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 IF YOU GO: New England brewpubs

Making the rounds

In old ports and downtowns region-wide, designer brews and friendly places await your pleasure

Email|Print| Text size + By Brian MacQuarrie
Globe Staff / May 28, 2006

New Englanders, the abomination of Prohibition aside, have enjoyed the heady effects of a good beer almost since they arrived on these shores. Beer helped ferment the idea of the American Revolution in Boston taverns. Roger Williams authorized a Providence brewery after the dissident cleric was booted from Massachusetts. And the record shows that New Haven was making its own beer as far back as 1638.

But it wasn't until the 1980s, after decades of being bombarded by the bland offerings of giant breweries, that the notion of the brewpub, each concocting its own specialty beers, established a tenuous toehold on the region's drinking landscape. Now, brewpubs thrive throughout the six-state area, dispensing ales, lagers, and porters that usually are made on the spot and served to a clientele that treats its drinking like a culinary experience.

And an experience is what nearly all brewpub proprietors strive to provide, with a meticulous attention to craft complemented by the inviting, unpretentious atmosphere that characterizes the top-shelf establishments. Like the great pubs of Britain and Ireland, the brewpubs of New England seem to be as much about socializing as they are about the product.

Over and over, in a New England-wide tour of brewpubs, the staffs interviewed for this survey stressed the importance of making customers feel at home, almost as if that couple in the corner had their feet up on the back porch. No ear-splitting sound systems , just welcoming destinations where a premium is placed on the ability to carry on a conversation and savor the flavor, body, and aroma of a beer that is as different from the generic brand as one's kitchen is from a franchise restaurant.

The range of microbrews available in New England's brewpubs is staggering. But a discerning cognoscenti have developed since one of the New England pioneers of the genre, the now-departed Commonwealth Brewing Company of Boston, opened its doors near the old Boston Garden. In short, novelty will not make up for shortfalls in quality.

Today, there are more than 100 craft brewers, most of which cater to a strictly local base, but several of which have gained well-deserved regional attention for their product quality -- or for the fact that they're a great place to sit back, chat with strangers, listen to music, or watch the Red Sox over another version of India pale ale.

Only one brewpub per state was selected for this report. The choices were designed only to provide a range of examples of brewpubs, and not to imply a ranking for that state. Although each of the New England states has excellent brewpubs, they are most numerous in Massachusetts, Maine, and Vermont. But within easy reach and with a little planning, a region-circling brewpub tour can introduce the connoisseur and novice alike to communities, country roads, people -- and beer -- that make compact New England so diverse and so interesting.

Willimantic Brewing Co.
How many travelers know that Willimantic, Conn., is nicknamed Frog City? Probably about the same number who know about this fascinating brewpub that transformed a long-neglected granite-and-limestone post office into a must-visit destination for visitors to this city in the eastern part of the state.

Dave Wollner, the owner and head brewer, seems to constantly change his offerings throughout the year, says bar manager Margie Boutot. A 60-foot-long , hand crafted bar, one of the longest in the state, offers customers room to enjoy the many specialty events the pub provides, such as beer tastings and movie nights . Behind the bar is a dining room where postal workers used to do the heavy lifting before the federal government abandoned the building in 1967.

The old post office boxes are used for wine racks, the postmaster's office is now a private dining room, and the pub area was formerly the lobby of the 1909 structure. Even the items on the menu sport their own ZIP codes.

The postal theme aside, this is a 210-seat place that seems comfortable in its formidable skin. Wollner is so secure in his product that he even sells guest beers from would-be rivals.

Gritty McDuff's
A legend among New England brewpubs and the first of its kind in Maine, Gritty McDuff's is a Portland fixture that helped make the historic Old Port neighborhood a hip, fun place to hang out. Opened in 1988 by Richard Pfeffer and Ed Stebbins, two buddies who didn't know anything about the restaurant business -- never mind brewing beer -- the small pub off cobblestoned Fore Street nevertheless became an instant success.

``We made every mistake in the world," said Pfeffer, 41.

They're not making many now, judging by the full house at the copper bar and unpretentious wooden tables, and the hundreds of numbered mugs that hang above the bar -- each of which is claimed by a dues-paying drinker. The menu is standard pub grub, but the laid-back Maine camaraderie spread over two intimate floors is why the Portland bar and two satellite locations in Freeport and Auburn are so popular .

In Portland, the brewing system is crammed into a small space under the pub. The most popular brew? Pfeffer says it's Gritty's classic English pale ale. ``We sell a ton of it," he says, with a smile.

But in the end, Pfeffer believes, the secret of Gritty's success isn't based on the brew. ``I like to think people come for the beer," he said, ``but the reality is the people come for the people."

The People's Pint
Walk into The People's Pint in downtown Greenfield, and you might feel confused. Is this a pub or a Berkshires gathering of Common Cause? Beards, T-shirts, ponytails, flowing country clothes, and nary a Ralph Lauren logo can be spied among the small, 85-seat bar and dining room in this community gem of a restaurant and watering hole.

There's a sense of mission here, evident in the aversion to paper and plastic products that results in only one barrel of trash after a crowded night . Area ingredients are used for almost everything on the menu, from the desserts procured at nearby Ambrosia Bakery to the whipped cream to the pork dishes that often come from the pigs on co-owner Alden Booth's farm in nearby Gill.

``It's very, very labor-intensive, but it's worth it," says manager Leslie McCormick.

The locals seem to agree. If they're not sampling the brew, they're waiting for a table or booth in this appealingly spartan tribute to minimalistic decor.

``It's been a gold mine since day one," McCormick says after running down the street to pick up the desserts. At The People's Pint, it seems, success does not require compromise.

Portsmouth Brewery
A linchpin in the revitalized core of downtown Portsmouth, N.H., the brewery that bears the name of this old maritime city is everything a small brewpub should be. Opened in 1991 by Peter and Janet Egelston , the siblings who also gave birth to the pioneering Northampton Brewery in Massachusetts, Portsmouth combines subdued woodwork, funky art, multilevel dining areas, and a long, comfortable bar to entice patrons who amble in from touring, shopping, or simply strolling along bustling Market Street.

In 2000, brother and sister bought each other out, with Peter staying in Portsmouth, and Janet calling Northampton home.

``Our motto is we serve all types," says Brennen Rumble , the genial general manager. ``And that doesn't mean just beer, but people, too."

The indoor restaurant, with a loft-like raised section, and an outdoor patio offer locally grown ingredients wherever possible. A basement area, called the Jimmy LaPanza Room after a mythical New York gangster-cum-boulevardier, has a pool table and sawdust-sprinkled shuffleboard game that's the only one of its kind in the area.

But the beer, brewed by the award-winning and well-traveled Tod Mott, is the star. On this day, the selections include a favorite, Old Brown Dog, and range from Weizenheimer wheat beer to an India pale ale and an oatmeal stout.

``We give just good, old-fashioned, common-sense service," Rumble says.

Trinity Brewhouse
If the Addams Family ever designed a brewpub, this is what the place would look like. Opened in downtown Providence in 1994, the Trinity seems to be all dark wood and black paint, garnished with a spooky chandelier, garish banners, and a large hand-painted mural of a Last Supper with John Lennon and disciples including Elvis Presley, Patsy Cline, and Kurt Cobain.

But the Trinity, named after the nearby repertory theater, is more than Goths ' -night-out. It's a friendly, down-to-earth, 250-seat pub with a healthy, eclectic mix of regulars and tourists in this quirky capital city. ``We have college students sitting next to construction workers sitting next to actors from the theater next door," explains Stewart Funkhouser. , the general manager.

The Trinity also has a 15-barrel brewery, part of whose copper-jacketed system is on display behind the bar and pumps out a wide variety of beer, including the popular Rhode Island India Pale Ale, the first IPA brewed in the state since the Narragansett brewery shut down in the early 1980s, and the heavy, dark, high-alcohol Belgian Imperial Stout.

The menu appears standard, but chef Tony Goncalves says he is allowed to be creative. His chowder, he adds, has even been known to attract Nantucketers who fly to Rhode Island just for a taste in the summer.

Vermont Pub & Brewery
Greg and Nancy Noonan spent three years coaxing the Vermont Legislature to overturn its ban on pub brewing. It did in 1988, and the Vermont Pub & Brewery opened the same year, one of the first brew pubs on the East Coast.

``We were at the very beginning of the small breweries' revival in the country," Greg Noonan says.

He converted the cellar of a Burlington office building into a 14-barrel brewery and still produces his unpasteurized, unfiltered, preservative-free beers in the original maple sap evaporator, livestock feeder, and ice cream tank first installed there. Used grains are drained and delivered to local cattle farms as feed.

Upstairs is a 175-seat restaurant and double-sided bar with dimly lighted mahogany interiors, richly patterned floors, a greenhouse, and an outdoor umbrella-tabled patio overlooking City Hall Park. Noonan's large, inexpensive menu offers steaks, seafood, and the English classics -- cock-a-leekie pie, bangers and mash, and fish and chips -- which taste best with beer. His brews run the gamut -- from dark, chocolatey stout to the palest ale, along with seasonal specials like maple syrup ale.

Noonan's niche? ``We do extremes," he says, whether bitter, smoky, or sour. ``There's a bitter beer-drinking segment of the population that really likes bitterness. I think that's the key to our success, to be honest with you."

Contact Brian MacQuarrie at macqua@globe.com. Globe correspondent Diane E. Foulds contributed to this report.

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