Sparge: /spärj/ verb. A brewing technique that extracts the sugar from the grains by exposing the grains to water.
by Jerry Carter
The American craft beer movement has come a long way over the last forty years. While we celebrate American Craft Beer Week this week, it is only right to look back and give a nod to some of the brewers, breweries and styles that we have come to know and love. These pioneers, innovators in their field, revived a dying industry that had become ubiquitous with the watered down, corn-filled lagers typified by Budweiser.
In recognition of these pioneers, Three Penny Taproom in downtown Montpelier is showing off some of the industry’s most well regarded forbearers this week with names like Sierra Nevada, Anchor, Stone and Smuttynose. These companies bravely ventured where others would not and created their own markets for a lost art of brewing that put a premium on ingredients and sacrificed nothing for taste.
On the East Coast, Smuttynose Brewing Company quietly perfected its art in the port city of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. First opening its doors in 1994, Smuttynose specializes in traditional English and German styles. The Smuttynose pale ale is a homage to the style’s English ancestral past and a friendly reminder to American pale ale lovers of where this style came from. Kevin Kerner, manager of Three Penny, compared the Smuttynose pale ale “Shoals” to current American pale ales like this, “It is like listening to Miles Davis—you have to have heard Charlie Parker first, or at least have to give credit to Charlie Parker for the invention of Miles Davis.”
Shoals, is “an extraordinary pale ale,” said Kevin, “which is spot-on for an English-style pale ale.” The distinct flavor of the English-style pale ale receives different reactions when first tried by fans of the American pale ale. Instead of the robust rush of hops that greet people when they take a sip of many American pale ales, English pale ales offer a more balanced experience. “It doesn’t get all of the credit that it deserves because people have grown accustomed to pale ales where it is a lot lighter in color, way hoppier, and citrusier. This [Shoals] is the English-style pale ale, and there is a really nice balance between the malt and the hops,” said Kevin.
Enjoying a fresh pour of Shoals does not mean one has to turn their backs to innovation however. “I never fight innovation and I love new and interesting things,” said Kevin, “but it is always nice to go back and be like, ‘Oh yeah, there is that beer out there.’”
Sampling beers like Shoals allows people to better understand the evolution of beer and the development of certain styles. It helps foster a respect for the brewing process and highlights just how innovative many current brewers are being—truly pushing the boundaries of traditional styles and in many cases creating new and unique styles of their own.
The Smuttynose brown ale, Old Brown Dog Ale, is also a benchmark in its style. While a little hoppier than traditional English brown ales, this American brown ale is a nice middle ground between dark and light beers. “When people come in here and say that they want something that is not too light and not too dark, or how about something that is middle of the road, or how about an amber ale, we always point them towards the Old Brown Dog Ale because it fills that niche,” said Kevin.
While it is a great beer for that customer who isn’t sure if they want a darker or lighter beer, many seasoned beer drinkers tend to shy away from the style, preferring a hoppier offering like an IPA or a more robust stout. Scott Kerner, one of the owners of Three Penny, admits to being one of these people, “Brown ales are probably my least favorite style,” he said.
He qualifies this by sharing a reverence for the style, which leaves little for mistakes to hide behind as some other styles do. “If I walk into a place, that is kind of the last style of beer that I would buy, but it is also a good gage on how good a brewery is; so if I walk into a new brewpub, the first thing I try is a new brown ale… and [if] I’m like, ‘This is a really nice interpretation of the style,’ then I am probably going to sit there all day and try all of their beers. And I know I am going to find one that I like better than that,” said Scott.
Because of their difficulty to brew, many breweries stay away from brown ales, but not Smuttynose. They have perfected the style, and Three Penny is happy to say that it “is one of the few draft lines that never changes here,” said Scott.
Thanks to the American craft beer movement, beer enthusiasts have a wide variety of brews to sample at local establishments such as Three Penny this week to celebrate American Craft Beer Week.