Dining

Beer: Up to the Challenge

When one New England brewer let me down, another boldly stepped into the breach.

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Thursday, September 02, 2010
Courtesy of Peak Organic Brewing

Returning to the office a few weeks back, I found a battered brown paper bag sitting under my desk. Inside there were three beers from Peak Organic Brewing in Maine, and a note from their local sales representative.

Earlier this summer, I reviewed the contents of a package sent to me by Magic Hat Brewing ("Gift Beer in the Mouth," July 8, 2010). In short, despite the colorful labeling and the playful names they'd given their brews, I just wasn't a fan. It appeared to me that they had forgotten that it's what's inside the bottle that counts. Finally, at the end of my backhanded review, I asked (as politely as I could) that Magic Hat's head brewer stop regularly sending me emails soliciting my opinion of his beers and offering me his services.

In truth, I felt a little uneasy about how tart I'd been. As someone who reveres small, local craft breweries and regularly consumes the fruit of their art, I was worried I may have alienated other small-scale suds-makers. Perhaps I hadn't calibrated my rant correctly, and there would be collateral damage.

Three events occurred since then, however, that have reassured me. The first came in that crumpled brown paper bag I mentioned.

The Peak Organic Brewing sales rep had read of my encounter with less-than-satisfying drink, and he wrote in his note that he felt my pain and wanted me to try some "good beer." Clanking around inside the bag were three bottles: an Indian Pale Ale (IPA), a pale ale, and a pomegranate wheat ale. Though this third beer made me a little nervous (along with pomegranates, the label promised the brew also contained the fad antioxidant, acai), I was impressed with the straight-up, no-nonsense labels that featured color photos taken by fans of the brewery during their own "peak" experiences. Unlike its Vermont-based colleagues, this Maine brewery seemed to understand that the exciting part of beer is what happens after you've popped the cap.

I stashed the bottles in my fridge, and as I let them chill, I went online to read up on the brewery, trying to find out what I could about organic beer.

"Peak Organic beer is made without toxic and persistent pesticides and chemical fertilizers. These substances can cause soil degradation and chemical runoff that contaminate water sources and the ecosystems they support," says Jon Cadoux, Peak Organic President and CEO on the brewery's website.

By law, to use the term, the product in question needs for its ingredients to be 95 percent organic, with the remaining 5 percent being elements that are impossible for the producer to acquire organically. For beer makers, one ingredient that is difficult to find organically grown is hops (for years organic hops were grown almost exclusively in New Zealand and Europe), and for some brewers, this has been the 5 percent ingredient. Aiming to produce entirely organic beer, last year Peak Organic worked with Maine farmers to cultivate the first commercial hops the state had produced since 1880.

In 2005 sales of organic beers jumped 40 percent (as sales of traditional beers dipped), tying beer with coffee as the fastest growing organic beverage.

As I opened the IPA, though, the statistics and sales figures faded away with the gasp of escaping carbonation from beneath the bottle cap. As I poured the darker-than-usual beer into my pint glass, the citrus overtones and wispy head forming defined "organic" as good beer made deliberately, with a sense of purpose. The taste confirmed my suspicions. As an IPA devotee (read: snob), I was delighted with the beer's sense of balance. It had a woodier taste than others I've tried, and the hint of grapefruit complemented the hop, which was strong without being intimidating.

I find many pale ales a little too sweet, and I was worried that the caramel malt used in Peak's ale would turn me away. I needn't have been concerned. Like the IPA, the beer walks the tight rope between extremes well. The hint of citrus from the hops blended well with the malt, and instead of a sticky dessert, the beer reminded me of a loaf of freshly baked bread.

The third concoction made from pomegranate and acai taunted me for weeks from the back of the fridge, and sometimes I wondered if it would ever find a willing drinker. Finally, after a badly planned weekend evening that found me sipping seltzer, I finally decided I needed to complete the trilogy. I took the first sip over the sink, not having high hopes. Typically, you see, I hate fruit in my beer.

This bottle did not sway me from my convictions. But, to my surprise, I did finish it, and even enjoyed the beer. The fruit flavors were barely discernible. The beer reminded me of the pale ale, but with a more floral nose and a pleasant but layered aftertaste. I'm unlikely to try it again, but I tip my hat to any brewer who can wrangle fruit and come out still standing.

While I was trying the beers from Peak Organic, Magic Hat continued to attract my attention. Early in August, it was announced that North American Breweries (owners of Genesee Brewing and Honey Brown Lager and chief importers of Labatt Beers and Seagram's coolers) had purchased the Vermont brewery. In an interview with the Burlington Free Press, one beer pundit thought the purchase would enable Magic Hat to enjoy "more aggressive marketing."

And around this time, too, I heard back from the Magic Hat brewer. Instead of taking issue with my review of his work, or recommending other beers that I might prefer, the email made no reference to my correspondence. Rather, it went on in its cheery tone, as it always does, telling me all about Magic Hat and offering me the brewer's services, should I need them—clearly a form letter sent out to a mailing list by an already aggressive marketer.

Thanks, Peak Organic, for reminding me of the value (and taste) of honest beer.

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