Portland, Maine: Craft Beer Heaven

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Photo by Navin75/FlickrCC


Residents of Portland, Maine, bristle at taking a back seat to their Oregon namesake—their city, after all, is much older, as I often hear during trips to visit my wife's family. Not that Portland the Younger doesn't deserve attention. The City of Roses has a lot to offer—among its many accolades, brew-geeks consider it the best beer city in America, home to Deschutes, Rogue, and Widmer Brothers, among others.

But over the last decade, the elder Portland has been quietly building a reputation as a cultural and culinary—and brewing—Mecca in its own right. Less than two hours north of Boston, it has long been a refuge for people seeking affordable housing, scenic seaside living, and cheap-as-free lobster. It's also become home to a passel of great restaurants—I can speak to Fore Street and Bresca, and there are nearly a dozen or so that can compete with almost anything in New York City.

Located down a nondescript alley off Exchange Street, this relatively new establishment touts 25 taps, 300 bottled beers, and two hand pumps.

Then there's the beer. Best-known among the Portland breweries is Allagash, a 16-year-old pioneer in Belgian-style American craft beers. Though located in a nondescript light-industrial park on the northern outskirts of the city, it's well worth the trip. Allagash is one of the more inventive breweries in the country, from its experiments with true wild-yeast fermentation to its skill at mixing beer batches, a familiar element of whiskey-making that is almost unheard of in brewing. Tours are informal affairs; show up unannounced and there's bound to be a spare staffer to show you around (though I'm sure they'd appreciate a call in advance). Best of all, they don't short you on the tasting. When we were there, our guide let us pick a few bottles straight from a fridge and crack them open.

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.

Closer to town is Shipyard, a popular regional brewer I've seen popping up a few times down in the Washington, D.C., area (though the Web site says it's already available in 38 states). I find Shipyard beers a little boring, but they've been rolling out some limited-edition beers that sound promising. Nevertheless, if you're in downtown Portland, the brewery is just a few blocks toward the Promontory (86 Newberry Street, on the site of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's birthplace), and it's worth your time—particularly given the generous pours they offer at the end.

Portland is also home to a slew of brewpubs. 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.

Finally, if you're headed up to Portland from Boston with beer on your mind, be sure to make a pit stop in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, home to the Portsmouth Brewery and its sister company, Smuttynose Brewing Co. The Portsmouth Brewery is a brewpub downtown (don't go during lunch hours, though, when it's packed), and Smuttynose is a dedicated brewery. Both offer dependable, sometimes excellent beers—though every March 1st, for one day only, Portsmouth rolls out what many consider The Greatest Beer on Earth: Kate the Great Russian Imperial Stout. It's called "Kate Day," and beer fans travel hundreds of miles to get a taste. I've never had it, but by all accounts the event is a mystical experience. Check it out—but make sure to save time to hit Portland.

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Clay Risen is an editor at The New York Times, and is the author of A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination. He has written for The New Republic, Smithsonian, and The New York Times Sunday Magazine.

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