Waterman’s Beach Brewery in South Thomaston makes for warm memories in the winter. Photo courtesy of Waterman’s Beach Brewery

There are few pleasures like a beer that stops time. I can feel myself physically arrested. I sit back in my chair. I tilt my head like a curious dog, gazing in wonder at the glass (eyeballs cartoonishly in a swirl). Sometimes, my companions share in the rapture; sometimes they roll their eyes; and occasionally, I’m alone, speaking in tongues to the beer gods.

As year-end “best of beer” lists make their seasonal return (though, really, click-baiting best-of-beer lists are perennial), I feel compelled to reflect on the year of beers that was. But what does it even mean for a beer to be “best”? Its alignment with style guidelines? Its drinker ratings on BeerAdvocate, RateBeer or Untappd? Its esteem among brewers? Or Cicerones?

For me, there are no “best” beers. Rather, there are beers that best align with a certain time and place. That is often unpredictable. And it will, of course, be different for everyone, depending on their mood, how they taste things, what they’ve eaten, the temperature of the beer, the glassware it’s in, and whatever else they’re doing at the time. One of the reasons craft beer is so popular, I believe, is that it is a thing we share; and yet, what pleases us is deeply personal and contextual, bound up with where we are and who we are with. What follows is a woefully incomplete account of some of the beers and breweries that left a particular impression on me this past year.

Oxbow’s Saison du Smeirlap! is a memorable beer with an intriguing backstory. Photo by Ben Lisle

In a bastard of a year, Oxbow’s Saison du Smeirlap! was a delicious bastard, literally and existentially. “Smeirlap” is Flemish, roughly translated as “bastard.” And the beer itself was the spawn of an extra-marital brewery collaboration with a twist. But to make sense of the beer and the name requires a bit of storytelling. Bear with me: It might even be worth it.

In its first iteration, Saison du Smeirlap! was another beer entirely: Taras Boulba, a fabulous blonde ale brewed by Belgium’s Brasserie de la Senne. Lemon and herbal, hoppy and dry, it is supremely sessionable at 4.5% ABV. Oxbow took that beer – brilliant in its own right –and refermented with its house cultures, conditioning it with brettanomyces, piling tropical fruit atop the original, along with a little tartness, a little funk and a hint of salinity.

Just as the beer is a sort of nesting doll, so too is the name. It is named for Nikolai Gogol’s 1842 novella, Taras Bulba, in which the titular character, an Eastern Orthodox Cossack, kills one of his sons for falling in love with and aiding a Polish Roman Catholic noblewoman during war. Brasserie de la Senne bastardized (if you will) the Gogol tale, reimagining it as a star-crossed romance between Flemish and French-speaking Belgians. The beer’s label features the red-faced father, poised to crush his son with a beer barrel, as he bellows “Smeirlap!”

My first Smeirlap – huddled under Oxbow’s plastic A-frames on Portland’s Washington Avenue in late February – was actually a happy accident. I had come that night to try Quid, an English Bitter that Oxbow brewed in collaboration with Goodfire. It’s not exactly the style of beer you would expect to come from a farmhouse brewery and one of our hazy IPA specialists; my curiosity was piqued and handsomely rewarded. The light sweetness of the malt. The floral aromas of the hops. The clean and slightly bitter finish that gives the style its name. It feels a bit like cheating that such a flavorful beer is only 4% ABV.

But that’s also why this style – the English Bitter – elbowed its way into my heavy rotation in 2021. They aren’t abundant, but it seemed like you could always find one or two at Portland bottle shops or direct from the breweries over this past year. Bunker’s Chick-A-Dee (4.3%) and Bissell Brothers’ Oi! (4.5%) both debuted about a year ago, and both come in nitro cans, adding a creamy mouthfeel to these delicate beers.

But the one I leaned on heaviest was the humbly named English Pub Ale, from Airline Brewing Co. out of Amherst. Malty, soft, earthy and reminiscent of English tea, this balanced little ale (4.2%) was surely the most unpredictable staple in my 2021 beer diet. It’s lovely in a can, but it also transports me back to the Airline Pub in Ellsworth one of my favorite shelters from the cold, where their pub ale is often on cask and steak-and-ale pie is on offer. No winter trip to Acadia is complete without this comforting pit stop.

The opening of Belleflower Brewing in Portland’s East Bayside was a highlight of the year. Photo courtesy of Belleflower Brewing

As I age – another year down – bitters, pilsner-style lagers and Kölsch-style beers have become all the more essential in keeping me upright. But that doesn’t mean I don’t hanker for some of the boozier IPAs and dessert stouts that have been so prevalent in recent years. And my favorite new brewery of the year – Belleflower Brewing in Portland’s East Bayside – really knows how to make both. Its Secret Clubhouse series of massive stouts (upwards of 12% ABV), accented with different ingredients (vanilla and cacao; coconut and hazelnut; coffee and cinnamon; pistachio, almond and marshmallow) are properly maximalist, for when you’re in that indulgent mood. IPAs like Into the Kaleidoscope hit all the notes for me: the dank, the stone fruit, the candy and the citrus. It’s no bikini beer, at 8% ABV, though it does transport me to a sunnier disposition in these colder, darker days.

So too do memories of summertime visits to Waterman’s Beach Brewery in South Thomaston. Snug against the shore, abutting a lobster pier and overlooking a series of small islands in Penobscot Bay, this might be my favorite tasting room. The beer is good and the view is spectacular. And as I shiver this winter under the Oxbow A-frames – or any of the other outdoor setups around the state – encountering new and unexpected beer pleasures, I will no doubt return in my mind to Waterman’s Beach, counting the days until summer’s glorious return.

Ben Lisle is an assistant professor of American Studies at Colby College. He lives among the breweries in Portland’s East Bayside, where he writes about cultural history, urban geography, and craft beer culture. Reach him on Twitter at @bdlisle.


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