Floridian Matt A. Investigates the Maine Beer Scene in Winter
August 11, 2005
Written by matta
This journal entry, the chronicle of my experience at the 2005 Shipyard Polar Beer Tour, is long overdue.
As the Tampa Bay area sales representative, I was invited to participate in the adventure that Shipyard Brewing Co. calls “The Polar Beer Tour.” Each year, Shipyard calls upon their sole Florida brewery representative, Ron Raike, to amass a small army of the year’s most loyal Ship-Heads for a swigging spree in Portland, Maine. I perceive the tour to be a four-day expedition to see how one’s liver and brain can function after a half-dozen Maine brewery tours, several gallons of seafood chowder and countless beverages that have been masterfully brewed. Conversely, I believe that Shipyard’s intention is more like thanks-for-being-such-fantastic-ambassadors-for-our-wonderful-brewery. However one construes the Polar Beer Tour, it is apparent that Shipyard’s tasty beers run rampant throughout Maine and are certainly the brewery of choice.
Perhaps to my employer’s dismay, I am a beer enthusiast before I am a salesman, but perhaps that is the secret to success. I have been a fan of Shipyard’s beers for several years but always classified them as a commercial friendly craft beer: beer that appeals to a mass market, yet shows all traits of the skill and care of the brewer. The Polar Beer Tour did, however, transform my perception of not only the beers but also the essence of the brewery itself.
A brief history of Shipyard Brewing Co.
Shipyard Brewing Co. was founded in 1994 by Fred Forsley, an entrepreneur and admirer of craft beer. Forsley was the working capital behind the brewery but he needed a skilled brewer to craft his beers. He found esteemed brewer Alan Pugsley, who was trained by the legendary English master brewer and senior of the craft beer movement, Peter Austin. Pugsley was Austin’s apprentice at the Ringwood Brewery in Hampshire, England, where he gained knowledge about brewing traditional English-style ales. Collectively, Austin and Pugsley have set up more than 120 breweries in 17 countries. The newly assembled Shipyard team built the brewery using the Peter Austin Brewing System and closely guarded strain of Ringwood yeast, which made brewing in the same fashion Pugsley was accustomed to in England possible. One principal aspect of the Peter Austin Brewing System is that it yields a "grain to glass" production cycle of 8/10 days. All Pugsley needed was the advent of innovative yet commercially appealing beer recipes. Eleven years later, time has told its tale, placing Shipyard within the top 25 most flourishing breweries in the United States today.
Shipyard’s beer qualities were appealing to consumers and the market was reciprocal. Under Pugsley’s care, Shipyard is currently producing 13 varieties of award -winning English style and seasonal ales. Today, Shipyard is Maine’s largest brewery and the second-largest brewery in New England, brewing nearly 51,000 barrels a year (one barrel equals 36 gallons). Harpoon Brewery of Boston, Mass., is the largest in the region, currently brewing roughly 96,000 barrels a year.
Highlights of the Polar Beer Tour
Before sunup on Friday, Feb. 25, a select commando team of one dozen skilled, well-hydrated, iron-livered Shipyard beer enthusiasts departed from Orlando International Airport en route to Portland. Our future was uncertain, but we were determined to meet the maker! Departing from Florida’s already humid late-February 70-degree weather and arriving in the frozen white splendor of Portland 4 hours later was a blast. Air travel is amazing that way!
Walking through the terminal and finding brewpubs in the airport, I immediately recognized that the state’s populace loves fresh craft beer. At Portland’s Jetport, I found not one, but two Shipyard brewpubs, but 10:45 on a Friday morning was still a little early for a beer.
Shipyard told our group that we would be provided a driver for our weekend excursion, leaving me under the impression that we would be escorted in a Ford Econoline van. To my surprise, our driver, Jay-Jay, sported a slick Shipyard party bus that was tactfully plastered with Shipyard and Seadog logos. Three cases of cold, snow-covered beer rested peacefully inside.
By 11:15 a.m. I was definitely feeling a bit thirsty. It was time for my first beer of the tour: a bottle of Shipyard IPA (India Pale Ale). Shipyard takes a slightly different approach to their IPA. They brew with only a single strain of hops, Fuggles, an English hop that is known for its spicy/woodsy/pine-like bitterness. Shipyard’s Fuggles IPA is relatively tame by most beer geeks’ standards, and I lightheartedly refer to it as a beginner’s IPA. By today’s IPA standards it is somewhat mild, but I find that IPAs with a high IBU (Initial Bittering Unit) count dry out my mouth and make me crave water. The Fuggles IPA works as one of my all-time favorite session IPAs, and I knowingly consumed my weight in IPA during the long weekend.
Our first major exploration of the tour was to our mother ship, the Shipyard Brewery, located in the Old Port district of Portland. The building is a massive, beautifully transformed old-world foundry, which rests on the edge of the historic waterfront. The brewery tour, conducted by brewhouse manager Jason Silevinac, was terrific and provided great detail about the brewery and its history. I was surprised to find the old-style handcrafted brick kettles and learn that all of the beers brewed with Ringwood yeast are fermented in open-top fermenters. The yeast divides so quickly that it builds a mammoth protective layer of dense froth atop the young fermenting brew, allowing no outside contaminates a chance for infection.
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The open fermentation system (using top-fermenting Ringwood yeast)
Another award-winning moment for me was walking into a large room that housed the testing labs and an enormous, well-insulated walk-in cooler. As soon as we set foot into that room, my nose was blasted with the wonderful scent of freshly dried hops. I knew that the cooler must house the brewery’s hop supply, and it did! Massive burlap bundles of Fuggles, Cascade, Tettnanger, Willamette and Challenger hops were stacked from floor to ceiling, surrounding our tour group with the most intoxicating aroma of raw spicy hops I could possibility imagine.
The tour ended with a tasting session with brew master Pugsley and a tour through Shipyard’s memorabilia room, which houses bottles for all the contracted beers that Shipyard has brewed over the years. I was astonished to find that Shipyard still contract brews and bottles for notable New England breweries such as Gritty McDuff’s, Sea Dog Brewing Co., Nutfield Brewing Co., Belfast Bay Brewing Co., and several others.
The following day arrived in a hurry. Our posse, scheduled to be picked up in front of our hotel at 9 a.m., was heavy-eyed and lethargic from the late-night pub hopping that ensued just hours earlier. Those adventures had led us around Old Port to a few local hotspots such as Gritty McDuff’s Brewpub, where all the native college spring breakers were kicking off their vacations. I was happy to find their Black Fly Stout and seasonal Scottish ale on the hand pull cask. Not to go unmentioned are the great-looking native Maine women that were there!
In any case, our early morning outing was to the celebrated Allagash Brewing Co., an inconspicuous manufactured steel and aluminum building hidden within a commercial industrial park. I never would have predicted such astonishingly elegant beers to be crafted in such an uninteresting building.
Our group was greeted at the door by assistant brewer Dee Dee Germain. The brewery’s prized cask collection, which houses everything from experimental fruit beers aged in oak to the famous oaked offerings of Curieux and Odyssey, sits within 10 feet of the brewery’s entrance. Germain gave us the guided tour of the small facility wherein I was amazed to find that as well-distributed as Allagash is throughout the United States, their 750 ml bottles are filled, corked and caged one at a time in what Germain jokingly called “the meditation zone.” Those bottles are then run through an erratic vintage World War II-era labeler and then hand boxed, sealed and stored for shipment.
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The mysterious casks at Allagash Brewing Co.
After the tour ended Germain gladly set up shop for a tasting session. By 10:30 a.m. we had opened bottles of Allagash’s Triple, Double, White, Four, but I, personally, was saving my morning call of sobriety for something rare. Remember, in late February, these beers were not abundantly available. When I saw Germain pull out the bottles of Curieux and Allagash Odyssey, which did not even have a label at the time, I knew it was time for my shameless breakfast of champions: beer!
To Be Continued…
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Before sunup on Friday, Feb. 25, a select commando team of one dozen skilled, well-hydrated, iron-livered Shipyard beer enthusiasts departed from Orlando en route to Portland. Our future was uncertain, but we were determined to meet the maker!
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