Through the machinations of earning a living, I find myself in the great state of New Hampshire this week. Although I had no time to ski, snowshoe or participate in any of the other outstanding outdoor activities the Granite State has to offer (driving in snow does not count, I’m from Chicago), I did get to spend evenings out in the Portsmouth area. Portsmouth, you say? Quaint seaside village, summer favorite of New Englanders and home of the Rusty Hammer, Portsmouth? Lemme tell you, Ronnie James Dio was born here and that gets Portsmouth a helluva nod over most towns up here. That and the abundance of beer.
While I did get to check out a few of the local brewers on my free nights, the one that I had the most intimate look in on was Red Hook Brewery. Founded in Seattle in 1981, this sister brewery was started in 1996 to satisfy the demand Red Hook had developed nationwide. Most semi-sophisticated sudsers have heard of Red Hook ESB or Big Ballard IPA, as these were the flagship brands responsible for the brewer’s popularity. Since then, their offerings have grown to over 12 regularly offered beers and at least 5, pub-only special recipes.
Lucky me, I was with a crowd who liked beer and wanted to try everything. Sure, I could have ordered a flight of everything on tap, but then you have umpteen shots of beer in front of you and can put a serious dent in your, ahem, “capacity” before you can enjoy a full pint. Our gang follows the age-honored tradition of “sharesies”- you get this one, I’ll get that one and we’ll all get a try of what we are really interested in tasting. You have to be careful of the company you keep for this, but I know where most of these people have been. Well, most of the time anyway.
First up for me was the Wee-Heavy Scotch Ale. As loyal Booze-Hounders know, I have a special affinity to this particular style, known for its deep caramel color, sweetness, full body and high alcohol content. Red Hook’s delivered all of these with a surprisingly intense smokiness that really caught me off guard. After a few sips, I actually began CRAVING the smoke flavor, reminding me of some characteristics of a nice, neat glass of Ardbeg. The maturity of my chosen drinking buddies then came to the forefront as they would only refer to me as “Sean”, as in Connery, and insist I talk in the cadence of the great Scottish actor. I obliged, addressing them as Trebeck and hurling appropriate insults their way. Maybe it goes without saying, but as often ensues when my colleagues and I enter an establishment, we gain instant notoriety as “the fun group”.
Next up was the brewery tour. As I’ve stated before and will do so again, you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ‘em all. I’ve been on more than I can count, so this was merely a diversion before we got back to dinner and more beer. We had a cane-toting, Wavy Gravy –type hippie guide us through the process and yell “HEY!! THIS IS IMPORTANT!” when we did not seem to be appreciating the point he was making. That was kind of fun. He turned out to be a very well-spoken and brew savvy guy once I got to corner him afterward and it made me appreciate the man’s tour showmanship. We tried the Blond Golden Ale (boring), Winter Hook Ale (feh) and Longhammer IPA (popular but only decent, they make better). There was something with a pronounced honey taste that I hated and have since forgotten the name. I hope someone will warn me before I get close to that one again.
At dinner, I sampled the Treblehook Barley Wine and must say it was one of the most balanced I have ever come across. Hoppy, yet not overwhelming in its bitterness, with caramel and chocolate overtones. Truly a sipper if there ever was one. I avoided the Mudslinger as I am not a Nut Brown Ale guy, but was assured by others it was in the same category as someone like Peak Breweries….so take that for whatever it means; I still don’t like it, no matter who’s brewing.
I had to stop somewhere (really, did I?) and it was with the Big Ballard Imperial IPA, the first brew I experienced with Red Hook. It has been probably a decade since I have had it on draught due to the immense competition for tap space that has developed since its inception and baby, it was as good as ever. A high hop nose and flavor that comes with a great Imperial was still there, followed by a smooth malt finish. And it was at this tap I remained until it was time to re-board our reliable local transport.
Wrapping it up: if you find yourself in Portsmouth, get thee to Red Hook. Skip the tour and spend your time downstairs trying everything you can, I know you’ll find something you won’t forget. Summer time brings an immense Beer Garden and the food is pretty good. And don’t mention Dio, it seems to make the locals roll their eyes…..or maybe that’s because I was singing “I’m The Last In Line!!!” in full RJD voice while I waited for a urinal. Hmmm.