Small, custom beverage operations toast of Seacoast

By Patrick Cronin

Seacoast Sunday, Sunday, September 16, 2012

[The following article is courtesy of Seacoast Sunday and Seacoast Online.]

Blue Lobster Brewing Co. owner Michael Benoit, left, and head brewer David Sakolsky represent one of several new nanobreweries in Hampton. [Rich Beauchesne]

HAMPTON — Beer connoisseurs looking to tap into unique and distinctive beers don’t have to go far. Here and throughout the Granite State, the craft-brew business is booming.

Smuttynose Brewery and Redhook Brewery have been staples in the Seacoast for more than a decade. Now a new crop of nanobreweries is springing up, including Throwback Brewery in North Hampton and the Blue Lobster Brewing Company in Hampton.

“I look at it more as a resurgence,” said Michael Benoit. The owner of Blue Lobster Brewing will be opening his tasting room in the next few weeks at 845 Lafayette Road in Hampton.

“It’s going back to the farm table movement, where beer should be localized,” Benoit said. “If I’m on vacation somewhere, why would I travel to drink a beer when I can get it in San Diego, Boston or Milwaukee. People want different.”

Back to beer’s roots

Peter Egelston, owner of Smuttynose Brewery, said the resurgence of local breweries is a nationwide trend.

Smuttynose is the state’s largest and oldest craft brewery. Egelston said when he first opened his brewery 25 years ago, there were fewer than 50 craft breweries in the United States. Today there are more than 2,000, with “hundreds more coming online,” he said.

But Egelston was quick to point out there was a similar number of breweries back in 1865 until prohibition came along in 1919.

“By the time prohibition was repealed, most of the 2,000 breweries were gone,” Egelston said. “So brewing has always been a local phenomenon. What is happening now is the beer business is finally getting back to its historical roots, which involves a lot of small breweries operating with a fairly small local footprint.”

Egelston, who recalls the bleak days in the 1960s through the ’80s, when there wasn’t a choice and all the beer tasted the same, said he welcomes the competition.

“I’m a big believer in competition,” he said. “Competition makes us all better.”

Nanobreweries on tap

Bill Herlicka, owner of White Birch Brewing in Hooksett, has the distinction of being the first nanobrewery in the state.

A nanobrewery is a very small brewing operation, with a limit on the amount of beer it makes. Blue Lobster’s Benoit said he is limited to 2,000 31-gallon barrels per year.

Recent changes in state legislation, Herlicka said, however, have made it easier to open nanobreweries.

“When I first started, the state of New Hampshire did not recognize nano as a distinct brewery operation,” Herlicka said. “I was a brewery, just the same as Smuttynose.”

Changes to the law, included removing restrictions on tasting rooms, the amount of beer that can be sold off premises and reducing the annual licensing fee to $240 from $1,200.

While he no longer is a nanobrewery, Herlicka said those changes have made it easier for others to get into the business.

“Adjusting the government fees associated with it in turn led to more nanos,” he said.

One of the new nanobreweries is Throwback Brewery, which opened in 2011, operating out of small warehouse with a tasting room at 121 Lafayette Road in North Hampton.

Owners Annette Lee and partner Nicole Carrier said the response to their nanobrewery has been overwhelming. While recent changes in the law have helped small breweries, she doesn’t believe that is why you see so many opening.

“I think it’s more to do with the demand from consumers,” Carrier said.

Beer the new wine?

Egelston said he’s not surprised more people are seeking out craft and speciality beers over the mass-produced ones.

“There is a whole world of beer out there that people are just now starting to discover,” Egelston said.

Blue Lobster’s Benoit said beer is becoming what wine is to wine lovers. “To me, from a certain extent, it’s even more creative than wine,” said Benoit, who has been brewing his own beer since 1983.

“There is a wide range of styles, flavors, choices in beer that rivals wine and exceeds wine in a lot of cases.”

While chefs have been matching wine with dinners for decades, Benoit said the same can be done with beer.

“A good chief can take an interesting interpretation of a beer and create quite a dish to stand up to it,” he said. “So, I think you’re going to see more of that as time goes on.”

Herlicka said a big part of the new demand is that beer consumers age 21 to 35 have grown up in this second wave of local breweries.

“Beer is social, and that hasn’t changed,” Herlicka said. “But now, people are looking for unique beers and they are looking for flavors. Mouth feel, aroma, flavor and aftertaste are all important elements.”

Future is bright

Egelston said he believes the craft beer market will continue to expand. “It’s still a relatively small part of the overall beer industry,” he said. “Fewer than one out 10 beers that are sold are craft beers. So, 90 percent of the beers that are consumed in this country are not craft. There is a lot of room for growth in the industry.”

Carrier said stores selling speciality craft beers such as Top Shelf Brews in Hampton, as well as local beer festivals, will continue that growth as consumers become more educated.

Another new state law passed this year, which Carrier and Lee testified in support of, allows local breweries for the first time to sell beer at farmers markets across the state.

“That just gives us further exposure,” Carrier said.

Benoit said he views the new local breweries in the area as a good thing because it will also drive tourism.

“It worked wonders for Kentucky and Tennessee for the bourbon and whisky trade,” he said. “The more places that crop up in a centralized location, the better off we all are.”

Egelston said the days of just a handful of beers on the market are over.

“It would be like going back to the time when the only cheese was Kraft American singles,” Egelston said. “We are not going back to that. Those days are long gone.”

Several nanobreweries call Hampton home, including the Blue Lobster Brewing Co. [Rich Beauchesne]

The fermentation tanks at the new Hampton nanobrewery. [Rich Beauchesne]