American Breweriana Journal November/December 2013
Brewing in Portsmouth New Hampshire Today
By Rich Wagner ABA 2360
My first visit to Portsmouth Brewing Company was nearly two decades ago. It is a brewpub located in the tourist district downtown and the sign above the door on the sidewalk depicting a giant foaming pewter tankard of ale gets a lot of attention. I spoke with Paul Murphy, the brewer, over a couple of pints. They had already won a Silver Medal for Old Brown Dog Stout at the GABF and were pouring a seasonal Red Ale. He explained that Peter Egelston was the owner and brewmaster and that the pub was a sister brewery to the Northampton Brewing Co. that he had started in Massachusetts.
At the time, the other brewery in town was a production facility known as Frank Jones Brewing Co., Ltd. to honor Portsmouth’s largest pre-prohibition brewery. Egelston purchased that brewery in 1993 and it became known as Smuttynose Brewing Co., which now owns the production brewery as well as the brewpub. I never did get to see the inside of the production plant, but when I re-visited the brewpub in September there were a dozen different beers on tap including four Smuttynose brands and two gruits. Gruit is a medieval style dating back to the days before English brewers started using hops and flavored their beer with herbs and spices. The brewpub had one made with flowers and another made with fruit. The company is currently building their "dream brewery” in Hampton just outside of Portsmouth. Smuttynose beer is distributed in 19 states from Maine to Florida, and as far west as Wisconsin.
Some of the nation’s largest brewers today are what used to be called “microbreweries” and got their start with humble beginnings. Such is the case with Redhook. When I visited their first plant in the Ballard suburb of Seattle back in 1984, the company was known as the Independent Ale Brewery, Inc. and was located in an old transmission repair shop. When I returned five years later they had moved to an old trolley barn, had a state-of-the-art automated German brew house, and a brewpub. In the mid-nineties they raised a lot of suspicion within the craft brewing community when they got involved with Anheuser-Busch, in a move to greatly increase their distribution. A-B helped finance construction of a new plant in Woodinville, WA, and ended up owning 25% of the company. A year later Redhook built a plant in Portsmouth, where today they have a capacity to brew about a quarter of a million barrels annually.
The Redhook plant in Portsmouth is truly impressive. It includes a restaurant, and a regular tour schedule and large property to accommodate outdoor events make it very public-friendly. The company is now owned by the Craft Brew Alliance of which A-B owns about a third. They produce Redhook, Widmer, Kona and Goose Island products for east coast distribution.
Earth Eagle is what Native Americans called the wild turkey. It is also the name of Portsmouth’s newest nanobrewery in the downtown section, tucked away on a side street with a small tasting room. The Brewers Association defines a nanobrewery as making beer in batches of three barrels or less. I first described such establishments as “homebrewers with a license to sell beer.” But regardless of what you call them, nanos seem to be springing up all over the place. Earth Eagle grew out of a homebrew shop which still operates next door. They specialize in making gruits as well a wide variety of beer styles. On the day of my visit they were pouring Samboochus, a 5% a.b.v. gruit made with elderberry, wormwood, sumac, and damian. I spoke with Peter, whose family owns a hop farm on Long Island. By day he teaches elementary school. In his spare time, he and Alex McDonald brew the beers while Butch Heilshorn is the gruit-master. Their blog reports that they’ve been brewing with fresh hops their friends bring in “by the garbage bag full” and while they’ve only been in business a short time, they have an impressive display of awards they’ve already won for their beers.
There are two other breweries, both in Hampton: Blue Lobster is a brewpub located in a shopping center (which was closed the day of my visit), and Throwback Brewing Co. is another nanobrewery located in an industrial park. Throwback has been in business for two years and they are making excellent beers. They treated me to a sample of their Pilsener, and a variation of it called “Spicey Bohemian” which is “dry-hopped” with roasted jalapeno peppers, giving it a marvelous flavor and bite. I spoke with one of the owners, Annette Lee, who left a career in chemical engineering to start Throwback and describes herself as the company’s head brewer and Chief-Optimist. Her business partner Nicole Carrier is the Chief-Realist who takes care of the business end of things. Annette told me about their plans to move to a farm nearby where they will have room to grow. She also talked about efforts to use local ingredients. Forty percent of the hops they use are grown in Maine, and a local micro-malting company sources wheat from New Hampshire, and barley from Maine, Massachusetts and New York.