Summer Brewin'

On Tap by Jim Cavan / August, 2014

This summer is not vacation time for Tod Mott.

By the time the dog days of August arrive, the former Portsmouth Brewery maestro—along with his wife, Galen—hopes to have officially opened Tributary Brewing Company, a new, 15-barrel (bbl) micro-operation located at Post Office Square in Kittery,Maine.

It’s no surprise, then, that the topic of summer beers would offer Mott such a revelatory respite from the rigors of entrepreneurship. To say Mott knows a little something about the subject would be an understatement: In over two decades working with some of the region’s most renowned breweries—micro and no-longer-micro alike—his offerings have undoubtedly helped move the craft from fringe to fore.

Strangely enough, Mott’s first attempt at a summer seasonal, made while working at the famed Harpoon Brewery in Boston, was a hop-centric American stout. Unfortunately, it didn’t receive quite the fanfare he had hoped for. 

“It went over like a lead balloon,” Mott exclaims with a laugh. “Boston, at that time, just wasn’t ready for something like that. These were Guinness people, Murphy’s people, Beamish people.”

Not to be dissuaded, Mott created a special IPA the following spring. Despite Mott’s belief that the beer would’ve been better served by a summer release, it was a huge hit and helped take Harpoon to the next level. But the company’s rapid growth didn’t jive with Mott’s distinctly artisanal outlook. “I wanted to keep my hands on the product, keep it small,” Mott says. “And that was becoming harder to do.”

Upon joining the now-closed Commonwealth Brewing Company in Boston, Mott spearheaded what would become his first official summer seasonal: a witbier (aka Belgian wheat ale) with fresh oranges and rosehips. And while the offering was warmly received, it wasn’t until Mott headed north to The Portsmouth Brewery in 2003 that the true pull and appeal of wheat beer truly hit him.

“I think a witbier—a lot of people like it year-round—I just think it’s one of the best summer beers,” Mott says. “You have this little peppery yeast strain that gives it the perfect balance between the coriander, the orange, and the yeast.”

Another summer favorite of Mott’s is a Gose, a top-fermented beer that originated in Leipzig, Germany, where unusually high salinity levels in the local water have for centuries contributed to a slightly salty but surprisingly session-able brew—a balancing act unique to the season. For Mott, nothing screams summer quite like a good Gose. “First, they’re quaffable. You don’t even think about it,” Mott explains. “And if there’s just a little bit of salt in it, you want to drink more of it.”

Once he opens Tributary—an homage to the critical importance of good, clean water to the overall brewing process, a cause near and dear to his and Galen’s hearts—Mott plans on offering both a Gose and a Wit, along with a hop-centric American Pale Ale, a robust Porter (one of his staples), an Imperial Stout, and a quartet of seasonal Saisons.

It’s a lineup that inevitably harkens to Mott’s days at the helm of The Portsmouth Brewery, where his disciple, Tyler Jones, is continuing the tradition of spectrum-spanning libations—from the classic to the quirky and everything in between.

But unlike Mott, Jones didn’t wait until solstices or later sunsets to please the public’s summer-loving palates. The February beer board included “Bit O’ Summer,” a wit-like concoction made with coriander and calamondin oranges, a “parlor plant” dating back to the seventeenth century—tiny, tart, indoor oranges. “It tastes exactly like a summer beer, but the ingredients are from a winter harvest,” explains Jones, who credits Strawbery Banke’s Curator of Historic Landscapes, John Forti, with introducing him to the calamondin. “Just to give people who like summer beers year-round another option.”

Bit O’ Summer’s taste might harken to hot afternoons and hanging around a barbecue, but it’s still no substitute for the real thing. As Jones explains, the tropes of summer speak to an unrivaled versatility that simply can’t be found in other seasonal beers. “One of the reasons I love summer seasonals is because I think that’s really where craft beer is going,” Jones says. “They’re lower ABV, a little more session-able, but they have interesting flavors going on. With summer beers, you can really expand out and do cool stuff in ways you might not be able to do with other beers.”

Jones says that the ideal summer beer shouldn’t exceed six percent ABV (alcohol by volume). That might make for an easily drinkable beer, but it also presents its fair share of challenges. The lower the ABV, bitterness, or hop flavors, the harder it becomes to mask other rogue flavors that might make their way into the product. “You do have to be dialed in and have a good brewer,” Jones says. “With summer beers it can be harder to hide stuff. So that’s in part what makes summer seasonals unique: it’s harder to hide stuff, but if you have it right, you sell a lot of it.”

Weizenheimer (a light, crisp American wheat beer), Hefeweizen, seasonal Saisons, a new Blueberry Beer— according to Jones, all of these grace the Brewery’s iconic chalkboard menus during the summer, when the always packed venue celebrates another year of wetting the whistles of tourists and townies alike.

It’s the kind of loyalty the folks at 7th Settlement, a restaurant and beer cooperative launched last fall in Dover, New Hampshire, are determined to foster. Teaming up with sister outfit One Love Brewery (the two entities share everything from the ingredients to cask launches to the equipment itself), 7th Settlement is in many ways a microcosm of the region’s bourgeoning love for all things local. Indeed, three of the restaurant-brewery’s principal owners—Dave Boynton, Nate Sephton, and Josh Henry—are from the area.

I meet up with Settlement’s trendsetting troika, along with One Love owner Michael Snyder, at their beautiful, brick-bound headquarters in the historic Washington Street Mills. A flood of sunlight filters through the dozen or so windows lining the charmingly sprawling wooden-floored interior.

Everyone has his go-to practices when it comes to summer sipping. For Henry, it’s packing a pair of growlers for a party or picnic. For Sephton, it’s what goes down best in the blistering sun—“lawnmower beers,” he calls them. For Boynton, it’s that steak on the grill, even if it calls for a stout or porter. That might sound like straight up sacrilege, but for these three beer crafters, what beers you enjoy shouldn’t depend on daylight hours alone.

Our conversation does, however, spark some common themes, the appeal of Kölsch—a light lager with roots in Cologne, Germany—being chief among them. Henry agrees with Tyler Jones about the challenges and rewards inherent in constructing the quintessential summer seasonal.

“You’re not having a huge grain build to kind of punch you in the mouth with flavor,” Henry says. “So it’s a little trickier trying to get a lighter beer and extract all the flavors you want out of it while also making it easy-drinking.” 

At 7th Settlement, a serious emphasis is placed on food-beer pairings, further crystallizing the group’s steadfast commitment to local, in-season cuisines. “We’re actually putting a lot of our beers into the food already,” Boynton says. “Porter breads, beer as a base for mussels, beer-brined chicken, the hop salt on our fries. You can use coriander and orange in your beer, and you can use it in a sauce. What’s a better pairing than that?”

Now approaching two decades in the trade—he’s been everywhere from Atlanta to Kansas City to Redhook—Snyder is quick to espouse beer’s unrivaled versatility in explaining both the explosion of craft beers and the pairing approaches they’ve helped spawn. “With wine, the process is a little more set,” he explains. “Whereas with beer, you can throw anything in there. You can be more creative, and that’s one of the beauties of it, and one of the reasons we love working in this business.”

The 7th Settlement trio plans on having an IPA, Honey Blonde, Wheat, and Brown Ale on heavy rotation throughout the summer—a true palette of the palate from one of the region’s most promising beer hotspots. 

After giving a tour of the space’s tidy brewing operation, the three brewers invite me to imbibe from Sephton and Henry’s latest bimonthly firkin, or cask: an American-style pale ale. With a small assembly of onlookers casting curious gazes, the cask is tapped and, after a few minutes of settling, is pouring perfectly. 

Snyder kindly offers me a pint, which I of course accept. I take a whiff, absorb the brown-gold hues and the head so thick it might be meringue, and take a sip. Pure bliss. Someone without my love of pale ales might be tempted to feign politeness, but this is genuinely an incredible, surprisingly quaffable beer.

I turn to offer Michael cheers, adding, “I would drink a few of these in the summer.”

“Exactly,” he says. “You get it.”