I’ve had a 10-year love affair with Portsmouth, New Hampshire. In that decade, the quaint harbor city has continually revealed herself to me in new ways. At first I pegged her as an oceanside tourist city, where people don’t live, they simply visit. Over dozens of visits, however, the tourist façade crumbled, unveiling a dynamic region where people set down roots and do the important work of those enmeshed in a local community.
About a year ago, I started hearing about a burgeoning craft beer scene in the Portsmouth area. Just as I had once misjudged the city as a mere bastion of tourists, I began to wonder if I had been missing out on a vibrant microbrew scene. The long-established Red Hook Brewing, Smuttynose Brewing and Portsmouth Brewery were the only places that came to mind when I thought of the Granite State’s coastal breweries.
In need of another shift in perception, I did some research, mapped out a day trip, and headed down I-95 to discover the heart of craft brewing in the Portsmouth area.
Deciding on a north-to-south itinerary, Stoneface Brewing Company was my first destination.
Stoneface is located in Newington, six miles outside of Portsmouth. The blue commercial building housing the microbrewery bears a striking resemblance to Portland’s One Industrial Way.
After parking in the back, I head into the brewery with Tom and Bob, my fellow day-trippers. The Stoneface tasting room has an inviting vibe of pine board walls, faux steel girders running over the top, and windows into the brewery.
The first beer I try is their IPA. It’s full-bodied, with a great hop-malt balance. I like this beer. A lot. I try their double IPA, Mozaccalypse, named after the Mosaic and Azacca hops used in the brewing process. The beer’s delicious; passion fruit and citrus flavors abound. If American ales are your bag, Stoneface has you covered.
436 Shattuck Way #6, Newington, NH | www.stonefacebrewing.com
Back in the truck, we head to Earth Eagle Brewings, the one brewery located in Portsmouth proper. After parking in the garage, we spot the yellow and orange frontage of the brewery and pub. Inside, Earth Eagle has the feel of a San Diego taco bar.
Known for their experimental beers, Earth Eagle’s tap list shows their range. The flight includes a Belgian table beer, a hop-forward brown ale, a gruit (more later), a beer made with mugwort, chicweed and catnip, and finally, two nicely hopped IPAs.
Gruits are one of the oldest styles of beer, typically made without the use of hops. Before the hop plant was available worldwide, herb mixtures were used to bitter beer. On this day, Earth Eagle is pouring Drakonia, an amber gruit made with mandrake, mugwort, and fennel seed. I like this beer much more than I expect. It’s a must-try for any craft beer enthusiast.
165 High St, Portsmouth, NH | eartheaglebrewings.com
Underneath the merciful spring sun we soldier on, making the 10-mile drive south to Throwback Brewery. The North Hampton microbrewery is housed in a tan industrial building. On this day the garage door is open, lawn chairs are arranged in a circle on the pavement, and patrons with tasting glasses and dreamy smiles are locked in mid-merriment. I want in.
Inside the industrial bay, we get to ordering. The two big standouts at Throwback are the Beet Wit and the Love Me Long Time Pilsner. Beet Wit is a low alcohol witbier made with beets. It pours a magnificent soft purple, and the light flavor reminds me of a summer sky. Love Me Long Time is a just-about-perfect craft-brewed pilsner: impeccable clarity, notes of breads and graham crackers, clean finish.
121 Lafayette Rd, North Hampton, NH | throwbackbrewery.com
Though I could sit all day in that circle of lawn chairs, one last brewery is calling – an old guard brewhouse that just received a facelift. I’m talking about Smuttynose Brewing and its new facility in Hampton. When we pull into the parking lot, we’re greeted by the palatial red brewery shining like a beacon of zymurgy.
Eschewing the tour, we stand in the tasting room among the colossal brew tanks and sip from our four free samples. Tasting room attendants mainly pour longtime Smuttynose American-style staples, but there are a few surprises on draft. The most notable is a farmhouse ale called Hayseed.
Farmhouse ales demand a delicate touch – too much funk makes the beer taste like a barnyard; too little makes it taste like nothing. Hayseed walks a fine line, and the result is a beer with a pleasant touch of barnyard funk and bright notes of lemons.
The skyline of Portsmouth fades in the rearview mirror as we drive over the Piscataqua River Bridge back into Maine. Before it disappears, Tom, Bob, and I agree that it won’t be long before we spend another day traipsing around New Hampshire’s seacoast imbibing delicious craft beer.
105 Towle Farm Rd, Hampton, NH | smuttynose.com