body and long finish. All in all a fantastic offering, from its tawny color to the classic fruity nose all the way down the throat.
Andrew's English Pale Ale
RFD #1, Box 4975,
Lincolnville, ME 04849.
Wine expert Wissemann likened this beer to a Sauvignon Blanc, and Norris called the body and taste "husky and citrusy," with strong notes of grapefruit pith. These are mostly results of a heavy hopping of the beer throughout the brewing process, and "a late hop addition in there," according to Corry. While the hops were more than present and accounted for, the brew was a bit lacking in body and finish that King said "just fades off and left you hanging with the bitter." This one is for the hop-heads out there.
Sebago Brewing Boathouse Brown Ale
150 Philbrook Avenue,
South Portland, ME 04106.
When trying this beer after a bit of warming up, tasters found the malty aroma almost overpoweringly rich. They noted molasses, smoke, and wort (unfermented beer) right away, with chocolate and coffee rounding out the nose ("This is like no beer I've ever smelled!" declared Steve Corry). Despite that, enough bittering hops were used to balance the sweetness, keeping this potentially cloying brew nice and dry in the finish. For those who like a drink before dinner and a drink after, this is a smooth beer and espresso all-in-one.
Freeport Brewing Brown Hound Brown Ale
46 Durham Road,
Freeport, ME 04032.
This brewery is, relatively speaking, one of the newer additions to the Maine brewing scene, having been founded in 1999. Despite that, this beer was one of the better surprises of the tasting. After smelling, sipping, and carefully hemming and hawing, Corry declared, "Going through the aroma, straight through to the balance and finish, this is a really nicely crafted beer." With a perfumy nose reminiscent of ripe fruits and banana, it has a beautiful, round body and a chocolatey-smooth finish. Ever aware of how the beer will fit into his tasting schedule, Norris noted that he could drink this beer "often."
Stone Coast Brewing 420 India Pale Ale
An India Pale Ale, due to its history as a stronger, hoppy beer that could withstand long boat journeys from England to India, should be characterized by a strong hop aroma and moderate to high bitterness as well as decent maltiness for balance. This brew, while balanced well enough, just didn't have the intensity to taste like an IPA to all tasters. However, Corry really enjoyed it warmed up a few degrees. "Fantastic mouthfeel, this is served right where it should be," he said. There is bitterness involved, and it clearly asserts itself about three seconds after the swallow, leading Wissemann to enjoy its "really long finish."
Atlantic Brewing Bar Harbor Real Ale
15 Knox Road,
Bar Harbor, ME 04609.
The first thing tasters noticed about this beer was its intense aroma, classified as everything from coffee to red wine to smoke. The nose followed throughout the entire tasting, although Norris said the body was "not as heavy as I expected." King agreed that "it doesn't have a ton of body, for the aroma." Brewers that use heavily toasted malts always walk a fine line, however, as Corry reminded us: "Some brewers like to accentuate a roasted flavor too much, and that can be dangerous. There's enough residual sugar in this to carry the weight of the malts, though."
Casco Bay Pale Ale
57 Industrial Way,
Portland, ME 04103.
Casco Bay's Pale Ale is a relatively new addition to the brewery's lineup, and every taster had something to say about its accentuated hoppiness. Wissemann thought it was a balanced brew, with the hops contributing to the green apple aroma, Norris thought the finish was crisp and dry, King thought that the bitterness was what carried the beer, and Corry simply felt nostalgic. "The aroma is tense, it reminds me of dealing with fresh hops, like I can feel them in my hands," he said. "It has an almost tannic reaction in the mouth."
Shipyard Export Ale
86 Newbury Street,
Portland, ME 04101.
Arguably the most well-known Maine brew, this one confounded all tasters because this was the one beer everyone thought they would be able to identify. It was received with universally suitable satisfaction. All tasters detected a buttery nose and a dry finish. Norris called it a "nice, summery beer," while Corry detected wheat right off the bat. King liked the balance, stating that, unlike a lot of newer microbrews, "it's not trying to be an IPA." All agreed that it tastes best served cold, but not freezing. As it warms, it loses the crispness of the carbonation.
Gritty McDuff's Original Pub Style
396 Fore Street,
Portland, ME 04101.
This brew seemed to travel down the middle of the road for all tasters. Like the Shipyard, there was a richness in the aroma — everyone noted caramel and butter — and was suitably balanced from top to bottom. The only thing was, as King put it, "there wasn't a whole lot to balance, you know?" There were some hops in the finish, but it was short-lived. A decent session beer (one that you can enjoy over longer drinking sessions) such as this one usually has more subtle characteristics; judging by this brew's name, that was its original purpose.
Geary's Hampshire Special Ale
38 Evergreen Drive,
Portland, ME 04103.
Characterized best as an English strong ale, this beer has all the hallmarks of the style: a rich, dark amber color, a spicy and toasted nose, full body, and a higher alcohol content. "This one has a nice balance of weight and heat — it's nice and round," notes Corry. Compared to the lighter ales, this one has an almost brandyish feel. "Soft, moderate mouthfeel with a long barley finish," is how Wissemann describes the balance. The Hampshire Ale used to be a seasonal beer, but Geary's recently made it available year-round, and Norris declares it "a good four-season beer."
Ale A type of beer brewed using top-fermenting yeast, which is usually stronger and more bitter than beer. Colors can vary from light to dark amber.
Barley An ancient cereal grain, of which some varieties are used to brew beer. It is first malted, mashed, and then the sugary liquid formed during the mash, called wort, is fermented.
Beer An alcoholic beverage brewed from barley malt mixed with cultured yeast for fermentation, and seasoned with hops.
Bitter Having a sharp taste, associated with some "workaday" hops. Bitterness is measured in International Bitterness Units (IBU).
Body A tasting term describing the viscosity of a beer. See also Mouthfeel.
Brown Ale Ranges from dry to sweet in maltiness, often with nutty accents.
Dry A tasting term describing a sharp, not sweet, palate.
Finish The taste sensation on a beer-drinker's palate just prior to and during swallowing.
Fruity Tasting term describing the flavor and aroma of bananas, strawberries, apples, and/or citrus notes resulting from high temperature fermentation and top-fermenting yeast strains.
Grainy Having a taste like cereal or raw grain.
Hops Small flowers, used either whole or compressed into nuggets, that are added during beer-making to balance sweetness, flavor, and aroma.
IPA Originally created in the eighteenth century as a way to help beer survive the long journey on sailing ships from England to thirsty colonists in India without spoiling, India Pale Ales contain more hops and have a higher alcohol content than conventional brews.
Malt Grains, usually barley, used to create different styles of beer. Malt is created by immersing these grains in water, allowing them to germinate, and then roasting them to specific grades.
Mouthfeel A sensation derived from the body or viscosity of a beer, ranging from thin to full.
Nose The combination of aroma, the fragrance derived from a beer's specific ingredients, and bouquet, that portion of its odor caused by the fermentation process.
Palate The complex taste of a beer, imparted by the respective degrees of hop, malt, and fruit.
Real Ale An unfiltered, unpasteurized beer that is naturally carbonated by undergoing a secondary fermentation in its own serving vessel.
Seasonal Beer A beer brewed for a specific season, such as an Octoberfest or winter warmer.
Session Beer A low-alcohol beer brewed so that several can be consumed in one drinking session.