Monday, May 11, 2009

Portsmouth Brewing Company

I lived in Dover, NH, a charming old mill town about a half hour from Portsmouth, for about a year back in 1996-97. In fact, that was the year that my annual top ten albums tradition—which has since grown to a top 40—was born. But, that's not relevant to what I'm writing about today.

The Portsmouth Brewing Company opened its doors in 1991, two years prior to the inception of Brown & Moran Brewing Company in Troy, NY, which is where my taste for micro-brewed beer began to develop. Prior to that, I considered it a treat when a bar had Samuel Adams on tap. I say that not to put down Sam Adams—I still think their Boston Lager is a quality selection, although I'm not a fan of most of their specialty brews—but because, having lived in Boston for the past 12 years, that particular beer is not difficult to find.

When I first visited the brewpub in the heart of downtown Portsmouth back in 1996, it was relatively young, as was my status as a "beer snob." So, when I say I was not particularly impressed with their offerings back then, I have to qualify that by saying I'm not really certain I gave them a fair shake—although I did make several visits. Also, at least 12 years have elapsed since I was last there, and they are now owned by Smuttynose Brewing, a development that I think has occurred since my New Hampshire days, although I'm not 100% sure of that.

So, when KJ and I went on a day trip to Portsmouth this past weekend, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to give this brewery a second chance. After spending a few hours wandering around one of the best small cities in New England, we stopped in for an early dinner. Since we couldn't really decide what kind of beer we were in the mood for, we opted for a sampler of approximately three ounces each of seven PBC and three Smuttynose offerings. The following were my impressions of each (listed in the order consumed):

Dirty Blonde: This is a fairly standard, light golden ale. It's definitely not my favorite style of beer, and this one did nothing to change my opinion. Grade: C-

Smuttynose Star Island Single: Smutty's newest brew, this is a very nice, lighter ale that is not lacking in body, and has a very subtle fruitiness to it. Of all the beers we had on this visit, this is the one that I would have most enjoyed drinking two or three of. Grade: B+

Smuttynose Old Brown Dog Ale: This is easily the weakest of the three Smuttynose offerings, a very bland, brown ale that wasn't nearly as full-bodied as advertised. Grade: D

Smuttynose Shoals Pale Ale: A very solid, English-style pale ale, with a nice flavorful body and just the right amount of hops bite. Grade: B

Bottle Rocket IPA: PBC's IPA is solid, but let's face it...IPAs to me are like pizza. Very few of them are bad, but when it comes to considering one truly exceptional, my standards are pretty high. Grade: C+

Saison de Printemps: This is their current seasonal offering, a spring farmhouse-style ale as described by our waiter. I liked the sample, but when I ordered a full glass, I found myself less enamored with it. It tasted much stronger than it turned out to be, and with no pronounced hoppiness that could have given it a little more balance. When I discovered it was only 5.5%, I wondered why they only served it as a 12-ouncer. Grade: C+

WiezenBock: As is pretty standard for the style, this one is quite lacking in balance as well. However, at 7% ABV, that's a little more understandable. Still, I was not particularly impressed. Grade: C+

Wheat Wine: This one is quite interesting, brewed in the barley wine style, but with wheat, rather than, barley malt. At 11% ABV, it is the strongest brew I've had in quite some time, although we had hoped the 21st Century Schizoid Ale would approach that level. Grade: B-

Black Cat Stout: Yesterday was Mother's Day, and my mother always taught me if you don't have something nice to say, don't say it at all. That's all I have to say about this one.

Imperial Porter: A rich and strong porter, but I don't feel that its body measures up to the increased alcohol content, making it lose some of its porterish qualities. Grade: C

I have to admit that, although I definitely have considerable knowledge about craft-brewed beer, I don't really feel as though my palette has quite what it takes to be an actual beer critic. I don't recognize subtleties in flavor as well as I would need to in order to consider myself qualified for that kind of gig. In fact, a couple of minor details in the above mini-reviews probably were actually KJ's observations. Also, I've often thought that my taste buds have minds of their own, and are actually quite moody as well.

So, when I say that my return to the Portsmouth Brewing Company did nothing to change my previously held opinion of the place, I don't mean to discourage you from checking it out yourself. In fact, the food was excellent. I had a pulled pork sandwich that was as good as anything I've eaten at my two most frequented BBQ establishments in Boston: Blue Ribbon and Redbone's. KJ raved about her fried haddock sandwich as well, and seconded my opinion of the pulled pork. I, of course, wouldn't go anywhere near the haddock, as those of you who really know me won't be particularly surprised to hear.

I'll summarize by saying that there are definitely enough positives about the Portsmouth Brewing Company that make it worth the visit. If nothing else, enjoy the food, choose your favorite style from among the more common brews that they serve, and take in everything that this little New England port city has to offer.

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