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PORTLAND, MAINE
Simon Walker
This past Christmas at the Great Lost Bear, a pub in Portland, Maine, I discovered a number of things I'd been seeking: warmth, following the short, cold journey from my in-laws' home; solace, from the pressures of unrelenting communal discourse; comradery, among those whose presence was gratifyingly kindred; and pride, in a regional beer culture whose arms were wide enough, bold enough, to hold such a large a family of breweries so tightly to it's breast. In all, 15 Maine brewers were represented there, in addition to a handful of other dazzling New England beer-makers, by some of the most sought-after brews each had to offer. From, a quick glance at the beer menu it was apparent that my evening had suddenly been rendered far, far too short...

My first thought was to settle in to a pint of cask-conditioned Old Thumper - to allow the smooth, fruitcake warmth of a hand-pulled bitter to glisten earthily on my tongue, accumulating complexities as it gathered heat from the warm air, and from my hands. But to my delight I discovered, moments before declaring my choice to the server, the Sampler Tray! Despite my usual urge to give my full attention to one solitary brew at a time, allowing the fullness of the pint-glass every chance to impress its contents upon me over a half-hour or more of blissful contemplation, I realized instead that I was in a position to discover the immediate gratifications of up to five small tasters at once! Given the urgency of my desire to explore as many local beers as possible before returning to the Lone Star state, I quickly marked the menu with my choices: Seadog Old East India IPA, Maine Coast Oatmeal Stout, and three seasonals: Massachusetts Bay Harpoon Winter Warmer, Casco Bay Old Port Winter Ale, and (with a child-like, quivering stroke of the pen) cask-conditioned Geary’s Hampshire Special Ale.

Upon the arrival of my sampler tray, I adjusted my thoughts one more time to the overwhelming pleasure of the evening—my last in Maine for a while—and realized that my role there that night should not be that of the critic; to tiresomely probe the character of each brew and then to dissect them according to my expectations of style. Instead, I would allow each ale the privilege and distinction of being just ale for an evening: to be considered as a whole, mouthful by mouthful, the way I once considered beer before it’s flavors had been broken down by time and experience into its elements.

Resolute and incredibly relaxed, I absorbed and indulged in the easy smiles of the wait-staff and the jagged, collective hum of cheerful voices over throbbing music and clinking draughts. And as I raised the first trinket of ale to my lips, I quietly took account of the culture of beer as I had found it in Maine.
In stilled amazement and admiration it occurred to me that even the smallest, most obscure all-night convenience store in Portland held up to five or six local beer-selections, and any number of other regional brews such as Vermont’s Magic Hat or New Hampshire’s Smuttynose; at a gas station in Texas I am lucky if I find a six-pack of Sam Adams or Fat Tire. In Maine, I had yet to discover a restaurant of any kind that didn’t carry, at the very least, Shipyard Export Ale and/or Geary’s Pale Ale, and often their beer selections were more diverse than their wine lists; in Texas, local brewers seem only to supply beer to those restaurants that culturally and stereotypically seem to warrant their inclusion: barbeque joints, pub-style restaurants, gritty, youth-oriented music venues.

There are breweries in Austin, such as LiveOak and Real Ale Brewing Co., that carry outstanding products that are not only well-made, but should incur a huge, positive level of support from the community. However they go largely unnoticed by the average consumer – even the average beer consumer. I have been to restaurant after restaurant in Austin and found, next to a brimming, polished wine-list, the short but typical account of America’s biggest beer sellers: Bud, Bud Light, Miller Lite, Amstel Lite, occasionally Sam Adams, Fat Tire or Shiner, but more likely Heineken or Guinness. How is it that a classy, stylish restaurant in a town with a seemingly growing awareness of the pleasures of craft-beer can offer tantalizing wines, smooth Martinis, zesty margaritas, colorful and exotic liquors, fruity teas, rare mineral waters and "gourmet" sodas, yet offer only the kind of insipid fizzy lager I can buy in bulk at the gas station around the corner for a handful of change? I was at a loss, and suddenly uncharacteristically eager to engage a neighbor in this internal conflict when I began to notice that my raw, wind-bitten toes felt as if they were being gently dunked in warm chocolate - the beer was obviously starting to have its way with me.

I was down to my last two topes, and as I reached for my "shot" of Casco Bay Winter Ale I was determined instead to focus on the positive, to soak up the last of those wintry Maine moments in fond, personal reflection and level affection. My palate felt a little spent, but even so the warming play of deep malt and decisive hops with which I had become familiar over the past week pronounced itself still in that soothing, kegged version of Casco Bay‘s seasonal.

And what a season it had been! Bold afternoons on the open town, hands gloved and singularly sweaty. A brief walk side-by-side with the approaching tide, daring the salty gale to penetrate this big old jacket. The touristy glee of a lunch taken at the Miss Portland Diner or Harmon’s, and the savoring of late-afternoon clam-cakes around a busy kitchen table. Icy evenings spent cozied-up among similarly well-fed friends and relatives, followed hours later by the reliably lung-hardening chill of morning; an intrusive, biting dawn that became somehow forgivable in the new light of a magical, unexpected whisper of fresh snow.

To a sun-dried Texan like myself, Portland was a marvelous, unearthly wonderland, and all the more so for its well-rooted and sophisticated culture of beer. One only had to take a walk amongst the much-trod downtown streets, to regard the gulls and pipers and the numerous old buildings on which they crowded, ascendant in their ownership, in order to imagine a time when high-masted schooners approached from all directions, on all days, bearing the grains and promise of beer. Surely such a place never succumbed to the ominous trend of watered-down lager that assaulted America‘s largest cities in the early part of the twentieth century? Surely Portland‘s heritage of beer was as old and enduring as the cobbles running through its alleys and streets?

In fact Geary’s, Portland’s oldest existing brewery, was created in 1986 - only seven years before Austin’s first brewpub, the now defunct Waterloo Brewing Company, opened its doors. And in time they created Hampshire Special Ale—for which I now reached—a classic unto itself even in the bottle. But cask-conditioned? There are few experiences more fundamentally beerish than the enjoyment of a cask-conditioned brew, especially when it’s one as dense and sustaining as the strong ale I now held, taken during the core of winter.

I supped my last finger of ale grudgingly, eventually succumbing to the realization that the moments we wish could last forever would only become lifeless and gray if never afforded an end. So with the affectation of perfecting the memory of that night for later recollection, I took my last swig and decided with a flourish of optimism that perhaps Austin wasn’t so far behind Portland after all. And as I left the Great Lost Bear—my first real steps toward home—I removed my gloves and, with the confidence of a man content with ale, reveled one last time in the refrigerator chill of night.
© Simon Walker 2003

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