There’s an old joke that gets passed around back home, and probably around the world, in which the U.S. is the target. It goes:
“What do American beer and sex in a canoe have in common?”
“They’re both fuckin’ close to water!”
Geddit? I think the first time I heard it, I probably laughed, because until that point in my life, all the experience I’d had with American brews was what could be found in your average Australian bottle shop was Budweiser and Michelob Ultra, the latter being somehow less flavorful than breathing air.
But in this long-awaited and uneducated (but not unsolicited!) critical analysis, I’m here to tell you: that joke is full of shit. American beer rules.
By the way, the joke above really refers to America’s big mass-produced beers: Bud Light, Coors Light and Miller Lite. They’re all pale, inoffensive lagers that you don’t really need any palate to drink.
For the record: I’m no beer snob, not by any means. I think almost every beer has its place in the rotation. Back home, everyone gives a lot of shit to Victoria Bitter, most commonly referred to as VB (or Vomit Bombs, or the Very Best, depending on who you ask.)
Sometimes a green can of VB was exactly what I felt like, particularly if it was going to be a long and boozy one with my old roommate Luke. At other times, if it was hot outside and we were barbecuing, I’d lean towards a cold XXXX Bitter, another mass-produced one from my home state of Queensland.
But my go-to bar on a weeknight off work was Archive, where I’d inevitably have eight pints of Stone and Wood or White Rabbit Dark Ale, and have a silent chuckle every time someone came in looking for a Carlton Draught.
Archive calls itself a “beer boutique” and is one of the flagbearers for the craft beer movement in Brisbane. I think it’s probably the best indicator of how the beer scene is evolving back home: if a craft brew joint can gain not only a foothold, but a huge clientele, in a regional beer stronghold like Queensland, then tastes are changing. The people who tell the aforementioned joke evidently aren’t aware that the same change has been taking over the U.S. for years, too.
I was chatting last week with a new friend who’d just moved to Maine from Washington state via Oregon. Being from the Pacific Northwest, a veritable hotbed of fantastic beer, she asked me whether there were any good breweries in Vacationland, and was surprised when I answered both in the affirmative and very enthusiastically.
I can’t say I blame her: I was equally surprised when I moved here to discover such a booming beer scene tucked away in the northeast of the country. It was probably a little ignorant of me to assume that, since the population here is the oldest in the country, they’d be quite set in their ways with regards to big beers. I was totally wrong.
When I arrived here, there were a couple of bigger Maine breweries that I was vaguely familiar with, Shipyard and Sea Dog, through name recognition more than anything. For the first couple of months I stuck to what I knew when I was shopping for brews at the supermarket, or perched at the bar at Applebee’s, which carries a few more “crafty” taps but nothing that isn’t fairly widely distributed.
But what was sneaking under my nose was the fact that, every Friday night, I was drinking some of the best homegrown stuff that Maine has to offer without even thinking twice about it.
My favorite spot, the Liberal Cup, brews all its own beers out the back. That’s no secret – you can see the brewery through big glass windows. But I realized I’d been taking it for granted when, on my first weekend trip to Boston in January, I saddled up to a bar and my first thought was, “I want an Alewife.” Not likely, pal.
The Cup does everything from a light lager called Bug (sounds like Bud, right…?) to red and brown ales, IPAs, oatmeal and Irish-style stouts, porters and more. Seriously, check out that link to the menu. It’s unreal. And that’s just a mile walk (stumble) from my house. The only heartbreaker is that you can’t buy them to take away – it’s draft only.
I think the turning point that sparked my desire to explore the local scene in more depth came one weeknight after work, when I saw a coworker and another person I follow both post photos on Instagram from a beer launch night somewhere around here, and it happened to be for the same company whose can of extra pale ale I was drinking at that very moment.
I was intrigued, Googled “Baxter Brewing,” and discovered it was just a 45-minute drive away in Lewiston. That weekend, Bonnie and I hit the road and headed down there for a tour, a couple of pints and a big fat soft pretzel, and I was sold. I had a new favorite beermaker. I’m partial to the Pamola Xtra Pale, but they also make a steam beer called Tarnation, a popular IPA called Stowaway, and obviously a few seasonals.
After my trip to Baxter, I had delusions of grandeur about how I’d check out a brewery every other weekend and canvas the whole state eventually, but life kinda gets in the way, you know? I went rural to Oak Pond, which was also good, and struck out trying to visit Sea Dog, but summer has kept me too busy to work another one in. I hope during the fall I can pick up where I left off.
In any case, there are dozens of breweries around, within a couple of hours’ drive, and that’s not to mention a ton that are in the Portland area. I’ve managed to sample the wares from many of them at a handful of events this summer, including the Baxter-sponsored Great Falls Brewfest and a block party called Noshbow at a Portland bar/restaurant. I know a lot of these places don’t have huge distribution either, I want to take my chances trying them all now before I one day end up leaving Maine.
Seasonal brews are pretty big business here – more so than at home I would say, given we don’t really have the distinct change of seasons – for both the craft brewers and the big guns. Much like Christmas decorations and Easter eggs, the early arrival of the next season’s seasonal beers in grocery stores and bars earns its fair share of joking derision.
I remember seeing Samuel Adams’ summer selection at Shaw’s one freezing day in April and thinking, “you guys have to be kidding, right?” And even though we’ve still got a couple of weeks of summer left, the fall brews are already hitting taps and shelves.
Incoming cooler weather means the seasonal beers change from sessionable, citrusy and wheaty to pumpkin beers, which I’m CONFIDENT has just made all my Australian readers gag. It doesn’t taste like mum’s Sunday roast, fear not. Think cinnamon-y, dessert-y pumpkin pie from the Thanksgiving table. Seemingly every brewer and his dog makes a pumpkin or an Oktoberfest-type beer.
Like I said, I’m absolutely no expert on flavor profiles or the intricacies of hops or malts or whatever. My palate changes depending on the weather, how long or shitty a week I’ve had, or how much change is left in my wallet.
But what I do know is that while I’m in Maine, I only want to drink local. There’s so much incredible beer here that I might not be able to get elsewhere in the country, so I’d be mad not to take advantage of the Baxter and the Maine Beer Company and Atlantic Brewing Company and…the list goes on.
When I was in California for the Fourth of July weekend, we went to the grocery store to grab beer for the weekend. The selection was enormous, but that wasn’t the only contributing factor to me not having any idea what I wanted to get. It’s been so long since I bought a six-pack of anything not regional to Maine – and I say this not as a snob – that that’s all I wanted.
But there was a wide range of west-coast craft stuff in that refrigerator case. Looks like I’m going to have my work cut out for me wherever I end up next…