By MICHAEL WALSH
Last week I had the opportunity to get out of Connecticut on a trip lasting more than a day for the first time in months.
I ended up at Maine’s Old Orchard Beach, a campy vacation town for the Americans and Canadians living hours away from the site.
More importantly the spot sits south of Portland, home to some of Maine’s best breweries, meaning I’d be turning this vacation into a beer-cation.
While Old Orchard Beach itself offered very little in the way of great brews (other than the local greek pizza place called Jimmy the Greek), the locations surrounding it were a gold mine. The first stop I made was at the Sebago Brewing Company restaurant in Scarborough located down the street from the busy Maine Mall.
Sebago Brewing Company
My first run in with Sebago was at the Spigot in Hartford. Having never even heard of the brewery, I indulged in their Frye Leap IPA this past winter and came out of it with an appreciation for the Maine brewery. Since then, I’ve seen an increased presence in their products at local package store establishments in Connecticut. Stopping here was a no-brainer.
The restaurant scored as a success in all areas. The first beer I ordered was the Lake Trout Stout, a very rich and creamy Irish style stout. It’s a dark as the night beer in color that gives your mouth tons of coffee and chocolate hints. The head pours thick and the stout ends as a super drinkable beer. I added a Frye Leap IPA later which scores as a middle of the road IPA for me. My father chose the Saddleback Ale. Not a drinker of the most complicated ales, he at least admitted it tasted fine. He likened it to a Sam Adams Summer, but I don’t believe him – probably less fruity, he said.
Perhaps the most surprising result of the visit was the food. The BBQ brisket was sensational and I didn’t expect it to be that good. My sister ordered the jumbo wings, which weren’t to her style. Most people aren’t used to eating wings that large, but it still looked quality. The food also wasn’t doused in hot sauce, which is a problem I can relate to with my younger sister.
The decor of the bar was classy. It looked more upscale than it truly was – which isn’t a bad thing. The menu showed a $2 Sebago pint late night happy hour from 10 p.m. onwards. The early happy hour gave guests a choice of a $3 pint or a $4 tall.
The highlight of my trip came on the second day of my visit. While the rain was gone, the sky stayed overcast and provided a great excuse (as if one was needed) to visit the Allagash brewery in Portland.
Allagash Brewing Company
Ever since I had the Allgash White at Eli Cannon’s in Middletown I’ve been in love with the brewery’s passionate Belgian-style creations. This love was elevated last Tuesday.
Both the tour and the generous samples were free of charge to visitors, showing the brewery’s loving attitude towards its customers. Each guest was poured a healthy sample of the White, Tripel, Curieux and Victor. I had only previously had the White and Victory before and was blown away by the Curieux (a Bourbon Barrel-Aged Tripel – more on this later) so much that I left the brewery that day with a bottle of it and a four pack of the Tripel.
The tour guide was intelligent and friendly, willing to answer everyone’s questions no matter the subject. The only suggestion would be that since the brewery is working during the tours, that the guide be given some kind of amplifier. She shouldn’t need to have a vein popping out of her neck because she has to yell over the ongoings of the hardworking brewery.
The most fascinating part of the tour was something that makes Allagash unique, especially to New England. Beers like the Curieux are aged in bourbon barrels provided by none other than Jim Beam, who has no use for a used one. This gives the Curieux that alcoholic smell and bourbon taste that nothing else could provide it. Despite that, the 11% beer weighs in as a drinkable Tripel that you’ll be sipping on all night. It sure feels like 11%, but the taste is far from it.
The chilly room containing the barrels was amazing to be in. It shows the dedication, creativity and patience Allagash has. The room was also home to the company’s “Coolship” beers, creations that they aren’t sure are ready for public distribution, or as the tour guide joked, should never see the light of day. The guide mentioned these beers, some of them Lambics, would likely only go as far as the taps of the brewery itself, but a bit wider of a release could be possible in the future.
Allagash’s impressive brewery isn’t a mammoth in size, but it is in creativity. It’s surely one of New England’s best breweries and something all of the regions residents should be proud of. It’s doing a lot of things others wish they could be doing. This tour comes highly recommended if you’re in the area.
From there I made my way to downtown Portland to eat and drink at Gritty McDuff’s, one of Portland’s staple brewpubs. I went to the Freeport Gritty McDuff’s well before I was able to legally drink alcohol on a family trip to the Freeport L.L. Bean location. On my return, I sampled what I couldn’t before.
I first went with the Best Bitter, which was the day’s cask ale. Because this visit immediately followed the Allagash tour, I really enjoyed the warm, easy drinking Best Bitter on cask. It was a great pre-lunch drink and what must be one of the brewery’s best beers.
I ordered the fish and chips, which arrived in a less than plentiful portion and left my father hungry for more (compared to the brisket the night before). I decided to match the meal with the brewery’s stout, given the name Black Fly Stout. I noticed the Beer Advocate Bros. gave the brew an A on their website, which really tempted me to giving another stout a chance.
Anyone who knows me knows I love a good stout in the cooler months of the New England year. Well I can tell you that if I had availability to the McDuff stout year round I would drink it often. Like the Sebago, it was super smooth and creamy. I compared this heavily to the stouts I’ve drank at my favorite local brewpub, City Steam (Hartford). The stouts there are usually less thick, and unlike a Russian imperial stout (which I love) this stout was a fantastic session beer. I could imagine having a few of these tasty brews in one sitting.
McDuff’s in Portland was a nice hangout, though, and seemed to be a favorite of both locals and tourists. The seating was long and picnic table inspired. The bar even had seats behind it which looked through half moon-shaped cut outs that resembled what you would cook a brick oven pizza in. Gritty is a great way to describe it.
Every state can really prove itself in beer when you visit an off the road place. And that’s exactly what I did. I ate my final dinner of the four day trip at the Clambake closer to Old Orchard Beach. I was surprised to see a bar inside this family themed restaurant. I was equally surprised to see the taps that sat on the bar’s counter. I had my choice of the Shipyard Export, the Gritty McDuff’s Pub Ale and the Sebago Brown Ale. I chose the one I knew I wouldn’t be able to have unless I visisted again – the McDuff’s Pub Ale. It was a harmless beer that sat well with my clam chowder and fried shrimp. I think I preferred the more crowded Ken’s Seafood down the road though.
Still, this was an exclamation on how proud Maine is of its beer. I am not sure that a similar place in other states would carry that same distinction. I can’t say for sure, but I can say that Maine, overall, is proud of the beer it brews. Allagash still seems a bit alienated – left only to the bars that serve high end craft beers, but otherwise, it carries its hometown brews all over.
Federal Jack’s and Shipyard Ale
My final stop on the beer-cation was Federal Jack’s in Kennebunkport. Federal Jack’s is the home of a number of Shipyard brews as well as a few others. Call me confused, but here we go. It said all the beer was brewed downstairs, which I believe. I was just trying to understand Shipyard’s connection. There’s beers like the Sunfish Wheat, a peach and apricot inspired summer ale that I bought a growler of (and haven’t tasted yet) that I don’t think Shipyard itself brews. But the rest of the beers have direct connections to the Maine brewery.
I first tried the Taint Town Pale Ale because it was the cask ale of the day. That cask is something you just can’t get again unless you visit the place. It was delicious and lead perfectly into the burger and salad I enjoyed. I followed that up with the Old Thumper, which I later discovered was a collaboration between Shipyard and a British brewery, the Ringwood Brewery.
I left the brewery with the growler, a bottle of the Old Thumper and a single of the Pumpkinhead, which turned out to be one of the worst October/pumpkin beers I’ve ever had. It’s flat and has hardly the taste you expect from a New England pumpkin beer. If I want a pumpkin beer, which I usually don’t, I’ll stop myself at the Dogfish Head Punkin as long as I can find it. But that’s off topic.
We’re nearing 2000 words in this piece and I feel I should wrap it up. Portland and the rest of Maine is a great beer location. Allagash’s tour comes the most highly recommended. Check out how much their beers cost near you. It’s likely you can get it a discount at their store.
There are places I missed on and didn’t get to try. Twitter user @Etrain asked me “No Sea Dog” and I replied that I didn’t get to them. They’re the brewers of the blueberry beer with the dog on the package that gets to our state. And @shortypowers told me not to miss Novareres Bier Cafe. Unfortunately I did.
If you have been to Maine or are going there, I’d love to get your impressions. While this blog is Connecticut focused, I personally think the rest of New England is equally as important to our state’s development.
We’re in this together.