Bubbling Up

New England jump-started the craft-beer renaissance—and now we’re back on top. National beer scribe Joshua M. Bernstein, author of The Complete Beer Course, explains how our region got its beer-making mojo back.

bottle caps

Before I got paid to drink beer for a living, I drank beer. Lots of it, mainly from New England. In the early aughts, bottles from Harpoon, Smuttynose, and Sam Adams filled grocery cases (and my own fridge) in Brooklyn, where I still live. They were perched on the top shelf—physical proof of the region’s dominance in craft beer.

A few years later, though, western beers began to migrate east. The full-throttle flavors sent my taste buds into a tizzy. I traveled west, drinking up the extremes: IPAs, sours, imperial this and imperial that. Craft beer was racing forward, while New England’s English-influenced ales seemed stuck on treadmills. Western brews just felt more modern, charting new territories with thrilling flavors, aromas, and styles.

“When I first got into the game, the perception of East Coast beer was that it was subpar,” says former Magic Hat head brewer Matt Cohen, who now runs Vermont’s Fiddlehead. The problem, he says, was that many popular breweries, like Geary’s, Shipyard, and, yes, Magic Hat, brewed with Ringwood yeast—a strain that produces diacetyl, a fermentation byproduct that can sometimes add a memorable, but polarizing, buttery flavor. I understood that Shipyard Old Thumper and Geary’s Pale Ale were well-built beers. But as my tastes evolved, diacetyl became a deal-breaker. I forgot about New England beer for a while, and focused my attention out west.

Then I spent a month in Portland, Maine, where I visited a Belgian-inspired brewery called Allagash. Post-tour, I tried a sweetly potent tripel aged in bourbon barrels. My first taste of the lush Curieux was a live wire, shocking me to attention. “This is magic,” I muttered, and purchased several bottles of the vanilla ambrosia that would not survive the night.

What else had my ignorance caused me to miss? I soon discovered beautiful barrel-aged sours by New Hampshire’s White Birch and funky saisons from Maine’s Oxbow. From Vermont’s Hill Farmstead, I sipped smooth, juicy IPAs and barrel-aged elixirs. The secret sauce in my new favorites? New breeds of hops, such as tropical Citra and melon-y Galaxy. New England brewers were also adding hops later in the brewing process, highlighting aroma and flavor and blacklisting bitterness.

By 2012, word of these wonderful new IPAs began spreading, and drinkers like me flocked to the area for a taste. “It’ll be 10 below, and we’ll have 300 people lined up outside on can-release days,” Cohen says. I haven’t queued up for a can of Fiddlehead’s Second Fiddle Double IPA—yet—but I did stand outside Portland’s Bissell Brothers at noon to nab the dank Substance. I walked into near-whiteout conditions during a snowstorm in Burlington, Vermont, to acquire the Alchemist’s Heady Topper, often rated as a world-beating double IPA.

These days, whenever I head north, I find another beer generating headlines (and long lines). I’m planning stops at Everett’s Night Shift to sample its tart Berliner Weisses, as well as Monson’s Tree House Brewing for its mango-scented Julius IPA. I’ll load up my station wagon with plenty of bottles, eager to share New England beer with friends near and far.


Check out all of our Top Breweries in New England coverage.