Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Brewery Tour #17: Smuttynose Brewing

Have you tried the IPA, known as “Finest Kind,” from Smuttynose Brewing?

I have. But I feel like I haven’t.

It receives a substantial amount of accolades. And when I was recently reminded of that, I asked myself what I thought of it. I know I’ve had it more than once, but I said to myself, “I don’t know. Do I like it?” I suppose I never walked away with an impression.

Due to my perception of the Smuttynose brand being one of higher quality, I wanted to revisit Finest Kind again. So I decided to: 1) Purchase a six pack or order it the next time I see it at a restaurant, and 2) Visit Smuttynose Brewing in the hopes I could taste Finest Kind fresh – straight from source.

A couple of days later I found Finest Kind offered at a local restaurant. I immediately smelled it after pouring it into a glass and honestly hoped I got an old bottle because I didn’t notice much of an aroma. After tasting it, I hoped even more so that it was an old bottle because the wonderful hop presence described in its glowing reviews was hardly noticed. In the end I did chalk it up as being past its freshness date and became simultaneously relieved and irritated.

Relieved that there was a plausible excuse for its underwhelming aroma and flavor.

Irritated that I – yet again – just purchased an old IPA with hops that have long faded away.

I couldn’t locate a best-buy or bottled-on date anywhere on the bottle, so who knows how old it was. It may have been on there. But I’d like to vent for a moment and say that I’m fed up with hieroglyphic bottle dating using dark ink in incongruous places on dark bottles. Or no bottle dates at all. Fed. Up.

It was then I decided that a visit to the Smuttynose Brewery, in Portsmouth NH, was mandatory. There I could presumably taste the freshet Finest Kind IPA anywhere on earth. Luckily an invitation to a friend’s party nearby gave DBNE a good excuse to trek up to the Portsmouth area.

Founded by the same people who started the Northampton (MA) and Portsmouth Brewpubs, Smuttynose sits in a quiet suburban area of Portsmouth NH. The brewery itself looks to be in a noticeable process of decay. One might describe its physical state as ramshackle. But to the folks at Smuttynose, it’s home. And we were still eager to see inside.

Tours at Smuttynose occur Fridays at 5:30pm, and Saturdays at 11:00am and 1:00pm. Apparently they’re popular. So much so that the brewery has recently resorted to using an online reservation service. You’re required to reserve your spot on a tour, but don’t worry, it’s free and the process is quick and painless. 

We didn’t take more than 4 steps in the brewery door before we were asked to put on safety goggles.

Safety goggles? 

I half-hoped the reason for this was because beer has been known to sporadically spray with vigor from leaks in their fermenter tanks. Or maybe that impromptu hop pellet fights were not uncommon and a previous visitor caught some simcoe in the eye. Sounded fun. Realistically, I figured it was because the decrepit building could crumble any minute and these glasses were supposed to save me when the ceiling drops on my head. I couldn’t help but recall the Schwarzenegger-like “McBain” character in an episode of the Simpsons, where he falls into a pool of acid and screams – “The goggles - THEY DO NOTHING!”

Glasses on, we immediately saw the tasting area where people were already congregating and tasting beers before the tour started. I noticed a menu was posted that listed the beers available for sampling, and quickly hustled over to look for Finest Kind on the list.

No luck.

Is this a joke? Isn’t Finest Kind their most popular brew? How could it not be one the samples offered? I bet those fiends from the earlier tour drank it all! It seemed fresh Finest Kind was not in my cards for the foreseeable future.

I sighed. But before whining like a little girl that I’d never get fresh Smuttynose IPA, I got over it as I saw there were other treats available to taste.

Offered for samples were Old Brown Dog, Really Old brown Dog, Shoals Pale Ale, Robust Porter, Woodward Ale, and their Wheatwine.
I’m already quite familiar with Shoals Pale Ale and Old Brown Dog. Shoals is a classic that, ironically, is not so pale. Compared to many of your common or pedestrian pales, Shoals offers a bit more character in the malt and hop departments. Smuttynose claims Shoals is an interpretation of an English pale ale. It may be, but its hop notes seem a bit American in nature.

Old Brown Dog is one of the best brown ales on the market in New England. Its roasty malt backbone is accentuated with notes of caramel and fall spices. Earthy hops balance everything and even provide a little bitterness on the finish. I often forget its ABV sits at 6.7% because it drinks like something at 5.0%. It’s a comfy blanket of a beer – solid and flavorful without overwhelming you on any front.

Woodward Ale is made specifically for the Woodward Tavern at the Ames Hotel in Boston. A golden-colored brew that, contrary to Shoals, drinks more like your typical pale ale. It’s dry, crisp, and a bit lighter. Piney hops are noticeable and so is the bitterness. Not a bad brew.

“Really Old Brown Dog”, not to be confused with “Old Brown Dog” is a bigger, more alcoholic version of the latter. It’s part of Smuttynose’s Big Beer Series that you can only purchase in 22 oz bottles. While still referred to as a brown ale in its name, some consider it to drink more like an “old ale.” I wouldn’t disagree. With its 10.10% ABV, it gives the impression it has aged in vats to mature and build character. I find it delicious. Prominent notes of brown sugar, nuts, fermented dark fruits, wood, and toffee all mingle equally. It’s a bit sweet – almost
 too much so for my tastes, but it never crossed that line into cloying. Aging this beer wouldn’t be a bad idea. If you buy it, try getting 2. Drink one fresh while you age the other bottle in your cellar for a couple of years.

The Smuttynose Wheatwine is said to be a hybrid between a barleywine and a subtle American wheat ale. And that’s more or less what it tasted like. I don’t recall ever having a wheatwine, so I don’t have much to compare it to. But if you force me to picture the two aforementioned styles together, Smuttynose’s Wheatwine is ultimately what I would picture. The malts here are strong and sugary sweet. While some juicy hops, oak, and tart raisin are present, the malt bill is still the dominant force in this one. Not bad at all. But after tasting it I realized I had no reason to ever reach for another Wheatwine over a barleywine, except for curiosity sake (which is often the prevailing reason for my beer purchases anyway).

Lastly, the Robust Porter is no stranger to me. But if it is to you, change that. This beer tastes like a time capsule. Tastes like history. While double IPAs may be my favorite style of beer today, the porter style previously held that claim. And the quality inside a bottle of Smuttynose Robust Porter reminds me why that was. Charred grain, coffee, earth, bitter chocolate and a little hop bite are all seamlessly at play here. Robust indeed, but smooth and refined.

Tasting samples occurred at the beginning and end of the brewery tour. During the tour we learned Smuttynose has a new home to look forward to; a 14-acre farm in Hampton New Hampshire (architect-rendered drawing seen right). Glad to hear this. Their current facility really is quite packed. There’s very little space unoccupied by equipment, ingredients, or pallets of packaged beer waiting for shipment. You could tell our tour guide was excited about the move, too. He noted that they’re receiving way more orders, from new markets, that they could ever pretend to fulfill in their current space. The new facility (complete with a restaurant) will help Smuttynose grow and get more of their beers to other states. Those new states can expect some quality brews coming their way. And visitors will no longer have to feel that the Smuttynose brewhouse will collapse on top of them.

As we walked through the packaged beer area, I noticed the pallets upon pallets of Finest Kind waiting for shipment. I could only touch its plastic wrapping. I walked out of the brewery with no taste of super, uber-fresh Smuttynose Finest Kind IPA. So close, yet so far.

A couple weeks after our visit to Smuttynose, I found Finest Kind on the menu at an unsuspecting, fancy restaurant. I ordered it and was given the bottle along with a room-temperature glass (check plus). The bottle of Finest Kind was warm. I chuckled and knew many customers would hate this. I pictured our waiter grabbing the bottle out of the fridge, noticing how warm it was, and balking as he figured his customer (me) would complain that he just received warm beer. Lucky for our waiter, I’d rather my beer be warm than ice cold. It was my lucky day.

So how did it taste? Well, I noticed deliciously dank hops, grapefruit notes, and cereal-like malt grains all loud and clear.

Yeah, I remember now. I like Finest Kind. A lot.

Smuttynose Brewing Co. 
225 Heritage Ave 
Portsmouth NH 03801
603 - 436 - 4026 
Tours: Fridays at 5:30pm, and Saturdays at 11:00am and 1:00pm (online reservations required)