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.
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.
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).
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.
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!
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.
Blue Lobster Brewing Company was actually recommended to us by a coworker in Rockland, who insisted we make the stop. I would like to say that it was my very first strip-mall brewery, but that would be a lie; we visited one during our comprehensive microbrewery tour of the greater Las Vegas area last year (and it thus occurs to me that we apparently go on brewery hops for all my birthdays). Strip malls always put me off a little, though, something about the suburbany-ness to them. But with relatively inexpensive cost of living for a business, I suppose a strip mall makes for a prime location for a brand-new brewery. Recent controversy aside (I don’t know the details and will not even try to go into them), this place produces some good, solid beers.
Blue Lobster was a place we had hoped to hit the night before, but the Great Blizzard Snowchi (I have no idea what name the Weather Channel ACTUALLY gave it) made us call it a day once we hit Portsmouth. They are open only on the weekends and only in the afternoons, so had to rearrange our schedule a bit. They have a tasting room only, where you can buy small pours of all their brews, as well as bottles and growlers. They went all out on the glassware, which sports their simple and very Seacoast-y logo and Grolsch-style, swing-top lids. These are my absolute favorite! Spring for one if you don’t have one already (growler prices are very reasonable, and growler fills vary by brew).
Of note: New Hampshire, like Maine, is one of those states that requires breweries to fill growlers from their own brewery. So no bringing your local Lander Brewing Company growler in hopes of scoring a cheap fill. Coming from Wyoming/Montana, where they really just don’t care (heck, the grocery stores sell unmarked ones for your filling pleasure), it seems weird and incredibly inconvenient, especially for those of us with quite the collection of growlers from Out West. But, alas…
The inside of Blue Lobster is a lot neater than the outside strip mall. Subdued blues, red accents, simple decor. We arrived just as they opened along with a good handful of regulars who can turn sample pours into an all-day event, and we also met a dude who was heading down the Seacoast from Maine, hitting up breweries as he went (we would see him again at the next stop). I opted for a sampler of all their beers; JM stuck with the lighter ones. He likes a good pale ale, and spent most of his time nursing a couple of Gold Claws. I thought their Ragged Neck Rye peat-smoked rye porter was delicious, but then I love things that taste like campfires. I also very much enjoyed their Flight of the Bumblebee biere de miel, made with honey but not super sweet; you just get a hint of honey right at the end. A good sipping beer, or even a dessert beer, if you were so inclined. We lingered a while (and scored a free sticker for our corn hole set!), enjoying the tastes, hearing some recommendations for other places to go (we didn’t get to hit up the Sea Hagg Distillery, but we will next time!) and waiting for our next brewery to open for business. They don’t serve any food, but there is a decent looking bar next door, if you’re looking for sustenance.
Blue Lobster Brewing Company
What: Rotating four or so beers on tap, no proclivity for any particular style. Small pours for $1, plus bottles and growlers. The most up-to-date tap list is on their Facebook page.
Where: 845 Lafayette Road, Hampton, look for it tucked away into a strip mall. Open Thursday and Saturday, 2-6, Friday 2-7, and Sunday 12-4.
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.
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.
After leaving Earth Eagle, we skated our way a few blocks down and through the small but bustling (even on a blizzardy, icy night) downtown to find our second stop: Portsmouth Brewery. A mere 30 minutes of what was apparently freezing rain turned downtown Portsmouth into an ice rink with 30 MPH winds. So basically, you pointed yourself in the right direction, got a bit of a running start, and slid your way to wherever you were going with the wind (hopefully) at your back.
To be honest, I’m not sure what there is to say about Portsmouth Brewing that hasn’t already been said by wordsmiths more clever than I. The beer is reliably good, the food is reliably tasty, the crowd is reliably crowded, and atmosphere is reliably historical and full of exposed brick, and the bartenders are reliably proud of every drink they serve. This bar epitomizes the ever-fading working port of northern New England and yet embraces the changing times on the Seacoast. It remains a place we visit every time we find ourselves in Portsmouth, and for good reason: it’s a good (reliable?) place to see and be seen. Hipsters and the unemployed-and-over-educated mingle freely with the fishermen and boat builders, and no one seems burdened by what could have been. It’s just the place to go.
They serve vittles until 11 on weeknights and 12:30 on weekends, so it’s a handy place to head to when you’re downtown in early-late-night if you’re hungry. They have a good variety of brews, from a standard pale ale to a hearty stout to a more exotic sour beer. If you have any questions, the bartenders know their beers inside and out, so don’t hesitate to ask. Portsmouth also has a green reputation: much like Earth Eagle, the spent malt and grain from the brewing process is turned into livestock feed or dog treats, and, like most microbreweries the country over, they try to use local ingredients as much as possible. AND, this time around, we did get into a rousing discussion with the bartenders about the *worst* Olympic event ever. The end result: ping-pong should only be a sport if performed while ice dancing. Seems legit.
What: An all-around good and dependable local brewery that has everything any beer lover could ever ask for.
Where: Right in downtown Portsmouth. 56 Market Street, which pretty much anchors the whole city. Monday-Sunday, 11:30 pm-12:35 am.
Leave it to the folks from Wyoming to start a road trip in the snow. From Rockland to Brunswick, the roads were fine and the drivers were awful (based on my experience with drivers in the Mid-Coast region of Maine, it must never ever ever snow here). From Brunswick to Portsmouth, NH, the roads were bad and the drivers were marginally better. But by the time we got to New Hampshire, we needed a beer. So first stop: Earth Eagle Brewing Company, tucked into a cozy and very humble garage attached to a homebrew supply shop in a quiet alley on a quaint side road in Portsmouth. Not the most in-the-way place, but at least you know when you show up during a blizzard (it was $1 off while it snowed!) everyone there really really wants to be there.
The name refers to the noble (ahem) turkey, a favorite of Benjamin Franklin to become the symbol of the new America, and there is a giant and atmospherically creepy head of one muraled onto the wall.
Earth Eagle specializes in Belgian-style beers and also makes some pretty mean gruits, non-hopped beers (some like sour beers, pretty much my all time favorite) that use a creative list of other ingredients instead of hops to add myriad flavors. You will find nothing boring on their tap list, and Ben, our bartender, was happy to pour us some half pints to get us started. He also introduced us to co-owner Butch, who happened to be having a drink at the bar to while away the snow storm (that quickly turned into freezing rain that covered the city in an inch of skatable ice). Butch showed us around the shop, talked brew stories with us, and gave the names of a couple of breweries we missed while making our list. The more, the merrier!
This place is not for the timid beer drinker. You’d be lucky to find a plain pale ale here, and if you do, it’s probably spiked with herbs and spices more at home in a NYC gourmet kitchen than the back room of a brewery. Beers here have names like “Woodbooger” and “Sputnik” and descriptions like “Curry porter. Maybe with pumpkin, maybe peppers, maybe both.” These are beer geeks who live one hoppy (or hopless!) concoction at a time, brewers who love experimentation and anything but run-of-the-mill.
I started with a Witching Hour, a black saison–which I guess is a made up type of beer but should definitely be thing from now on–that helped warm me up against the damp outside, and then went for a Hanuman Tripel Gruit, which was absolutely delicious for those of us who enjoy things on the sour side. Jonmikel started slow with a stand-up Phoenix Brown and ended the night with a White Light, which, true to the nature of Earth Eagle, contains such gritty and very historical bits as wormwood and heather. They don’t fix any food there, but they will order you up some vittles from the good folks at the Black Trumpet or Popper’s Meats.
Earth Eagle Brewing
What: Gruits and Belgian styles ales. Flights, half pints, pints, growlers.
Where: 165 High Street, Portsmouth, in an alley next to the A&G Homebrew Supply. Enter on the side. Monday-Friday 4-9, Saturday 3-9, Sunday 1-4.
So, for my birthday/Valentine’s Day/President’s Day Weekend, we are on a mission: we want to visit EVERY visitable microbrewery in the state of New Hampshire. It looks like there are 20 or so scattered throughout the state. This isn’t counting the several breweries that we can’t go visit, places like Prodigal Brewing, which bottles its brews only and isn’t open to the public.
We have lists from Brew News, New Hampshire Magazine, and the tourism board of New Hampshire. None of them are comprehensive, and new breweries seem to pop up at least once a week. We visited a good handful of places we’d heard of only through other breweries (it’s good to know there is some camaraderie between the brewers and that they all promote one another!).
I’m also amazed at the difference in microbrewery culture between New Hampshire and states like Maine and Wyoming. Here in Maine or in my old home state of Wyoming, breweries pop up in pubs or at least large bars. They offer good grub in addition to good suds or they are, at least, willing to help you order food from a place next door. In New Hampshire, whether for local law compliance or personal preference or what (I don’t know), a lot of breweries tend to be situated in what look like overgrown storage units or warehouse garages. They offer tastes or half pours and, beyond that, beers-to-go in growlers, bottles, or kegs. The set-ups are always incredible and in open view of the tasting area, and when they are open, they are always packed with locals enjoying different flavors. So whatever the reason or whatever the business model, it seems to work for New Hampshire micros.
So the next 20 or so entries will chronicle our journey through this gorgeous state as we attempt to have a drink at each brewery and find of weirdest brews NH has to offer. Stay tuned!
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