Just up the road in the underrated beer town of Portsmouth, N.H., Smuttynose Brewing Company churns out some of the highest quality beers in New England. You've likely heard of Old Brown Dog and Shoals Pale Ale, two of Smuttynose's year-round offerings, but the brewery also frequently releases specialty brews in its Big Beer Series. One of those beers, Scotch Ale, is a good introduction to a style that flies below the radar.
Smuttynose Scotch Ale was one of the four original Big Beer Series brews going back to 1998. It's one of 15 beers that rotate in and out of the series today.
"They're sort of a funny style," says JT Thompson, the brewery's minister of propaganda (that's his real title). "They're maybe not the most dynamic beer style in the world."
They're not the easiest style to define, either. A top-fermented ale, Scotch Ales vary in strength. For a while, American brewers took to adding peated malt to them, but there's no evidence to suggest Scotch Ales were more smoky than any others. The use of peated malt stuck more for the romance of country and its spirits than some original recipe. Flowers and herbs -- heather in particular -- featured prominently in these beers before the introduction of hops from England in the 19th century. Today's Scotch ales are malt-forward, with hops continuing to take a back seat.
Smuttynose riffs off this varied tradition. Instead of peat-smoked malt, the beer is brewed with malt smoked on German beech wood. It's a malty beer of 8.2 percent alcohol by volume and only 28 international bitterness units (IBUs). As another twist, 30 barrels of this beer were put into red wine barrels for around six months, then blended with the remaining 170 barrels to make the final product.
Poured into a tulip glass, the beer appears ruby red with a compact head. Nothing stands out in the aroma, just the nice, restrained smell of baked bread and brown sugar.
According to the brewery, the use of beech wood smoked malt "fits nicely as a complement of the beer's rich toffee-like malt character, rather than overshadowing it." That hint of beech wood-smoked malt really is just a whisper, and it's delicious. Toffee and dark fruit notes blend seamlessly, masking the relatively high ABV. This is not as assertive as some scotch ales, but it's beautifully balanced. I wish I had another bottle.
There's a bit of news coming out of the brewery as well. Smuttynose is building a new facility 15 minutes south of their current one, on Toll Farm Road in Hampton, N.H. They own a 14-acre farm there. Efficient lighting and on-site waste water treatment are meant to make the new facility more sustainable. It is expected to increase capacity from 42,000 to 60,000 or so barrels annually.
"Brewing can have a huge environmental impact, says Thompson. "Beer is very heavily dependent on having clean fresh water sources and agricultural products. If we don't take care of our environment, then we don't have the things that we need to make the things we need to make."
If construction goes according to plan, beer could be shipped out of the new facility by the end of February (as an aside, you can watch a live camera of the construction on the brewery's website). Once completed, Smuttynose hopes the building will offer a better customer experience.
"Currently it's really loud," says Thompson. "We yell at people when they come in.
"People want to visit breweries. People don't want to visit underwear factories or computer factories. We might as well make it easy for them."