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
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
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...
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
Gearys Hampshire Special Ale.
Upon the arrival of my sampler tray, I adjusted my thoughts one more
time to the overwhelming pleasure of the eveningmy last in Maine
for a whileand 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 its 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 Vermonts Magic Hat or New Hampshires 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 didnt carry, at the very least, Shipyard Export Ale and/or
Gearys 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
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 Americas 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 Bays 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 Harmons, 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
Americas largest cities in the early part of the twentieth century?
Surely Portlands heritage of beer was as old and enduring as the
cobbles running through its alleys and streets?
In fact Gearys, Portlands oldest existing brewery, was created
in 1986 - only seven years before Austins first brewpub, the now
defunct Waterloo Brewing Company, opened its doors. And in time they
created Hampshire Special Alefor which I now reacheda 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 its 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
wasnt so far behind Portland after all. And as I left the Great
Lost Bearmy first real steps toward homeI 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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