I visited Portland, Maine, and drank Swish by Bissell Brothers, a near-incomprehensibly cool brewery, and had to ask myself: how did beer get quite so hip?
Style: Double IPA
Numbers: 8% ABV, IBUs unknown (but high!)
Brewer: Bissell Brothers Brewing Co.
San Diego is the craft capital of the world, right? Oh no, wait a minute, it’s Portland in Oregon. Or is it Denver, Colorado’s craft mecca? No, hang on, everyone knows that Burlington in Vermont has the most, best beer in the country.
Truth is, there’s pretty much no major conurbation in this great nation that can’t lay claim to a vibrant, bustling beer scene, spilling over with fast-growing breweries that churn out beer of a quality unimaginable only 10 years ago.
Hey, I’ve been to Birmingham, Alabama and drunk some goldarn fantastic craft beer.
But one mini-metropolis that has been on many a beer fan’s radar lately is “the other” Portland, the biggest city in Maine, the venerable state that gave the world lip-smackingly delicious lobster and Stephen King. The East Coast Portland (the one in Maine is actually only 10% the size of its West Coast cousin) is home to a few landmark breweries from the 1980s in D.L Geary, Gritty’s and Shipyard, the 25th biggest craft brewery in America according to the Brewers Association. And its most famous sudsy son is arguably Allagash, the highly respected Belgium-inspired brewery that put Portland on the beer map in the 1990s.
But in just the past few years, Portland has given birth to a cluster of dynamic breweries that seem to be on the tip of every industry commentator and beer geek’s tongue. Rising Tide, Bunker and Oxbow make beers that are the subject of many a bottle share; Peak Organic seems to be in every grocery store in New England; Foundation Brewing is picking up plaudits like a brand new Dyson; and who isn’t chasing down those distinctive Maine Beer Co. bottles, from the brewery that turns up in the top 10 of every Paste Magazine blind tasting?
All these breweries seem able to produce bright, balanced, inestimably tasty brews at the drop of a hat, and if you visit one of Portland’s excellent beer bars – such as the Little Tap House, Novare Res or Great Lost Bear – you’ll find a beer list bristling with an embarrassment of riches.
However, success in beer is not just down to buzz-worthy brews; you need a killer brand too. Which may be why every bar in Maine is being conquered by the distinctive logo and unmistakably cloudy ales of Bissell Brothers. Lately, Portland’s bar tenders have been kept busy pouring pint after pint of their sought-after unfiltered IPA, The Substance.
Bissell Brothers Brewing Company is remarkable in several ways, not just because their Falconer’s Flight, Centennial, Apollo, Summit and Chinook-stuffed IPA has quickly become the beer to be seen drinking in Maine.
Brothers Peter and Noah Bissell (no, it’s not just a clever name) opened their punky, offbeat brewery at the tail end of 2013, and a mere two years later announced they are moving to Portland’s Thompson’s Point neighborhood so they can scale up their operations. Peter Bissell, now 32, was a creative professional photographer based next door to busy beer bar The Thirsty Pig, where he spent years planning the ethos and distinctive aesthetic for the brewery he dreamt of opening. But what’s truly astounding is that the brain behind Bissell Brothers brews, younger brother Noah, is a mere 25 years old. 25! Yes, he brought The Substance to market aged just 23, and happily tells of hatching his homebrewing career before he could legally buy alcohol.
I have enjoyed many glasses of the ubiquitous The Substance on previous trips to Portland, so on my most recent visit I opted to head to the source and try a couple more of their experimental ales at the brewery, before it ups and leaves its current spot.
Bissell Brothers is based on Industrial Way, 5 miles out of downtown, nick-named IndustriALE Way owing to the concentration of breweries. Allagash has been located there for nigh-on two decades, and Rising Tide and Maine Beer Co. both began their operations there before moving to bigger premises. The building at One Industrial Way is now home to Bissell Brothers, Foundation Brewing and newcomers Austin Street Brewery. That’s right, three super-hyped breweries are separated by the thin walls of a single industrial warehouse space.
As I sauntered up to the building at 1.30 on a Thursday afternoon I was taken aback by an unexpected sight: people, and lots of ’em. Bissell Brothers and Foundation put their limited batch brews into 16oz cans and sell them straight from the brewery door, and folks come from far and wide to snap them up at opening time on any day of the week.
Squeezing in past the crowds I made my way to the counter and ordered a 5 ounce pour of Swish, Noah Bissell’s pumped up Double IPA, and snuck away to devour it in a corner. The space is cosy but cool, decorated with bright graffiti and launch posters for the fledgling brewery’s current and past releases. The room was filled by a loud punk rock soundtrack to accompany the stimulating brews.
Served in a stemless wine glass printed on both sides with Bissell Brothers’s instantly recognizable triple-B logo, Swish poured out a dense, cloudy orange. Its appearance is right in line with the so-called New England IPA style, a label for the fast-growing collection of unfiltered IPAs coming out of Massachusetts, Maine and Vermont. A thick, bright white foam slowly faded before my eyes. Swish looks a lot like The Substance, only darker, and more brooding.
Taking a whiff, my nose was aggressively invaded by a dank blend of orange peel, lemon, pineapple and mango. A haymaker delivered by a selection of vibrant American hops in Mosaic, Simcoe, Citra and Apollo. I also got a pungent sweaty note, and background aromas of wood and moss. I wouldn’t call these flaws as such, as they made the nose more interesting, but I also wouldn’t call it a clean bouquet.
In my mouth, the beer was forceful and dynamic, with a solid malt sweetness struggling to contain the intense hop bitterness. On my palate the struggle was in vain, as the mouth-puckering bitterness was a touch dominant for my taste. The Substance is a famously quaffable IPA because its powerful aroma far outweighs its surprising lack of bitterness, but bigger brother Swish delivers bitterness in spades. A poster on the wall helpfully warns you about the presence of alpha acids, and they run rampant in a pour of this beer. It’s far from undrinkable – heck, this is one beautiful brew – but it’s more of a sipper than a slurper.
The beer’s finish was as strong and long as its formidable aroma suggested. Your tongue has just done much battle with the active ingredients of the humulus lupulus flower, and your senses need a bit of a sit-down to recover.
As I sniffed, sipped and thoroughly enjoyed my Swish I had something of an epiphany moment. How goddamn cool has beer gotten, I thought, and how the heck did that happen? When I was growing up, sniffing a beer and driving for miles to sample a certain brew was the preserve of the middle-aged geek, the part-time homebrewer who started a beer-tasting club to spend a few hours away from the wife every week. Beer bellies were de-rigeur, and the ladies were rarely to be seen.
But these days? Beer is the coolest thing going. Equal numbers of trendily-clad men and women fill the artfully decorated beer bars and breweries of the world, and taking the time to appreciate and discuss your beer – ahem, even write about it online – is considered a mark of discernment and taste. I place the blame for this bizarre development squarely on the shoulders of brazen, brash individuals such as Peter and Noah (25! 25 years old!) Bissell, who have the temerity to concoct hoppy, flavor-bomb beers and serve them to the nation in uber-cool tap rooms festooned with the kind of branding a Madison Avenue advertising agency can only dream of.