Monday, October 14, 2013

Brewery Tour #22 - Blue Lobster Brewing

The Hampton beach area in south eastern New Hampshire isn’t normally a spot one associates with quality beer. Upon mention of that area, you might first envision honkey-tonk teenage hangouts, or maybe video game arcades, mini skirts with tramp stamps, cigarette-butt littered beach sand, or tricked-out cars blaring beats with their windows down. Or, all the above.
For the past year, beer geeks have found refuge from Hampton Beach’s charades four miles up the road on route 1. It’s a safe haven tucked away in the corner of a cookie cutter strip mall plaza, and it’s where Blue Lobster Brewing calls home. Yes, a strip mall, but it’s an upgrade from the type of digs many small breweries inhabit; often shabby, bare-boned warehouses. (Heck some of those warehouses seem no different than a stage set from a mafia flick where “stuff” goes down.)

Michael Benoit, a home brewer for thirty years, opened Blue Lobster Brewing on November 8, 2012. To help him, he recruited a young man by the name of David Sakolosky who apprenticed at Hill Farmstead for a year, and previously helped White Birch get off the ground in Hooksett NH.

Michael and David aim to provide their local area primarily with fresh draft beer, as opposed to bottles. They fear their beer will be left uncared for in stores and go stale. Outside a few kegs sent to local establishments (i.e. the pizza restaurant next door), you must visit Blue Lobster to purchase their beer. Given that the duo prefers brewing hoppy beer, it’s arguably a good thing one must visit them to purchase the beers that – compared to other styles – can lose their character more quickly when sitting on room-temperature store shelves for extended periods of time.

The Blue Lobster tasting room is nicer than most. There’s a small bar with a handful of seats and five or six high top tables. The lobster-themed d├ęcor is thoughtful while not overdone.

The common thing to order is a tasting flight. For $5 you get five beer samples at three or four ounces each. We sampled a pale ale named “Gold Claw,” a wheat IPA called “Stalkholm Syndrome,” a black IPA named “Red Door(Paint It Black),” a double IPA called “Excess is Not Rebellion,” and their rye porter named “Ragged Neck Rye.”

Gold Claw is generally considered the brewery’s flagship beer. Scoring highly on beer rating websites, we expected great things. It smelled very nice and floral, but the flavor was thin, lifeless, and otherwise disappeared in your mouth without hinting at much character. Other beer geeks defend this, saying “yes but for 4.5% abv it’s a great session beer.” I disagree. Don’t make excuses for beers lower in alcohol. It’s been proven enough times that producing low-alcohol ale full of flavor is entirely doable. We look forward to trying another batch in the future, but today, thumbs down for Gold Claw.

Equally excited for Excess is Not Rebellion, we dove into that next. This beer is tricky. The brewer changes its recipe drastically. Certain batches use entirely different hops from other batches. The version we tasted was brewed entirely with Columbus – a hop varietal we have a love/hate relationship with. At times, Columbus tastes a bit like onion (hate). Other times it’s more grassy (love). In this beer, I sensed both grass and onion; the former on the nose, the latter in the flavor.  Additionally, it was overly bitter – not good. Other versions sound more promising; a previous batch was made with Galaxy/Centennial/Citra, and another batch sported 100% Galaxy. I have to think those versions taste far better.

“Red Door(Paint It Black),” their black IPA, is noted by the brewer to pay homage to the original Vermont take on the style. Exactly which brewer that refers to we’re not sure. Regardless, this beer lacks the hop punch we love in beers like Stone’s Sublimely Self Righteous, and Firestone Walker’s Wookey Jack. We continuously use those two beers as benchmarks for the black IPA style, and Blue Lobster’s take didn’t cut it. However, if one considers Blue Lobster’s version as a slightly more bitter porter, it can come across as successful and perhaps enjoyable enough.

Up next – “Ragged Neck Rye” porter. If I had this blind, I would declare it a Scotch ale. It offers a profound sense of peat often found in American takes on Scotch ales. While notes of rye were noticeable they played second fiddle to the presence of peat. The beer could’ve used more body and depth, but was not necessarily a disappointment. Overall, it was tasty enough. But worthy of a growler fill? Not exactly.

Feeling slightly disappointed in our tasting thus far, we worried we’d walk away with no interest in a growler of anything offered. The last beer, however, redeemed our experience. “Stalkholm Syndrome,” a wheat IPA, is beautiful. A gorgeous, citrusy hop presence blends like butter with a soft wheat malt bill. Without question, this beer is Blue Lobster’s highlight. Why we've heard more acclaim for Gold Claw is beyond us. Stalkholm easily deserves to be in the discussion for New England’s best IPAs. We found our growler beer.

Despite being let down up to the end of our tasting, it’s worth stressing that we went into this visit with high expectations. It’s entirely possible, if not likely, this affected our reaction to Blue Lobster’s offerings. None of the beers were bad, and I can easily see people finding any one of the beers to their liking.

Note: Since the initial visit to the Blue Lobster tasting room, I had the chance to taste two additional beers of theirs at a festival. One being a new DIPA called “A Town Called Earth: Exeter Edition,” and the other a bottle-conditioned farmhouse ale – the latter being the result of a collaboration with Prairie Artisan Ales from Oklahoma. The new DIPA was far better than the one we tried back at the tasting room. It served up a smooth tropical hop profile of melon, papaya and the like. The farmhouse ale was tart and a bit funky, with very mild carbonation. It tasted promising, but I immediately thought it needed more time in the bottle to develop into something grand.

The tasting room is a comfortable spot, definitely worth a visit. Many people find something to love in their arsenal of beers, so it’s likely you will too.  Although it’s strictly a tasting room with no food, there’s a pizza restaurant right next door (called the Community Oven) that many people like, and you’ll find Blue Lobster on tap there.

Worth noting for your visit - Blue Lobster will fill other brewery’s growlers as long as they’re brown glass. They hesitantly fill screw cap growlers because they feel more comfortable seeing their beer walk out the door in s
wingtop bottles, which seal better than caps. 1/6th kegs are also for sale if you’d rather party at home instead of with Tammy, Trent, and the other IROC jockeys at Hampton Beach. 

Blue Lobster Brewing
845 Lafayette Road
Hampton, New Hampshire 03842

Tasting Room Hours:
Thu: 2:00 pm - 6:00 pm
Fri: 2:00 pm - 7:00 pm
Sat: 2:00 pm - 6:00 pm
Sun: 12:00 pm - 4:00 pm