Starting in the 1990s, American brewing has undergone a steady resurrection from the decades-long decline since the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. By the late 1970s, the industry was dominated by a handful of heavy hitters, with only 79 registered breweries nationwide. By June of 2013, there were 2,538 registered American breweries, an increase of over 400 since 2011, the year New Hampshire passed a law making it easier for small-scale breweries to operate. From bitters to Belgians, stouts to sours, and just about every pale and porter in between, America has most definitely rediscovered its brewing voice.
On the Seacoast, a growing bevy of ambitious brewmeisters are joining that choir. Leading the charge are local staples Smuttynose Brewing Company and sister outfit The Portsmouth Brewery. Founded by Peter Egelston, these two much-loved cornerstones of the region’s brewing renaissance exude a steadfast commitment to craft beers. Nearby in Newington, Redhook Ale Brewery has managed to build on its Pacific roots (the company was founded in Seattle, Washington, in 1981) and inspire anew a love of robust ales here on the Seacoast.
While these “Big Three” mark the well-worn honor badges for the region’s growing brew rep, a bevy of lesser-known outfits—startups, in some cases—represent an exciting new vanguard. Follow us along the Seacoast Beer Trail from Portsmouth to Newburyport for some most excellent brews, and more.
Earth Eagle Brewings
165 High Street, Portsmouth, N.H.
The Take: Our first stop on the Seacoast Beer Trail brings us to Earth Eagle Brewings, a quintessentially micro operation launched last November by co-owners Butch Heilshorn and Alex McDonald.
After spending the better part of the winter months easing into the market, Earth Eagle now slings its potent, rustic libations seven days a week. The catch? They only pour in 32- and 64-ounce growlers—the perfect denomination for a style of brewing nearly a millennia in the making.
Located conveniently next door to A&G Homebrew Supply (also owned by McDonald), Earth Eagle owes its name to an old Native American adage for the common wild turkey. The mascot might seem mundane, but the operative ethos—heavily focused on what the duo calls “pre-Reformation-style brewing”—is anything but.
The Toast: “For four or five centuries leading up to the Reformation, hops weren’t a very common ingredient in beer. So for years, people had been drinking fermented grain beverages and spicing them up with whatever was in the garden. At the time, the Catholic Church kind of regulated it, but when the Reformation came around, the powers that be decided that they didn’t like the effects these gruits [herb mixtures used for flavoring beer] had on the population, so they made rules that said beer had to include hops, because hops tended to calm people down more… We’re trying to remind people what beer was about before that all happened.”—Butch Heilshorn
Try: Whatever’s on tap—it’s changing all the time.
Great Rhythm Brewing Co.
P.O. Box 1624, Portsmouth, N.H.
The Take: Sometimes, building a great beer business begins with finding your sweet spot. Just ask Scott and Kristen Thornton, founders of Great Rhythm Brewing Co. in Portsmouth. While Great Rhythm has but a lone beer under its belt, the crisply divine Resonation Pale Ale has already generated noteworthy buzz: to date, close to 100 restaurants and bars have fitted taps to Resonation kegs. Of course, Great Rhythm’s offerings won’t end there; Scott Thornton hinted at the possibility of “some different stouts” being in the work for the fall or winter. Still, he believes they chose the ideal flagship beer.
The Toast: “We’re all about music, so we originally envisioned a beer that people could enjoy while hanging out with friends and socializing. Which is part of the reason why we made it with such a moderate alcohol content. We love hops, so our goal was to create an aromatic and hoppy beer without the bitterness—an American style pale ale—and I think we accomplished that.”—Scott Thornton
Try: Resonation Pale Ale
WHYM Craft Beer Café
3548 Lafayette Road, Portsmouth, N.H.
The Take: Just a couple clicks of the glass down Lafayette Road, WHYM Craft Beer Cafe’s off-the-beaten-path aura is apparent as much in their luscious offerings as it is in their charming locale. Complete with a beer garden out back, cozy seating inside, a cacophony of comfort food, and a perpetually rotating menu of offerings handpicked by owner Alex Aviles, WHYM, which opened in May, exudes the warming look and feel of a classic German beer hall.
The Toast: “We’ve had some great experiences at some awesome beer bars in places like Portland, Maine, so we were inspired by the culture and the community behind beer, and felt that we could help bring that to New Hampshire. Our location is unique, and we can maintain an atmosphere that you won’t find in other places because customers are seeking us out for what we offer and the atmosphere we have.”—Alex Aviles
Try: Ask any of WHYM’s servers—all self-proclaimed beer geeks.
121 Lafayette Road, Unit 3, North Hampton, N.H.
The Take: As one of the breweries at the forefront of the Route 1 beer-topia, Throwback has earned something of a cult following since filling their first keg in July 2011. For owners Annette Lee and Nicole Carrier, Throwback’s orientation is all in the name—a nod to the pre-Prohibition days of local ingredients, artisanal spirit, and an impassioned commitment to craft. Indeed, Throwback is the quintessential homegrown phenomenon; you can only get your hands on their 11 fantastically distinct offerings in 22-ounce bottles at select New Hampshire package stores, or on tap at one of dozens of Granite State restaurants. Lee and Carrier also focus is on making sure that the people that make their products possible reap their own benefits.
The Toast: “Good people continuing to make good beer only elevates the industry and make more beer lovers. For us, the real inspiration is being able to source from local growers, and I think that’s an idea that people who are looking to start breweries are taking seriously. So as we grow, we’re helping those local farmers grow, which in turn helps us grow. It’s good for everyone.”—Annette Lee
Try: Maple-Kissed Wheat Porter
Newburyport Brewing Company
4 New Pasture Road, Newburyport, Mass.
The Take: Opened last February the Newburyport Brewing Company (NBPT) is proof positive that the region’s microbrew craze doesn’t stop at the Merrimack River. Inspired in part by the Boston Bruins’s 2011 Stanley Cup run, Newburyport natives Chris Webb and Bill Fisher founded NBPT at the confluence of three dovetailing passions: beer, music, and adventure. With a guitar pick in every 6-pack of their exclusively canned , robustly delicious offerings—a Belgian White, a Pale Ale, and an IPA—Webb and Fisher manage to marry steadfast environmental awareness (cans are much easier to recycle) with the charm of aluminum’s utilitarian, working-man past.
The Toast: “We decided very early on in doing the business plan that we wanted to keg and can all of our products, and we’re pretty proud to be the first of that kind here in Massachusetts. Canning keeps light and oxygen out, which is good for the beer; it’s the perfect vessel for taking beer with you to the ocean or the lake or the mountain; and it’s recycled at the highest rate of any beverage container as well.”—Bill Fisher
Try: Plum Island Belgian White
Sea Hagg Distillery
135 Lafayette Road, Unit 9, North Hampton, N.H.
The Take: Beer’s place in New England’s commercial past, and that of the Seacoast, is indisputable. But it’s far from alone in libation lore. North Hampton’s Sea Hagg Distillery, owned by Heather and Ron Hughes, traffics in another fundamental American spirit: rum. Made with U.S.-grown sugar cane molasses,
Sea Hagg’s cornerstone offering, Sea Hagg Silver Rum, is distilled, aged, and bottled on-site by hand, just like rum used to be. Sea Hagg currently only sells its staple rum, along with seasonal fruit brandies and eau de vie.
The Toast: “Right now Throwback Brewery is helping us make a mash for an Irish moonshine. And that’s a pretty good example of how we look at the various breweries as our neighbors. People are coming from all over to see what this beer trail is all about, and a lot of that has to do with the personalities—everyone puts on a good show, and everyone helps one another out.”—Heather Hughes
Try: Sea Hagg Silver Rum
Granite State Growler Tours
45 Lafayette Road #212, North Hampton, N.H.
The Take: Unless you have a designated driver or a hotel room, chances are you won’t be traversing Beer Alley’s many delectable haunts in a single trip. Enter Dave Adams and Mark Chag Jr., co-owners of Granite State Growler Tours, which offers day-long weekend libation tours. Buoyed by the tag line “On the Roam for Foam,” Adams and Chag give a firsthand look at an industry at once past-honoring and forward-facing.
The Toast: “We live right in the middle of all of it, and wanted to share all these amazing breweries with people.”—David Adams
Try: Everything! In moderation, of course.