All it takes is four basic ingredients. Barley, hops, water and yeast. This blend of simple fixings work together to create a beverage responsible for fiber, vitamin B, and nothing but a good time. If you scratch below the surface of beer, you just might enter the world of craft brewing.
Yes, we’ve heard them all before. Beer snobs, hipsters; the trend has gained national attention since the craft beer industry has risen. Consumers are quick to judge, tending to stay away from craft beer because they are difficult to binge on a college students budget, or with the higher alcohol percentage, binge in general. And yes, it sure is a buzz-kill when the man across the bar exclaims his beer is “super sessionable” or “has an interesting bouquet.” Take a step back though, what really defines craft beer?
To make a long story short, a traditional beer brewed by a small brewery. For the long definition, well, grab a beer and continue on.
The history of craft brewing began in the United States in the late-1970s. As time progressed, traditional styles of beer brought over by immigrants were slowly disappearing. Once American brewers had their grips on their own recipes, they only stocked the shelves with much of what we see today: low-calorie light lagers. With less than 50 breweries nationwide and shrinking, America’s brewing landscape was drying up. At the same time, homebrewing culture was on the rise. Homebrewing became so popular because the only way consumers were able to re-master traditional beer was if they made it themselves. It was these grassroots effort that paved the way for future craft beer generations.
Cultivating over the years, homebrewers turned to small breweries, pushing the ‘80s to what we know now as the birth of micro-brewing. A micro-brewery is a small, independent brewery with a production cap of 15,000 barrels of beer annually. To compare, Anheuser-Busch companies produce over 100 million barrels of beer each year. With just the right marketing and demand, the ‘90s became a microbrewing sensation.
This trend was all about throwing caution to the wind. Over the years, these brewers have established consistency, high quality and innovation - swelling not only the bellies of the consumers but the minds of the brewers. The passion called for the most diverse thinkers.
People want beer that’s creative, imaginative, and local. Luckily for consumers, these characteristics are becoming more and more prominent. Wild, foraged ingredients are beginning to find their way into brew houses all throughout New England, creating their mark on local communities.
Leading the charge in foraged beer is Portsmouth’s Earth Eagle Brewings. Since November of 2012, co-founders and owners Alex McDonald and George “Butch” Heilshorn have been producing beer with locally foraged ingredients in a process referred to as gruit, the practice of bittering and flavoring the beer with herbs. You know what they say, fortune favors the bold.
This form of brewing takes an amount of precaution not normally taken in the more traditional forms of brewing. It is crucial that plant identification is accurate in order to harvest and incorporate an ingredient that is in fact edible. Without proper knowledge, or a forager, not only the brewer, but the company itself, is taking a risk. Additionally, it is important to know what time of the season to harvest and how to extract as much of the flavors as possible. According to Heilshorn, this is called “gettin’ the goodie.”
Earth Eagle Brewings is a major advocate of the farm-to-table movement, keeping the money in the community is a top priority.
“While our grain mostly comes from the usual suspects from all over North America and Europe, it’s our local water, flora and sometimes local yeasts that form that expression,” said Heilshorn.
It’s these efforts that make craft beer so unique, and it doesn’t stop there. Consumers are becoming increasingly mindful of where their food comes from. The same curiosity applies to where their beer comes from. In an effort to display their styles and tradition, breweries like Throwback in North Hampton and Liars Bench in Portsmouth take pride in and advantage of their geographical location.
Working with farmers and maltsters (steeped grain dealers), Throwback Brewery has teamed up with those involved with local sourcing, such as Valley Malt in Hadley, MA and Brookford Farms in Canterbury, NH. Taking it a step further, Throwback Brewery has their very own hop yard located on Hobbs Farm, an 1860s sheep farm restored for their growing number of animals and crops.
Liars Bench in Portsmouth is involved in a similar practice. Liars Bench first began as an idea between two UNH graduates, Dane and Dagan, but has transpired into a nano-brewery that brews on sight.
“We use mostly malted barley. We take all the spent grain and give it to a farmer,” Dane explained. “He feeds it to his cattle, and then feeds us his cattle. It’s a really nice circular motion of feeding each other.”
In a constant effort to give back to the community, Liar’s Bench recycles nearly all of their unusable grain.
All things considered, the big question that still remains unanswered is, why should we care?
For starters, it’s kept local. Unless you’re on an out-of-town weekend bender, if you buy local, the money stays close to home. You’re able to contribute to something built with passion. Supporting small businesses is not only good for you in that you get high quality beer, but you’re able to develop connections and contribution to the people within the community.
There’s more diversity. With hundreds of craft breweries in New England alone, each one makes their beer in its own unique way. Some specialize in higher ABV’s, or alcohol by volume, while some strive for better tasting beer for the fruity fans or the dark, chocolaty consumers. Adding to this, a sizeable New England perk allows for breweries to even specialize in what styles to drink during different seasons. Whether you’re down for a crisp IPA on a hot summer’s day, or a Belgian-style dark ale to fight off the winter chill, craft brewers know exactly how to satisfy your desires and navigate what’s relevant on the shelves.
It’s innovative. What drives consumers to buy certain beer is not only the exotic nature of ingredients, but the surprise of the tap rotation. What’s next? Corporate breweries bring little surprise to the table. Yes, domestic beer is consistent and tasteful, but craft breweries apply creative knowledge and skill with the risk of creating a bad batch and starting over. And one more simple bonus, you get to meet the brewers.
Its understandable that a large part of society drinks to have a good time and get a proper buzz rolling. An even larger part of this society is unfamiliar with the process of brewing, and simply don’t care. That’s okay. Not all craft beer is good, and not all domestic beer is bad. But let’s be honest, craft beer logos are just way cooler.