SOMERSWORTH, N.H. — Jake Robert Johnson is perched at the bar at Leaven, a new “beer and bread house” on Market Street, wearing a baseball cap and comfortable Friday afternoon clothes good for hanging out with friends and drinking craft beer from Vermont.
Johnson lives in Berwick, just across the Salmon Falls River bridge that connects Maine with this old New Hampshire mill town. A couple of times a week, he crosses from one border town to the other to come into Leaven for a beer. Usually one of those days is Sunday, since he can’t buy beer in Berwick that day.
“I come here about once or twice a week,” he said. “I wish I could come three or four times.”
Leaven opened a little over a month ago. Even though it is in New Hampsphire, at least half of its customers are like Johnson – craft beer fans from Maine who venture across the border to get what they can’t in their own hometowns.
It is a unique little pub in more ways than one. For one thing, it is also a sourdough bakery that produces white levain, whole wheat, a rye loaf with caraway, anadama, ciabatta, rosemary-Parmesan focaccia, sourdough pretzels, pretzel buns and other styles of bread that are displayed on a wooden rack behind the bar. Some people stroll in during the day and pick up the bread they need and leave. Others tuck a loaf under their arm as they head out the door late at night, after they’ve downed a few beers with their neighbors.
Others walk in, observes bartender/co-owner Aidan Watson, see the beer taps and the bread racks, “and get this deer-in-the-headlights look, like ‘What is this place?’ ”
Leaven is a reflection of what’s happening in hometowns across the country as millenials – also known as “Generation Wait” – drop out of the traditional job hunt and make an effort to forge their own path through a rough economy.
It was started by three old friends, all in their 20s, who ventured out into the world to work, study and travel, but in the end chose to make Somersworth home.
Emmett Soldati, 25, was in graduate school in London before coming back to Somersworth to start a tea house called Teatotaller. Patrick Jackman, also 25, worked for a financial company in Manhattan. Aidan Watson, 23, had just finished up his studies in hospitality management in Boston.
“That’s called Prospect Hill,” Soldati said, gesturing toward a hillside across the street that is filled with Victorian architecture from the town’s more prosperous days. “It’s the largest historic district in New Hampshire. We all were born and raised on that hill, a stone’s throw away, a couple of houses from each other. Growing up, we all knew each other really well. A lot of other people we grew up with also have moved back to Somersworth.”
Watson calls it “the most ridiculous migration of over-educated people back home to a small town.”
“It’s really quite insane,” he said. “A lot of people with graduate degrees from some pretty prestigious colleges are moving back here, and they all have ideas, and they all want to make something of Somersworth.”
IT STARTED WITH A TEA HOUSE
Soldati was the first to dip his toes into the water. Against all odds, he opened a tea house in a place where coffee drinking is the norm. That business has become successful enough that he’s been able to hire a manager to help him run it.
The idea for Leaven came one day when Soldati and his two friends got to chatting about Somersworth and what the town needs. All that travel and study had expanded their palates for culture and nightlife, but their only choices in town for food and drink were a couple of pizza joints, a biker bar, a sports bar and private venues like the local VFW.
“There was no place we would have gone if we were living in a big city,” Soldati said.
They wanted a local pub, a place where the whole community could gather and 60-somethings could rub elbows with 22-year-olds.
The beer side of the business was a no-brainer; there was no place else in town (or in Berwick across the river) to sit back and enjoy a beer from one of the many craft breweries that are popping up around New England.
The bread part came from Soldati, a “sourdough enthusiast” who has baked professionally in Toronto and at a little bakery in Somersworth right across the road from Leaven. To prepare himself to open a sourdough bakery, he traveled to conferences and visited San Francisco.
Soldati, Watson and Jackman knew they would need $40,000 to get their business going, and they knew they would have to turn to crowd-sourcing to raise that money. They wanted to keep investment local – to create a “community-suppported bar” – so they started a voucher program similar to one they’d heard about from some Vermont bar owners. In a series of “dough-raising parties,” the three New Hampshire men sold vouchers in amounts of $100, $200 and $500.
In exchange for their support, people who bought vouchers will be given lots of gift cards to Leaven over the next year. Anyone who bought a $100 voucher will get a $20 gift card every other month, for a total of $120. Voucher holders who paid $200 will get $240 back in the form of $20 gift cards every month. And a $500 voucher entitles the buyer to $600 in gift cards, parceled out at a rate of $50 a month.
The system, Soldati said, “establishes confidence in us, helps to get us going, but also gives a little reward.”
At their first dough-raising event, they raised more than $2,000 in one night. Soldati estimates the voucher program raised at least $10,000 of the $40,000 they needed to start the bar.
“Up here, it’s like people are thirsty for it,” Soldati said. “Both the city and the community are. The moment we said the words ‘beer and bread’ a year and a half ago, there were people throwing money at us.”
Local developer Brian Caple stepped up and offered to buy the building on Market Street where Leaven would be launched, and he became another partner in the business. The building had lain dormant for a decade.
Then Somersworth, the smallest of 13 cities in New Hampshire, decided to pour about $6 million into a “downtown improvement and enhancement project” that would upgrade water, sewage and drainage systems, build new sidewalks and generally beautify the area with landscaping and other improvements. The city also launched a community revitalization tax-incentive program for the historic district, and Leaven became its first beneficiary.
It’s not hard to tell. Walking down Market Street, Leaven stands out like a shiny new penny against the tired mill-town backdrop of old buildings, peeling paint and muted colors. Located next to a martial arts gym and down the street from a hookah bar, the edifice of Leaven is freshly painted. Its wooden door has been polished until it gleams, and the hardware on the front door sparkles. A spiffy new sign hangs outside, just above a red, white and blue flag that proudly shouts “Open.”
Outside, the number of cars driving by boggles the mind. An estimated 15,000 to 20,000 cars drive by the bar in a steady stream each day, all of them headed for or coming from the bridge to Maine.
“This is one of the only ways into Maine,” Soldati explained, “so we get a lot of Maine traffic going to stores, going to Route 16, that are coming up from the North Berwick and Berwick area, and vice versa. If anyone’s going to the beaches, if anyone’s headed to Portland, you cross here.”
Inside, there is seating for 39 at tables and at the bar, which curves out into the room. As soon as the downtown construction is finished, a patio that seats 20 will be added at the side of the building.
A chalkboard notes what’s on tap – about 10 kinds of craft beer, from Maine’s own Allagash White to Henniker’s Working Man’s Porter – and what’s available in the bottle, a list that inclues Long Trail Ale from Vermont and Peak Organic Fresh Cut from Portland.
PRETZELS AN UNEXPECTED HIT
The kitchen is in back. Much of it is dedicated to the bakery, with plenty of room to make, proof and bake the dough. Bakers John Miley and Chris Cummings go through 150 pounds of flour a week and make 20 to 30 loaves of bread a day just for the kitchen to use for sandwiches and burgers. The fresh soft pretzels, chewy and salty, have been an unexpected hit.
Chef Nina Mauser takes care of the menu, which is small but interesting for an out-of-the-way pub. Starters include house grits with cheddar, those soft pretzels served with choice of mustards, and a bread board that includes a sampling of the pub’s breads served with different housemade spreads, including a pesto cream cheese, spicy chili aioli and clam dip.
There are soups and salads, and of course sandwiches made with the house bread. The most popular is the classic reuben – corned beef on house rye (made with organic flour from Maine Grains) served with homemade sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and Thousand Island dressing. It comes with a side of pickled squash and potato chips.
There are just two entrees, a lamb burger and, of course, a savory bread pudding. It’s made with pancetta and cheddar and Parmesan cheeses, then topped with a touch of Bernaise sauce. The chunks of bread are crispy on the outside, while the inside remains moist but not soggy. The bread pudding is served with the vegetable of the day, such as creamed kale kicked up with a little hot sauce, and some apple slices.
The only dessert on the menu is also a bread pudding, made with candied pecans, raspberry glaze and vanilla bean ice cream.
The owners of Leaven have had to make a few adjustments since they’ve opened. The bread has proven more popular than they expected, to the point where they ran out of loaves to make sandwiches a few times because customers bought it all off the wall. More than once, they’ve had to double the amount of pretzels they make to keep up with demand.
Wednesday, which is board game night, appears to be their busiest day. Customers bring in their own games, the kitchen and bar run specials, and people buy a pitcher of beer and play Risk for three hours. Demographically, the crowd is mixed, but Wednesdays draw a lot of 20-somethings.
“People are getting to meet each other, and they’re not glued to the TV,” Watson said. “We get terrible cell phone reception in here, so their iPhones are right out.”
Next will come music nights and trivia nights.
“We still have a whole marketing plan to do a lot of different fun events and shake things up,” Soldati said. “We haven’t even started that, and people are still becoming regulars, which is fun to see.”
One phrase they hear a lot from customers is “Somersworth needed a place like this.”
Jake Johnson, who works as a chef at a wedding facility in South Berwick, is one of those customers. His family has deep roots on both sides of the border. One grandfather worked at General Electric in Somersworth; the other owned Johnson’s IGA across from the Berwick Town Hall, “so I have 120 years of family history in the area.”
“I’ve been here a long, long time,” Johnson said. “I’ve seen this town go through a lot of changes, and I think that this is a very positive change for this area. I think as the seacoast region – that’s Portsmouth and Dover and Durham – expand into Somersworth, this is exactly what that expanding population is going to be after.”
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at firstname.lastname@example.org