I hope that you are enjoying your winter! As I occasionally do over Black Creek’s off-season, I’ve fled south to the United States, specifically to Maine. So sure, I’m in the south (relative to Toronto, anyway), but it’s even colder here.
Considering its tempestuous temperance history (the 1851 “Maine Law” made Maine the first completely dry state), it’s both delightful and surprising to find that twenty-first century Maine has a vibrant craft brewing scene, much of it centred around the city of Portland. According to 2013 figures from the Brewers’ Association, there are 47 breweries in Maine. That same year, beer sales in Maine trumped blueberry sales. Which perhaps sounds odd, until you realize just what a big deal blueberries are down here.
It’s a collaborative, community-minded beer scene as well. Starting in 1986, Maine’s brewpubs and craft breweries united to form the Maine Brewers’ Guild. An active player in Maine tourism, the guild organizes beer festivals, lectures, even a brand-new beer school. Plus, a significant number of the beers I’ve seen down here source their ingredients locally, with Maine-grown hops and barley.
Community, enthusiasm, and local ingredients: no wonder the beer here is so good. Maybe it’s the “New England Vacationland” feeling down here, but it makes me wonder if other parts of the craft brewing industry might learn something from this approach. I ran across an article recently which prompted a lot of discussion: the author argued that a trend towards excessively hoppy beers was ruining craft brewing.
You can read that article here. I had a number of problems with it, starting and ending with the judgmental tone (“Do friends let friends drink only pilsners?” Really?), and including the general omission of the very fine alternatives on the market. If anything, I feel like I’ve seen a lot of porters and stouts lately (granted, it’s winter, but still). The author surmises that hops mask off-flavours and flaws in the beer, their variety allows for extra experimentation, and it’s an easy way to differentiate craft beer from macrobrews.
Well, you can experiment with malt and yeasts as well, as we’ve seen done down here at Black Creek, and honestly, I think almost any craft ale is immediately distinguishable from a macrobrew at first sniff, hop-oriented or not.
I wonder if early craft beers were abundantly hopped because hops are easy to take to extremes. If you’re competing in a crowded marketplace, it’s perhaps more difficult to notice and market a beer that’s maltier, or yeastier. We like “-ers” when we compete. And hops are distinctive; they can’t really be mistaken for anything else. They hit the palate right away. And they linger on the palate too: that’s why we always serve our IPA last.
So you make a beer that’s hoppier than the next guy’s. You make a beer that’s more alcoholic, because we want the bang for our buck, right? And suddenly, you have a beer that’s hoppier and more alcoholic, so it’s probably an…
This is theorizing, anyway. But from my research (cursory as it regrettably is) I don’t see that spirit of competition here in Maine. I see a group of brewers who don’t necessarily want to be better than the other guy. I see a brewing community in which each brewery wants to make the best product it can.
There is a difference here, one as rich and satisfying as chocolate malt.
PS. A look at what I’ve been drinking this week (not shown: D.L. Geary’s Hampshire Special Ale- really nice amber).