The Breweries

May 2nd, 2005 2:03 AM

We ended up visiting Shipyard in Portland, Maine, Otter Creek/Wolavers in Middlebury, Vermont, and Magic Hat in Burlington, Vermont. We also stopped at the Great Lost Bear for lunch on Wednesday.

It was pouring rain the entire time we were in Maine, but it was mostly pleasant. The Great Lost Bear was excellent as always, and I tried the Belfast Bay Oatmeal Stout.


We got to Shipyard about twenty minutes before the tour, and milled about their store for a while, trying to avoid all the kitsch Maine souvenirs. By the time of the tour, we were still the only one’s in the store, so we were led in to watch a goofy movie about Shipyard. Then, finally, the actual brewery tour in which we got the standard “this is how beer is made” speech that every brewery gives.

Up to this point, we’ve spent about forty minutes in view of the guy who’d been watching the store, and who was giving us the tour. This entire time, I’d had my rather large Nikon D70 strapped to my back. There is no way he could have missed it. So when I saw the gas burners lit beneath the brick-encased brewing copper, and unstrapped my camera only to be met with “You can’t take pictures,” I was a bit frustrated. He knew I had a camera; there were no posted “no cameras” or “no pictures” signs; there were no people in the shot I wanted; and most of all, there are no secrets involved in the Shipyard brewery copper!

I didn’t want to press the issue, since this was the first tour, and it wasn’t just me I had to worry about getting kicked out, but this “no pictures” stance is ridiculous. I want to show off my pictures; I want to show off micro breweries; I want to show off Shipyard; I want to evangelize a product which I enjoy. And yet I’m told I can’t.

To top it all off, the beer tasting at Shipyard lacked anything darker than their Brown. We sampled:

  • Export Ale
  • Winter Ale
  • Old Thumper Extra Special Ale
  • IPA
  • Brown Ale

And I wasn’t terribly impressed with any of them. The Winter Ale probably leads the pack, and Old Thumper is descent, but there really wasn’t anything exciting here. Too bad they didn’t have the Bluefin Stout on tap, because it’s pretty good.

After leaving Shipyard, we headed towards New Hampshire where we spent the night with Matt, where he was home alone in Jaffrey.

Otter Creek / Wolavers

On Thursday morning, we drove into Vermont, and headed towards Otter Creek in Middlebury. Otter Creek was by far the highlight of the trip. We were again the only people there for the tour, and the girl giving the tour was great. We got the canned tour speech, but also got to climb up to the top of the coppers and peer in and see several of the beers brewing while talking to one of the brewers.

After the tour, we had a great tasting including:

The Wit Bier and Middleberry Ale were both new, and both great. The latter was a very subtle blueberry and elderberry ale. The Oatmeal Stout is always great, and on tap at the brewery was no different. It was sad that they didn’t have their Stovepipe Porter on tap, but aside from that we tried every beer Otter Creek has available at this time of year. Overall, Otter Creek was just excellent.

Magic Hat

Magic Hat was the final destination, and the primary motivation for the trip. We arrived within a minute of the tour, and based on the two brewery tours we had come from, were shocked when ten other people (possibly more?) were waiting for the tour as well. Sadly, over half of them had never had Magic Hat, and when asked what their favorite (Magic Hat) beer was, one guy actually responded with “Bud.” Only three of us could name a favorite.

The tour guide was good, but consisted mostly of watching an animatronic Alan Newman, founder of Magic Hat, talk about the history of American craft brewing. After that, it’s up a ramp to peer through glass at the fermentation tanks, and stare across the large warehouse floor at the tuns and bottling equipment. There’s no walking through the brewery here.

Magic Hat didn’t sell cases of beer (they don’t want to compete with local distributors), but they sell everything else. Stickers? Yes. Posters? Yes. Clothes, hats, beanies? Yes. They even sell the cheap cardboard coasters that everyone else gives away for free. The place is permeated with a just-a-bit-too-corporate feeling.

They also limit tasting to four beers, explaining the limit is imposed by Vermont state law. (Despite our tour at Otter Creek under an hour prior indicating otherwise.) Magic Hat is a great company and has great beer, but the place just doesn’t feel like a micro brewery should. And that might be appropriate, since they’ve just passed the volume threshold into the category of regional brewery. Sigh.

One final note: The websites for Magic Hat and Shipyard need some major work. Magic Hat is by far the worst. It’s absurdly complicated to find anything on the Magic Hat site, and completely unusable if you don’t have Javascript, Flash, a good mouse, and lots of dexterity. Only Otter Creek has URIs for their individual beers — clearly a brewery with a clue. As for the other two (plus a lot of other micro breweries that aren’t mentioned here): It’s time to step into the 21st century! We’re not talking about rocket science here; accessible, standards-compliant sites with stable URIs are a huge benefit to everyone. So please stop being clueless.