Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Portland Beer Culture

Over the holidays I was trying to explain why I thought Portland (Maine) had such thriving craft beer culture for such a small town... but got hung up just past Allgash and Shipyard in trying to list the various breweries and brew pubs in the area. Luckily, Clay Risen has similar feelings about Portland, but actually bothered to like... write them out and think about them and stuff. After a brief nod to Portland's surprisingly robust food culture, he gets to the beer... and besides Allagash and Shipyard he notes a brewery I'm only vaguely familiar with:
North of downtown, near the shore of Back Cove, is Peak Organic, one of the country's best-known organic brewers. Brewing organically is trendy but almost impossible to do right. Not only does a brewery have to invest heavily in new equipment, but it also has to pay up to 50 percent more for organic malt and search the world over for reliable supplies of organic hops (Germany and New Zealand being the best sources right now). Not only is this expensive and time-consuming, but it limits the range of available ingredients—there's no large-scale organic producer of the resinous hops found in the Pacific Northwest, for instance.

And yet Peak made a go at it in the late nineties, and it's done pretty well. I was skeptical, having had more than my share of tasteless yet "eco-friendly" alternative foods over the years, but I've yet to have a bad beer from Peak. A few—particularly the King Crimson Imperial Red Ale—are absolutely stunning, with round, bold flavors and a long, smooth finish, and none of the thin, cloying tastes that plagued early organic brews.

I've never paid any attention to Peak Organic, since "organic beer" sounds almost like a scam... like "I can't believe those dirty hippies actually fell for that!" However, if you are going to care about pesticides and whatnot in your food, you probably shouldn't be ignoring the same practices in your beer. Perhaps. But, personally, I don't have any problem with being a hypocrite. I'll give it a shot if I see it though.

So besides having three successful breweries in a city of 60 K, what makes Portland's beer culture special? Well, they also have an outsized number of brew pubs:
Within stumbling distance downtown are Gritty McDuff's and Sebago Brewing, while Sunday River and Seadog are farther out. And for a city lacking even a medium-sized college, downtown Portland is plastered with bars, mostly of the plastic-cup-and-shooters class of establishment.

Skip 'em. Instead, go to Novare Res, one of my favorite beer bars in the country. Located down a nondescript alley off Exchange Street, this relatively new establishment touts 25 taps, 300 bottled beers, and two hand pumps. The selection runs decidedly toward the Continent, with a lot of Belgians and Germans (including some super-obscure offerings like Uerige Doppelsticke Alt, though all of the great American craft brewers are represented. It's got a welcoming vibe, too—it's tricked out to look like a beer cellar, with communal tables and a long bar, counterpointed in the summer by an expansive patio.
With Novare Res aside, since I haven't visited (it's on the list now though), but I wouldn't argue that the others are likely to knock the socks off of any effete beer snobs. My experiences in them have been perfectly passable, but they're not much different than the brew pubs in most cities I've been... and yet, it's still pretty amazing to have a whole city basically drinking craft brews, even if most of 'em aren't getting A+'s on Beer Advocate.

As a huge Allagash fanboi, I'd probably rate Portland's beer culture as superb regardless of any other factors... just being able to routinely get stuff they don't ship out of the area is cool enough... but it really does strike me as impossible to find such a small city with so many different craft beer options.

photo by flickr user DiscourseMarker used under a Creative Commons license