Good pubs, Good Beer, Good People

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Damned Fine Time Down East or A Merry Time in The Maritimes

It was a long overdue anniversary-celebration vacation, and for the first time ever on such an occasion, The PubScout and the missus did not head south to the Caribbean. Instead, we hopped on a cruise ship out of Cape Liberty, NJ (it was Bayonne when I was growing up) and headed North to Maine and the Canadian Maritimes—New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. They have some pretty good beer up yonder, and I had always pestered my family about the natural phenomenon known as the Bay of Fundy, especially after I put it on my bucket list. I was willing, then, to sacrifice a boatful of bikini-clad babes for a port-ful of porters and a bay-ful of Fundies. Herewith the report:

First Port: Portland, Maine
Of the many places suggested by our friends at Beer Advocate above, time limitations and tours demanded that I select only a few, though Lord knows I wanted to hit them all. One of them was Gritty McDuff’s, where we ate and quaffed first. A very neat, quirky and welcoming pub, populated with a nice array of beers, McDuff’s was offering its Halloween Ale, a darker, malty brew with some amazing flavors of caramel, toffee and raisins. It’s listed as an Extra Special Bitter, and it deserves the sobriquet. At 6% ABV, it should only be scary to a canoe-beer drinker. Having been born in Ringwood, Hampshire, England, the brews based on the Ringwood yeast strain—it’s a pub that makes English style ales, after all—and the operation is both efficient and effective. The food was good quality pubgrub, too.
I made the acquaintance of a guy named Jimmy Hendricks (no, not that one) and his wife Sheila who advised me that there was a special beer session going on a block and a half away at a place called Novare Res Bier Café. This was a very cool joint, reminiscent of a Belgian Biergarten of the 1940’s or earlier. On this day, a Cantillon session called Zwanze Day 2011 was taking place, sadly at a time later than I could stay. But we went in to sample the wares anyway. Owner Eric greeted us and suggested a black beer of 21% ABV (served in an eight-ounce glass to prevent guys like me from missing our tours). It’s not on this list, but it was quite impressive and started with the word “Black.” After the 21%, that's all I can remember. I’d have loved to stay, but the quaint little town of Kennebunkport was calling me, so we headed for the tour bus.

Kennebunkport, Maine
This is a neat place and pretty near picture-perfect, especially on a gorgeous, warm fall day like the one we enjoyed. After meandering a bit to check out the shops, we walked back across the short bridge to a place in neighboring Kennebunk called Federal Jack’s, where Shipyard Ales began their journey to beer fame. It was Shipyard’s Pumpkinhead Ale season, and though I did not have sufficient time to visit the brewery in Portland, Federal Jack’s would suffice. Rimming the lip of the pint glass with a concoction of cinnamon, brown sugar, nutmeg and probably allspice (a technique destined to affront the purist), the pumpkin ale won over the missus immediately—and she’s a diehard canoe-beer lover. It was quite tasty, and the effect was to give a hint of autumn to come in this picturesque fishing village. That former President George “Daddy” Bush lives outside the town proper in some seriously gorgeous digs on a spectacular promontory doesn’t hurt the ambience either. That sure is some beautiful country up there.

Bar Harbor, Maine
Our next stop on the trip was in beautiful Bar Harbor (pronounced by the locals as BaHaba). It is a supremely neat little town laden with all kinds of shops—including my favorite: The Man Store. Bar Harbor Brewing—which was bought two years ago by Atlantic Brewing Co.—wasn’t open when we arrived, and wouldn’t be by the time our whale watching catamaran pulled out. So we vowed to hit some pubs when we got back from seeing the giants of the sea. We actually saw six of them—two, a mother and a calf, came within ten feet of the boat, and we celebrated our good fortune by sidling into the the Finback Ale House, which had quite a selection of beers from Black Bear Brewing. As it happened, our bartender Eric was best friends with the BB brewer from childhood, and the business connection was made. Everybody seems to go blueberry nuts while in Maine, and BB had a fine blueberry beer, according to our drinking companions. But I opted for something called Drop Dead Red, a smooth malty, roasty session beer that had a gorgeous deep red color and an exquisite nose. It also matched up quite well with the Scallop Taco I had upon the recommendation of the barman.
The Crown and Kettle (aboard our ship-the Explorer of the Seas)
Before we venture into Canadian territory, I would be remiss if I did not give a hat tip to the Beverage director aboard our ship. At one of the ship’s many drinking emporiums—though its only true pub—there was a menu of fine beers that would have made any land-based tavern proud. Sam Adams Imperial White was absolutely delicious, and at 10.3% ABV, quite impressive. And it was only one of many, including Chimay, that demonstrated the growing nod mainstream places are giving to finer beer. That’s most heartening to see.

Canada—The Maritime Provinces
Saint John, New Brunswick was our first port of call in The Maritimes, but it was a morning tour of the area and a boat ride on the famous Reversing Rapids that dictated the schedule, and a very impressive natural phenomenon it was. On the way I passed what looked to be a very interesting pub called The Saint John’s Ale House, but as it was not yet open for business, you’ll have to rely on the reviews posted by Trip Advisor here. I did, however, manage to jump off a separate tour bus at the Old Market to sample some excellent beer at Billy’s Seafood Company from a brewery called Pump House, located in Monckton. A delightful bar lass recommended the Fire Chief’s Red Ale, and an excellent recommendation it was, though The PubScout had to gently direct the comely wench in the art of the proper draw, a lesson which she gratefully and graciously accepted. The beer was very smooth, malty—almost nutty—with a nicely defined hop presence, I was chagrined that I could not stay for another.

Then it was on to Halifax across the legendary Bay of Fundy and into Nova Scotia. Once again, the weather cooperated fully, and after a beautiful tour to the picturesque Peggy’s Cove, we returned to the ship for another tour—The Sou’Wester Pub Tour—which required the wearing of those yellow Sou’Wester rain hats. Our group drew much attention—and bemused looks-- as we toured the streets of Halifax, piped into three different pubs by a kilted Irish bagpiper. At each pub, beer was proffered and we listened to an itinerant Irish band playing sing-along Irish drinking songs. The PubScout himself held forth with a solo verse of the famous “Galway Bay” to thunderous applause from his besotted fellow travelers. We also learned of an Irish custom, perhaps unique to the Maritimes since I never heard of it here, wherein any Sou’Wester pubber could yell out the word “Sociable!” This utterance required everyone else in the party to respond with “Sociable!” as they downed their glasses. The practice made for a most interesting afternoon, as it continued at all three pubs.

The first, The Red Stag, was located in what we were told was the oldest continuously operating brewery in North America—Alexander Keith’s. This information caused the PubScout some distress, as I had been under the presumption that that title was held by Molson, but after a few “Sociables!” the discrepancy seemed to matter less and less. It was by every measure an excellent pub, and one which I would gladly visit again.
The second stop was The Split Crow a few blocks away, but we were transported by bus to a distance which would enable our piper to pipe us in again. More beers, more “Sociables!” and sing-along’s had everyone greased for the short—but piped-- walk to our third pub, The Lower Deck. More songs, more beer, more “Sociables!” (and easy access to a much-needed loo) helped us finish the tour and march—reasonably sober—to our bus for the ride back to the ship. You can check out some of the videos here.

In terms of fun, The Pub Tour was outstanding, but it was also pricey—roughly $80 per person. It provided great memories, however. And you got to keep the hat.
Right at pierside was another brewery called Garrison’s which, besides free WiFi, also offered excellent beers for pierwalkers and those who were leaving or returning to the ship. For $2, you could buy a six ounce cup of beer, and that way, you could try a few before you had to stumble either into Halifax or back aboard ship.

Back in the USA: Boston, MA
There were just three things on my Bucket List for Boston: to eat and quaff at the Cheers Bar, to see a bit of this historic City, especially Quincy Market and Faneuil Hall and to find a Starbuck’s. Not so much for their coffee, but for their WiFi, as the cost to go online on the ship borders on the usurious. In addition, download speeds for web pages are practically glacial. And who knew I’d have 807 emails in just ten days?
Of course, there was not enough time to read, let alone answer, them. But with that task down, and an excruciating trolley tour of the city (the narrator had the most annoying voice and delivery in history) behind us as well, we struck out for Quincy Market nearby. And we stumbled upon a pub that should NOT be missed called Dick’s Last Resort. The décor is college-freshman-dorm-room and the intentional prevailing attitude of the staff is just this side of sophomoric and completely insulting.

And funny as hell. As is my wont, I walked in to survey the place, and a staffer asked if he could help me. I said I was just looking around. He responded, “Well, now you’ve looked around, so get the hell out.” We headed straight for the bar. We ordered up two Sam Adams beers—hey, it was Boston, ya Tory bastard—and this particular beer, SA Brick Red, was only available in Boston. It was delightful to look at and a solid combination of malty smoothness with a pleasant, well-balanced hop presence. Proceeds from its sale go to helping SA with a promotion to “Brew The American Dream.” After listening to a waiter ask a wench who hopefully had ordered chicken, “How are your breasts?” we wended our way to the place in Beacon Hill “where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.”

There are actually three “Cheers bars,” one of which is a replica of the set right in Quincy Market. You’ll see pics in the Bull and Finch link below. The other replica, much smaller and tighter than the set you see on TV, is above the below-street-level pub you see in the opening credits of the hit show. That pub is technically called The Bull and Finch after a fellow named Bulfinch, who apparently was related to Norm. For the PubScout, a longtime fan of the show, it was a special treat to descend the legendary steps into the pub, grab a seat and order up a brew, a bold IPA from Wachusett Brewing called, appropriately The Green Monsta. Served in a large mug rather than a pint glass, it was, in a word, outstanding if you’re an IPA fan. The food was excellent and the ambiance was, well, captivating, for me anyway. Now I can say I’ve been there, done that and got the mugs and the t-shirts.

And, followed by a fine Alvarez Cigar for the walk back to the ship shuttle, it was the perfect way to conclude my Northeastern American Pub Tour.

Be sure to check out the pics on the right side.

Cheers! The PubScout
©Kurt Epps 2011 All rights reserved

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