beer travel
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Milly’s Tavern bills itself as the only microbrewery (or brewpub, depending on who you ask) in Manchester. I guess they’ve changed hands a few times since inception, and they do have a primo location: in a classic-looking brick warehouse (prime development in the rest of the country) right on the Merrimack River in downtown Manchester, the largest city north of Boston. So let’s start there; I loved the location. Out of the way from the main downtown strip of Manchester, sure, but what worthy boozery isn’t a tad out of the way? Once you find it, you have to purposefully seek out the entrance, which is on the left/south side of the building and down some stairs. The bar itself is below street level (very hipster, Milly’s), and the whole place has an underground feel: exposed brick, exposed duct work, exposed brewery lines. Dark lighting and loud music. I wanted to like it.

The Inner Workings of Milly's Tavern

Like a lot of industrial urban areas, Manchester is attempting to revitalize it’s abandoned working zones. Long, brick shipping stores line the river in what could eventually be a district full of bars, shops and artists lofts with melancholy views of the lazy river.

But right now, there is one inhabited storefront in half a mile of prime riverfront real estate, and that is Milly’s Tavern. It feels a little dodgy late at night, but it adds to the speakeasy feel of the place. And it really is a neat, underground bar. They feature a lot of live music, including a Big Band night on Thursdays, and a Slam Free or Die poetry night.

Unfortunately, it feels (and tastes) like Milly’s is too busy being a bar to focus on creating good craft beer. It’s not *bad* beer, but there’s nothing particularly memorable about it. They are rumored to have a pretty great Pumpkin Ale, but it was out of season. We had a pale ale and a Scotch ale, and all I can remember is that both were fine. The menu is largely pub-food-oriented, heavy on the finger foods and sandwiches, with a couple of surprisingly good Near East dishes thrown in. But the focus here is really on the bar experience, which is fine; every city needs a quirky bar to satisfy the 20- and 30-somethings who want more than a Bud Light. It’s just not where I would go to savor a tasty, handcrafted microbrew.

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We almost didn’t make it to White Birch. Snow storms, bad roads, delays, horrid drivers… Hooksett seemed horribly out of the way, at the time. They’re a small brewery with a small website, and we thought, who would miss it?

Only to discover that WE would miss it.

What a great find.

To be honest, I was first drawn to this brewery because of the logo. Too often, modern small businesses try to make up for lack of creativity with overly-stimulating graphics. Stuff that pops, stuff that steals attention, stuff that distracts from the truth. But White Birch certainly doesn’t need a distraction from the reality of their beer, nor do they lack hoppy creativity. Instead, their simple, contrast-heavy logo is one of the best in New Hampshire, if not New England. It’s understated, with clean lines and an iconic symbol of the Atlantic Northeast (I fell in love with the birch as soon as I moved from Wyoming as a more than suitable replacement for the ineffable quaking aspen of the Rockies).

Uber classy logo, right?

They aren’t in a strip mall, but they are in a strip of road that caters to business travelers. Coupled with a droopy, suburban sign that declares “Free Tastings!”, this isn’t a place you might stop without purpose. So we stopped 70% for the logo, and 30% for the great reviews it got on Facebook (for those of you who doubt the power of Facebook, take heed!). And it works for them: Most of their business comes from distribution. We even have a brewer friend down at Tin Roof Brewing in Baton Rogue, Louisiana, who said that he and his girlfriend just sampled these tasty brews in their neck of the woods, so who are we to argue with a good business model?

The tasting room is disarmingly unassuming (yes, free tastings!), and there is  a sign that indicates no solicitation without drinking first. A fair trade. It’s located in an old car dealership, and there’s a classic, if derelict, arcade game in the corner. Let’s be honest: When you walk in, it feels dodgy, empty, like something abandoned from Route 50 in Nevada, and you might want to turn around and walk out. But don’t! Please persevere, because it’s worth it. We were there on a quiet night, so Brewery Assistant Rudy was there to help us out. He might be the low guy on the totem pole, but he knows his stuff. We tried a little bit of everything and bought some bottles of the Belgian Pale Ale and the First Sparrow Wheat, both great-tasting brews, probably best sampled in the summer. But through the snow and winter squall, we can pretend, right? The First Sparrow was something I insisted on buying, even though wheats aren’t really our style. It was that good. It has incredible flavor for a lighter beer and tastes oh-so-German. By going to the tasting, you get a lot of insights you wouldn’t get if you just bought a pint from a pub elsewhere.

This was also where we gleaned a lot of our information for other New Hampshire breweries. Rudy not only knew his White Birch beers, but he knew his local breweries. He provided not only great insight into the beers he served us but also sent us in the right direction for tomorrow’s breweries.

White Birch Brewing

What: Free tastings of whatever is on tap, with the assumption that you will buy bottles of both what is on tap and what is otherwise available. They also sell small batch pilot projects there, so keep an eye out.

Where: 1339 Hooksett Road, Hooksett. Exit 9N off of I-93 in either direction, three miles into town in the old Auto Wholesalers building. Friday 12-6 and Saturday 12-4.

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Throwback Brewery was our first foray into the wild world of warehouse breweries. I’ll be honest, approaching this place felt a lot like getting lost in the wrong part of town (if there is such a thing in New Hampshire). You kind of go through some shipping docks, around to the back of a warehouse, and then go through a quietly-marked door in a row of over-sized storage units. Being used to brewpubs and other well-marked businesses, it felt more than a little… dodgy.

But apparently warehouse/storage unit brewing is a thing in New Hampshire; this certainly would not be the last one we visited on this trip, and they were always immensely popular.

Throwback Brewing is really a name for the vision of co-founders Annette Lee and Nicole Carrier: to remember a time when everything was locally-sourced and made with passion. Beer is just their manifestation of this vision. The goal is to eventually source 100% of their ingredients from a less-than-200-square-mile radius from their home. Currently, they are about 70% there, keeping in mind the agricultural limitations of life in New England. But, much like winegrowers in harsh environments the world over, they embrace the concept of Terroir, from the earth, all of the climatic, geographic, and geologic features that make tastes of wine, beer, tea, liquor, fruits and vegetables unique and distinctive. They want their beer to taste like it came from New Hampshire, to be a beer that you could never mistake as a beer from Oregon or California or North Carolina.

And boy, are they doing a good job.

They seem to favor darker beers, browns and stouts and porters, which works well for me. They offer tastings only for $1 each, but you can fill growlers, as well. I picked up four samples: Salted Caramel Milk Stout, Apple Betty Porter, Campfire Smoked Porter, and the Maple-Kissed Wheat Porter. The Apple Betty was the most drinkable, smooth and not too rich, something I could sit down and drink for a while. The Campfire definitely tasted like a campfire, or rather, that smoky flavor marshmallows pick up when you burn them over a fire; I really enjoyed it, but I’m not sure I could drink a whole pint of it. The Salted Caramel Milk Stout was my favorite, but it was rich and sweet, like a dessert beer. Probably about four ounces is all I would want to drink at any one time. Finally, the Maple-Kissed Wheat Porter was aptly named but too sweet for my taste; but they were right, it would taste delicious as a beer float with some vanilla bean ice cream.

Throwback also embodies the definition of sustainable. From the recycled brewing equipment, salvaged from Maine and Massachusetts, to reusing water whenever possible to sending spent grain to local farmers for livestock feed, the brewers embrace a simpler lifestyle that embraces quality over quantity without sacrificing the good life.

If they aren’t swamped, they are happy to show people around the brewery, but there are no specified tour times. It’s all very casual and friendly. We got there right as they opened, so for a time, we were the only one’s there. But as soon as people started getting off of work, the tasting room filled to the brim. I can only assume they were there to see the puppy. All breweries should have puppies!

Brewery Puppy!

Throwback Brewing

What: Beers that are about as local as you can get in the short-seasoned New Hampshire. Tastings are $1 each, and you take a plastic gold coin for every sample and pay at the end.

Where: 121 Lafayette Road, North Hampton, Second warehouse building, Unit #3. Open Thursdays and Fridays, 4-7, and Saturdays 1-4.

Redhook Ale Brewery is (at least as of recently) Budweiser’s answer to the craft brew craze.

When their own attempts to woo craft beer drinkers failed miserably (anybody remember Black Crown? North Pacific Style Lager? No?), they decided to just start taking over already established craft breweries. Craft Brew Alliance began in 2008 when Widmer Brothers and Redhook Ale decided to hang out more, and it was something Budweiser couldn’t ignore. Today, Anheuser-Busch is the largest stakeholder in the Alliance, and don’t get me wrong, I loves me some Kona Brewing Company, but even just knowing the situation taints my tastes.

That being said, the Redhook Ale Brewery in Portsmouth is a lively place to hang out. Housed in an ultra-modern and industrial chic warehouse, it and it’s pub companion, Cataqua, put a lot of effort into atmosphere. They host a slew of parties and promotions, especially in the summer, when revelers can spill out onto the lawn and enjoy live music and other entertainment. They also have a solid menu of good pub food, and they do have rotating guest taps for other local or New England beers.

The view from a barstool at Redhook

Redhook Ale Brewery was founded in 1981 by Paul Shipman and Gordon Bowker, who also co-founded Starbucks and Peet’s Coffee, in Seattle. It still has a brewery in Woodinville, Washington, in addition to the offshoot in New Hampshire. They still maintain their dedication to green business and brewing practices and sponsor a number of activist-themed events and organizations, keeping their street cred up-to-date.

At the Cataqua Public House, where you can samples suds and get some grub, the taplist is long, and you’re sure to find something for your taste; despite being more than 30% Budweiser, Redhook still makes a good, if generally unspectacular, beer. Unfortunately, the bartenders seem too busy being cool to help you figure out what you want. Beyond giving the name of the beer, none of them seemed to know much else about what they were pouring. Their aloofness adds to the impression that you are sitting at any old sports bar specializing in Bud Lights, Jager shots and anonymous service, which is too bad considering what they have to work with.

It could be the off season. It makes all of us a little bored. Maybe I’ll try again during festival season.

Redhook Brewery and Cataqua Public House

What: Brewpub featuring pretty much all their beers, plus some good local brews on rotating taps.

Where: 1 Redhook Way, Portsmouth, out next to the Pease International Tradeport. Monday-Thursday 11:30-10, Friday-Saturday 11:30-11, Sunday 12-8.