Taking Flight

On Tap by Jim Cavan / January, 2021

There’s nothing quite so American as the idea of choice—enjoying what you want, when and how you want it. And flights of beer, with their meandering genealogies and jazzy changes in tempo and tone, embody this ethic perfectly.

Like the nation that derived it, the flight’s genesis is part myth, a bit cloudy, and very much open to interpretation. What we have is a dictionary definition (“a group of creatures or objects flying together”) along with a burgeoning appreciation of flights as home-sewn flags of the craft beer revolution. The shades might differ, the seams variably taut, but the cause remains the same: to open as many minds, and palates, as possible.

Beer flights, shorthand for any grouping of 2- to 6-ounce house samples, are part and parcel of the Seacoast beer scene. Functionally, they serve as a vital entry point to a brewery’s stylistic range. But flights also tell a story—about philosophies, methods, even the history of beer itself.

Testing the Waters
SoMe Brewing Company
1 York Street Unit 3
York, Maine

According to David Rowland, co-owner and head brewer at SoMe Brewing Company in York, Maine, 90 percent of his first-time customers dive headlong into a 10-taster flight before anything else. Which, if you ask the brains behind the beer, is as it should be. “Offering a nice variety is really important,” says Rowland, who opened SoMe in 2013 alongside his father and fellow brewer, Dave Rowland. “It allows people to craft their own experience, whether that’s trying two beers or all 10.

”Think of it as a kind of palatal speed dating. When you first enter the taproom, you probably have no idea what to expect. So you spend a few minutes with each candidate—gauging first impressions, taking stock of nuances and quirks, seeing what you have in common—hoping to find one or two you’d like to meet again.

For the folks at SoMe, being a good matchmaker means offering the broadest possible spectrum of flavor profiles—a beer’s personality, to stick with the analogy. “Our whole thing is, there’s something for everybody,” Dave Rowland says. “That’s our motto, and that’s our mission.”

As with most microbreweries, SoMe’s options are ever changing, meaning that juicy pale ale you relished last week might not be long for the chalkboard. Still, visitors can anticipate a robust scope of styles, from blonde ales (Sweet Solstice) to imperial IPAs (Crystal Persuasion is a huge hit—and rightly so) to their flagship Whoopie Pie Stout (exactly as delicious as it sounds).

Keeping with industry gospel, the Rowlands recommend finishing the samples in numerical order, with a bit of water and free popcorn—a SoMe staple since the early days—to cleanse the palate. But even if you’re inclined to follow this sage advice, there’s another, equally critical tip to keep in mind: whether it’s craft beer or candidates for a second date, getting to truly know someone takes time. “We always say, you need three sips before you actually taste the beer,” David Rowland says. “The first sip sort of washes the palate; the second sip cleanses the palate; and the third, you’re really experiencing that beer for the first time.”

A Palette of the Palate
Earth Eagle Brewings
165 High Street
Portsmouth, N.H.

Like most of its pint-pouring peers, SoMe’s approach to flights is nobly straightforward: Give the customer enough choices, they’re bound to find a brew that resonates. But what if the menu—heck, the entire farm-to-glass ethos—is engineered, as much through science as some primeval alchemy, to completely recalibrate what you thought a beer should be?

Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of Portsmouth’s Earth Eagle Brewings, where co-owners Alex McDonald and Butch Heilshorn have turned flights into crash courses in brewing’s botanical history since 2012. “We’ve got a lot of beers you’ve never had before, and a lot of beers you’ve never had anything like before,” Heilshorn says. “And there’s no better way to give people an opportunity to experience beers like that than with a full flight.”

Earth Eagle specializes in gruits, or brews made with flowers, tree fruits, and other vegetal fare (though, as you’ll see, not always) in lieu of hops. The result is something utterly unique, in taste, terroir, and polarized opinions. This was beer as it must have been a thousand years ago, when imbibing was a matter of both locality and necessity. Locality in that foraging for Galaxy hops wasn’t exactly an option, and necessity because most un-boiled water was borderline poison.

That’s one thing when the brew in question in parts hints of squash, sweet gale (a kind of wildflower), and sage, like the “compellingly unusual” Autumn Splendor. Include a taster of Cap’n Beefparts—a porter featuring beef and hog heart, liver, and kidney—and you should probably be prepared for more mixed feedback. “That’s why the first thing we ask when someone comes in is, ‘Have you been here before?’” Heilshorn says. “The folks we get tend to be a little more knowledgeable. They’re coming for a certain experience they’re not going to get anywhere else.”

For those who fancy more of a mainstream tap house tour, Earth Eagle still dedicates half its eight-beer board to familiar standards: IPAs, stouts, even the occasional lager or pilsner. Order the full flight, though, and expect the outfit’s rebel soul—old as it gets, and yet somehow new again—to linger in every head-spinning sip.

“I’m always worried about people thinking gruit is one beer, anyone who says, ‘I had a gruit once, and it sucked,’” Heilshorn reflects. “There’s no one thing that defines a gruit. It’s a much bigger universe than that.”

Out of Chaos, Order
Woodland Farms Brewery
306 US-1 C
Kittery, Maine

“Flights are an incredibly great way to not pour the wrong beer for someone,” says Patrick Rowan, co-owner and head brewer at Kittery’s Woodland Farms Brewery, which opened in early 2017. Between sips of his flagship Cerveza Medico (a Mexican lager), Rowan elaborates, “Oftentimes I’ll start with the question, ‘What do you have for beer in your fridge at home?’ And that allows me to cater the flight selection to them.”

Being the new kid on the Seacoast microbrew block, Rowan staked out a nifty niche in an otherwise hop-forward terra, serving up remarkably well-balanced pilsners, lagers (including IPLs), and specialty ales—alongside the requisite IPA or two. Rowan, who home-brewed for over a decade before ditching a career in IT to program pilsners full time, says the stylistic variance requires a slightly more careful curating process.

“We tell people to start with something super light, a lager or pilsner, which are inherently more palate-cleansing,” Rowan explains. “Then we’ll hit you really hard with our Session IPA, followed by the Slow Blade, which is as hoppy as an IPL gets. Then we cleanse the palate again, another lager or pilsner, before we give you really hoppy lager and pale ale. Cleanse one more time with the Rowanbrau, then you end with Red Beards, which is a red ale aged for four months in rum barrels—totally off the reservation.”

Flyers are free to ignore these guidelines, of course, albeit to the peril of their palate. But Rowan says the biggest challenge—and maybe the most rewarding—lies in the blank-slate clientele, many of whom may not know a bock from a Baltic porter. “When people ask you to pick out, say, four 4-ounce samplers for them, you kind of have to cherry pick and curate what you’re giving them, sometimes with very limited information,” Rowan says. “Because ultimately it’s about giving them a beer they want to drink. You almost have to make a kind of gut-level evaluation of your customer.”

Be it for a fickle first-time customer or as a matter of palate-coaxing strategy, building a flight is something of an art form: inherently beholden to whims and chaos, but with an internal coherence—and yes, even beauty—beneath it all. As for the beers themselves, it’s in the fine-tuned functions that Rowan finds the real form. “I love making beer for many of the same reasons I love making music,” says Rowan, who has also spent years playing bass and recording with local bands. “Music is art and the science of sound; beer is art and the science of brewing.”

If You Brew It, They Will Come
Deciduous Brewing Company
12 Weaver Street
Newmarket, N.H.

In terms of sheer customer-friendly convenience, flights tick all the boxes: Have as many or as few as you want, across whatever gamut you dare, and in quantities purpose-built to keep your wits about you. For its purveyors, however, the logistical logjams are real—even downright prohibitive. “We probably go through close to 750 tasters every week,” says Maryann Zagami, who along with husband Frank co-owns Deciduous Brewing Company in Newmarket, open since 2015. “That’s actually somewhat manageable, compared to where we were.”

Until recently, Deciduous trafficked in an eight-sample flight, each served in the brewery’s elegant leaf-etched flutes. Now, patrons are limited to four tasters at a time (though they’re welcome to scale the board on the second go-round). It’s easier on the staff, yes, but it also makes it more manageable for the customers, giving them a more focused area of concentration that can help make the experience a bit more memorable.

If the beer-press bona fides are any indication (98 out of 100 on RateBeer, 4.01 out of 5 on the always-tough Beer Advocate), making memories is all in a day’s work at Deciduous—or a day’s drive, anyway. “Beer tourism is huge for us,” says Frank Zagami.

“On a weekly basis, a significant portion of our customers will be people traveling an hour-plus to come visit us. It’s just amazing to see how far people will go to find new, good beer.”

For the denizens of Deciduous, that means palate-hammering IPAs (their Stack series has been a hop hit parade), cheek-clenching sour ales infused with locally sourced fruit (like peaches from Cider Hill Farm in Amesbury), with plenty of variety besides (the divine Renascence American Porter runs much smoother than the advertised 8% ABV).

In this sense, the Zagamis are steadfast in their desire to meet customers where they are. And where they are, in ever-growing droves, is far out on the taste-bud twisting frontier. By and large, though, pilgrims of the craft-beer faith are anything but puritanical. Which is why the Zagamis, ditto their Seacoast brewing brethren, are more than happy to tout the bounties of these shared flourishing plains. It’s the sunny side of freedom of choice, idealistically all-American, and one to which flights themselves speak so well: a little something for everyone, and more than enough wealth to go around.

“The beer community here takes care of its own,” says Maryann Zagami. “Breweries support other breweries. When people come and see us, they’ll ask us, ‘Where else where we should go?’ And we’re always happy to send them on to our fellow breweries."

TakingFlight Flight

In terms of sheer customer-friendly convenience, flights tick all the boxes: Have as many or as few as you want, in quantities purpose-built to keep your wits about you.