The Buttery Beers of New England

Tuesday last, Sally and I caught a six am flight from Portland to Portland. I recommend it to anyone interested in novelty. We were traveling unexpectedly and it wasn't a trip for pleasure. Nevertheless, I did manage to track down a beer here and there, and this is the piece of the trip I wanted to share.

When you breathe the air of beer geekdom, you necessarily end up with a skewed view of the larger world of craft beer appreciation. As craft brewing got started, there were distinctive regional preferences in the places I knew about--the Midwest, the Northwest, and a little later, New England. But reading the blogs and talking to beer geeks has given me an impression of a nationalization of tastes. You hear a lot about imperial beers, hop bombs, sours, and farmhouse ales. But these styles are, of course, not the norm. My trip to Maine confirmed that regional tastes do still exist.

New England has a lot in common with old England--or has had, anyway. You find lots of the traditional styles, including lots of sessionable bitters. (Try to find those in Oregon.) They are minor-key beers made with muted hopping--and very often, with English hops. (They love their Fuggles--or Willamettes in a pinch.) And what was really surprising: they like a dollop of diacetyl. Somewhat early in the trip, I had a Gritty's Pub Style, a 4.5%, 20 IBU bitter. Now, Gritty's has a variable reputation, so when I found the diacetyl in Pub Style, I figured it was unintentional. But then I had two more classic bitters and they both had diacetyl, too.

In each case, the levels were modest. By the time I sampled a Shipyard Export--a strong bitter--I was certain this was intentional. The levels are low enough that the vast majority of people don't notice it (even on BeerAdvocate, only one person among recent reviewers remarked upon it, and favorably at that). Generally speaking, diacetyl, a buttery compound produced during fermentation, is a no-no. On the West Coast, it's always considered bad. I suspect this harkens back to the old days of rapid growth in craft brewing, when it was common to find butter-bomb beers. It's easy enough to eliminate the problem; yeast reabsorbs diacetyl, so as long as you're not trying to rush beer out to the market, it's self-regulating. Historically, though, it's not always frowned upon, and in caramelly bitters, it's far from objectionable.

My ah-ha moment came with that Shipyard. I was at J's Oysters on the waterfront in Portland. (Put that on your list of must-visit restaurants. It's a legendary place that has a slightly gone-to-seed quality but features absolutely perfect, fresh fish at reasonable prices. Plus you can sit outside and soak in the environment.) We ordered the Shipyard and an Allagash White. With our first course of raw oysters, both beers were fantastic, but they did different things. The Allagash played on the briny qualities of the fish, while the Shipyard ensconced it in sweetness. Sally had fish chowder, and here was where the Shipyard sang. It married perfectly with the cream and brought out some of the character of the haddock. The Allagash, by contrast, was too tart and dry--it classed with the cream.

Beer has the versatility to blend in with local culture. It can harmonize with local foods and lifestyles and become a part of regional identity. Although there are some interesting similarities, the two Portlands are really quite different. Stripped of their context, I would have found the three bitters slightly underwhelming. But in Portland, especially when coupled with local food, they were a delight. An example that appreciating a beer may involve more than just the contents of a pint glass.