The beer shelves are getting fuller, and the list of possible beer choices is getting longer. Every time I go into a store that has even a moderate selection of craft beer, I encounter brews I haven’t tried yet. It’s easy to be distracted by the newest breweries – the small batch, you-might-not-ever-get-to-try-it-again beers. But picking something new always comes with the risk that it might not live up to expectations. Lately, I have been finding comfort in putting my faith in experienced, larger breweries, some of whom have hundreds, if not thousands of brew days logged.
Let me assure you that the age of a brewery is not always directly correlated with its quality. There are both new breweries that have produced stunning beers since opening day, and older breweries who have become perhaps a bit complacent and have let their quality slide. In Maine in particular, however, we are blessed with a glut of breweries making excellent beer. But there remains a bit of a cultural divide between the newest or most sought-after breweries and those that have already proven themselves with a steady foundation.
Take Atlantic Brewing Co., for example. I first encountered its beer on a work-related trip to Bar Harbor before I even lived in the state. Coal Porter, what I would consider to be one of Maine’s best dark beers, has been brewed every year since 1993. When I drink a Coal Porter now, I’m reminded that it tastes exactly as it did all those years ago – perfectly rich, bitter chocolatey and satisfying. It is both familiar and refreshing, and I can count on it being consistent from bottle to bottle and even from year to year.
Oxbow Brewing Co. began in Newcastle and has spent its energy specializing in farmhouse-style ales. It has become an exemplary brewer of complex, interesting beers, some even brewed with wild yeasts. With Oxbow, it is less about having the same beer again and again and more about having faith that drinking its creations will be a pleasurable experience. There’s skill in being able to identify flavors in beers and blend or barrel-age them to tune them to the desired taste – and Oxbow certainly has it in spades. It’s recently announced that it will be updating the packaging on its Farmhouse Pale Ale. Beginning in December, Farmhouse Pale Ale will be sold into four-packs of 330-milileter bottles (instead of the larger-format bottles) and will be distributed more widely both in and outside of the state.
While breweries like Oxbow are able to consistently create difficult and unique beer styles, Rising Tide Brewing Co. seems to simply be the master of any style it puts its mind to. The brewers at Rising Tide can handle its tart and wonderful gose, Pisces, with the same aptitude as its boozy, barrel-aged Russian imperial stout, Nikita. As a bonus, the breadth of beer styles that Rising Tide offers means that there’s something there for everyone – from the lager fan to the IPA nut to the sour geek.
Sebago Brewing Co. has also kept an eye on consistency but added a level of approachability at the same time. The styles that Sebago brews are not necessarily cutting-edge, but they don’t need to be. The brewery’s three rotating seasonal beers, Slick Nick (winter), Simmer Down (summer) and Bonfire (fall), never disappoint and make great beers to drink with friends or to keep stocked in your fridge to enjoy after a long day’s work. And when Sebago branches out into trending styles, it does it thoughtfully and with enthusiasm. The Hop Swap series of beer and Whistle Punk Double IPA could easily stand up to beers produced by the younger – and sometimes more fickle – breweries.
Shopping for beer can be overwhelming, even to veteran craft beer fans. These breweries can hopefully help to assure you that you are making a delicious choice.
Postscript: As a follow-up to my column a few weeks ago, I am thrilled to share the news that Tom Bull, owner/brewer of Dirigo Brewing Co., was matched with a heart and received a heart transplant a few days after Thanksgiving. Tom continues to recover at Tufts Medical Center in Boston. Thanks to all who have supported Tom and his family through fundraising and other efforts.