If you live in Portland, Boston, Burlington, or even Syracuse, that may not be such a big deal. However, I’m from a small town in the seacoast area of New Hampshire called North Hampton. If you’ve ever heard of Hampton Beach, it’s just north of that. It officially separated from Hampton in 1742, and only has about 4,300 people living there. At least we don’t have any witches.
Anyway, I was flipping through the Yankee Brew News (Aug/Sept 2011 Issue, Vol 22, No 4) several weeks ago, and there was a list of breweries attempting to use all (or mostly) locally-sourced ingredients. For example, Allagash (Portland, ME) uses Maine-grown barley, Just Beer (Westport, MA) uses local cranberries, hops and pumpkins, and The Vermont Pub and Brewery (Burlington, VT) puts Lake Champlain chocolate into their Imperial Double Chocolate Stout. Then there was “Throwback Brewery, North Hampton, N.H.” with probably the longest list of local ingredients.
So I did a bit of digging.
Throwback Brewery was started in 2010 by two women, Annette and Nicole. Annette, the head brewer, was an environmental engineer and consultant in her previous, non-brewer, life, but has been home brewing for ten years, including an internship at Smuttynose Brewing in Portsmouth, NH. Nicole has also been homebrewing for about a decade, and the two of them started the brewery with the intent of creating an environmentally friendly, local ingredient-sourced product. My knee-jerk reaction was that it was a bit on the hippie tree-hugger side for me, but I would withhold judgment until checking out the place, the space, and the beers.
Saturday was the day. The Lady Friend and I hopped into Elsa, who was due for a wash and wax at the parental homestead. The Irish Lad and Wifey were coincidentally also in NH for the weekend (her parents live in Hampton) so we made plans to meet at the brewery. My brother and father were also intrigued, so they came along to check it out. Then Wifey’s dad drove her and Irish Lad over (he’s a beer fan as well; he joined us for the Craft Beer Fest in Boston earlier this year). Finally, Lady Friend’s Friend (she made that name up) joined in. Good lord. I have trouble getting this many people together on purpose for a brewery tour. I’m surprised they didn’t bring Zero along as well.
Throwback is in a small, tucked-away industrial park of sorts off of Route 1 (Lafayette Road) in North Hampton. If you’re heading north, it’s just past the Shel-Al Campground (trailer park) and almost (but not quite) across the street from the gray plaza where Callahan Motors is. I highly recommend using Google Maps street view to see exactly where it is before you go. Why so much detail? Because I grew up in this town and even I would have blown right past it. There is a small sign, and it’s in the middle of the second building in the industrial park. Don’t worry; you probably won’t get assaulted. North Hampton isn’t that exciting. Usually.
So, at about 3:20pm, everyone else finally started showing up for our 3pm meet time (don’t ask) and we began the tasting. There are three options: a free plastic tasting cup, a $5 tasting glass or a $7 pint glass. They’ll give you a pour in any of these, but I recommend going with the 5 oz tasting glass or 21.5 oz pub glass, which not only usually gets you a better (more generous) pour, but gives you a souvenir to keep. So I added another glass to the ever-growing collection. They had five beers on tap at the time, and I squeezed through the crowd (mainly composed of Squirrel Farts readers). Nicole, decked out in an Animal tshirt, started pouring.
Hog Happy Hefeweizen
Nose: Wheaty, banana/ clove.
Pretty typical for a hefe.
Taste: Light, clean taste. No cloying or sticky unfiltered wheat/yeast taste or mouthfeel. Genuinely tasty, clean, and refresing. I was surprised. Even Wifey (who HATES beer) liked this one. At least, I think that’s what she attempted to scrawl on my notepad.
Dippity-Do Brown Ale
Nose: Sweet hop. Yeah, that’s all I put.
Taste: Sweet initial, then slight hop bitter. Malty smooth finish with the hop bitter lingering. Very nice. Green tree fruit, like an unripe peach. Green, but not grassy. Yum.
Maple-Kissed Wheat Porter
Nose: Brown sugar again. Maple detected, but not out of control. It smells syrupy, if that makes any sense.
Taste: A touch of smoke. Tree bark. Grassy/ wooden. Not overwhelmingly maple-flavored, which deserves mention. Unusual, but nice.
Campfire Smoked Robust Porter
Nose: Slight smoke (the others seemed to smell much more smokiness than I did). Smells like a German dark beer… bock?
Taste: Starts very malty, then smoke. Rauchbier. Not charcoal, but ash. Burnt. Again, flavored, but not overwhelming. Balanced.
Fun fact: Those illustrations are by Nate Walker, an artist who grew up in nearby Stratham, NH. He’s the one who did the Giant Ant sculpture in Market Square in Portsmouth, which was then vandalized. Naturally. Apparently Lady Friend’s Friend’s sister dated him in high school. Can’t escape the vortex of NH.
After finishing up our tastings (and pretty much chasing everyone else out of the place), Irish Lad purchased some merch and started chatting with Annette, the head brewer. I joined in as well, and eventually she offered to show us around, which we gladly accepted. Their main focus is to have locally-sourced ingredients, and the goal is to have everything come from a 200-mile radius. Right now, they’re achieving about half of that, but it’s a start. Wheat is coming from a farm in Rollinsford, NH, hops from Maine, and two-row barley from Valley Malt in Hadley, MA. Some other ingredients, such as adjunct chocolate malts for the porters, are coming from Wisconsin, but will hopefully be found in New England soon. Throwback is grinding their own malt, and it travels up some pvc piping to the hopper like an oversized hamster tube.
Throwback runs a three barrel brew system. Their tanks are recovered from a single malt flavoring plant, and were custom-adapted by a welder friend for use in brewing. It’s an open flame system, not steam jacketed, using a pair of 320,000 btu propane burners. The kettle has a 175 gallon capacity, and is wide and short, allowing for a good boil, and making it easier for Annette (she’s pint-sized… see what I did there?) to gain access. Being a small operation, they couldn’t afford a powerful enough pump for the whirlpool, so Annette manually paddles it. Gotta really love brewing to stand over a boiling wort and paddle your own whirlpool.
There are no big shiny fermentation tanks here. The brews go into the “fermentation barn,” essentially four, temperature-controlled closets with giant plastic tubs to let the beer bubble away. A CoolBot hacks and overrides the normal air conditioner settings and keeps the temperature much colder, and stable. I totally need one of those for my apartment. At this point, Wifey suddenly got interested, because the fermenters all have pictures of Muppets on them. Government requirements state that each fermenter have a unique ID name/number, so a Muppet naming convention was established (it’s easier to remember). Of course, Wifey piped up with the suggestion to rename the grain hopper to “Doc Hopper,” a character from The Muppet Movie. Le sigh.
So, right now the challenge for Throwback is keeping up with demand. They started putting the works together in 2010, but then had to wait for stacks of government paperwork and forms to be issued, filed, and approved. Demand has been overwhelming, but this might be because they’re the new kid in town. They just had their first official tasting in mid-August, and it’ll take time to let the intial response die down and see what the real, steady numbers are. In the meantime, Throwback is busy brewing. They self-distribute (in snazzy red 5.4 gal kegs), and also have a couple bombers available. At the brewery, they’ll fill your growler or growlette with happy beer wonderfulness. There’s merch available, including their “beer-oir” shirts, referencing the ponciest term in all alcohol, “terroir.” They’re really striving towards the whole local-ingredient goal, but making some very tasty beers in the process, which is what it’s all about. As with all new businesses, there’s still a long way to go but Annette seemed to be ready to go, commenting towards the end of our tour: