Brewery Name: North Country Hard Cider
Type of Cidery: Retail Cidery
Location: 3 Front St, Lower, Rollinsford, NH. In classic mill town fashion, the roads can be a little tough to navigate, with a lot of unexpected one-way streets. Basically, enter the complex of buildings and go down toward the water on the right side. You’ll see the sign for the taproom there.
Facebook: North Country Hard Cider
Background: Deep down, I always knew I’d be the first to write about a cidery. Living in New England, you can barely take two steps without stumbling upon a new and exciting place making hard cider. Enter North Country, a unique little cidery tucked away in the rural mill town of Rollinsford, NH. North Country first grabbed my attention when I saw one of their growlers marked “Squash Cider” in a grocery store. My interest was piqued, but I assumed they would chicken out and just spice it with nutmeg and cinnamon--basically treating it like a pumpkin cider. But no. North Country roasted a boatload of squash and added it right into the recipe. The result is like nothing I had ever tasted, and wound up being unexpectedly delicious. To date, it might be my favorite cider I’ve ever had. Needless to say, after such a surprisingly amazing experience, I knew I’d have to make a visit to the taproom.
Growlers: Yep. You can buy and fill growlers in the taproom, and North Country has a small selection of bottled ciders available for purchase as well.
The Ciders: North Country had more than half a dozen different ciders on offer when I visited, and I was only too pleased to try all of them. Among those that I tasted, these were the ones that stuck with me the most:
Vibe: I love the vibe here. I happened to visit on a rainy day, which was unfortunate because they have a nice little outdoor area that would have been nice to enjoy. The cidery is located on the shore of the Salmon Falls River, in the old mill town of Rollinsford. It’s an absolutely beautiful area (although the streets can be a little maze-like), and I recommend visiting on a slightly less monsoon-y day than me if you want the full experience.
The inside of the taproom is gorgeous as well. Exposed brick and beautifully finished hardwood are everywhere you look, and a nice big window gives you a great view into the pressroom. There are board games scattered around the room to keep you entertained, and even though there isn’t a whole lot of space, it doesn’t ever feel particularly cramped. North Country makes really nice use of the limited seating area in a way that encourages patrons to talk and interact with one another (this is particularly true if you happened to bring a friendly dog with you).
The staff was really friendly, and we enjoyed talking to the woman behind the bar as she explained the different ciders to us. I visited alongside my girlfriend, who has a gluten allergy (tough luck dating a beer blogger, huh?), and they were extremely knowledgeable about which ciders would be safe to drink (as you can probably guess, the answer was mostly “stay away from anything barrel-aged”). We could see more staff in the back, busily bottling beers and preparing the next batch of ciders for kegging and distribution.
I talked about it already, but the thing that really draws me to North Country is the creativity they show in their ciders. The squash cider I mentioned above might be the single best cider I’ve ever tasted--and it’s definitely the most creative. Throw in a whole host of different barrel-aged ciders and flavor profiles that range from pleasantly savory to extremely tart, and it’s clear that this is a cidery that knows how to operate across a broad range of styles--and do them all well.
Dogs: Yes. There a handful of dogs in the cidery when we arrived, and we had a great time playing with them while we worked our way through the enormous tasting platters we had accrued for ourselves.
Price ($ to $$$$$): $$. Shockingly affordable considering the quality of the cider you’re getting...not to mention the enormous tasters.
Food: No food here. The taproom is purely for enjoying cider.
Final Thoughts: My palate for cider isn’t nearly as refined as my palate for beer, but you don’t have to be an expert to enjoy the offerings at North Country Cider. Just the opposite, in fact--they offer so many different styles of cider across so many different flavor profiles that this might actually be the perfect place to go if you’re looking to figure out what sort of cider you like best. There’s something for everyone here, and I can’t recommend visiting North Country highly enough.
Brewery Name: Shanty Shack Brewing
Type of Brewery: Retail Brewery
Location: Santa Cruz, CA
Facebook: Shanty Shack Brewing
Background: Santa Cruz is among the long list of California beach towns with blossoming beer scenes. Many come with the laid back Cali style that is associated with the region, and Shanty Shack embodies it perfectly.
Shanty Shack was born from two friends who developed of a truly innovative way to get their brewery off the ground. When they started out, the partners took an approach similar to that of a food share or community supported agriculture system by brewing beer and delivering personally to customers' doorsteps. Along the way, they found ways to incorporate local produce and herbs into the beers and made friends with local chefs who helped with food pairings and pushing their flavors even further.
All this work was done in anticipation of opening a brick and mortar location in Santa Cruz, complete with a tasting room, a beer garden, and room for live music. It's a microbrewery for sure, but size matters not when the place is full of happy people enjoying good craft beer!
Growlers: Crowlers are offered as a to-go option, but it didn't look like growlers were sold or filled.
The Beers: This was a relatively tame stop as far as the number of beers goes (you know, the whole driving a car bit), but we happened to stop by on a day that they had a couple of extra-exciting beers on tap:
Vibe: You can just tell these guys like beer and everything about the craft beer industry. The shop is cozy, but still offers plenty of space to sit inside at hightops or outside at picnic tables, enjoy live music, play outdoor games, or enjoy the beer garden. They make really great use of the space they've got and they keep everything clean but not corporate.
It was nice and crowded (plus a live band) so I wasn’t able to catch our beertender's name, but she was awesome! She told us a bit about their barreling program and gave some suggestions for each flavor profile. Extremely attentive, responsive, and pleasant--definitely one of the better interactions I've had at a Santa Cruz brewery.
In addition to the litany of seating areas and options, the live music seems to be a semi-regular thing, as is partnering with the food trucks that hang near the beer garden. Cornhole (with a sweet Shanty Shack paintjob) is available, and board games are inside, too. The parking is a bit hit or miss since it's in a mostly permit-restricted area, but we visited on a Saturday when it was very busy and still found a space after a few passes.
Dogs: Shanty Shack is very dog-friendly, with tons of space for the pups to run around as well.
Price ($ to $$$$$): $$. Super fairly priced for craft beer. Full pours are 6 to 8 bucks and vary a bit in size if it's a barrel aged beer or the like. Food is at food truck prices, but since it's not Shanty Shacks, I didn't really factor that in. Crowlers (when available) go for about $12, which is in-line with pint prices--so all around, no complaints on the dollar bills.
Food: Mentioned it a few times already, but they've got a space outside for a food truck, and, from what I can tell, that's a pretty common setup. Based on their website, it looks like they do some tasting room-style food on the premises during lunchtime (cheese, hummus, sandos, the like) and a few weekly dinners. The popcorn machine in the tasting room is a nice touch as well.
Final Thoughts: Great spot to remind you that drinking a good craft beer should be done comfortably and with friends. The venue breeds relaxation and everyone there seems to soak it up. Absolutely full endorsement from me when in (or heading through) Santa Cruz.
Brewery Name: OEC Brewing
Type of Brewery: Retail Brewery
Location: 7 Fox Hollow Road, Oxford, CT 06478. It’s a little off the beaten path, down a long and winding road past a few scattered office buildings and up a small hill. You may think you’ve gone too far, but you haven’t. You’ll see their name painted on a rock at the base of a long driveway. Just go up the drive and you’ll see their building and parking lot.
Facebook: OEC Brewing
Background: When you think of New England sours, OEC is the first brewery that comes to mind. These guys are the best. The top of the top. The cream of the crop. The undisputed champions of beers that made your taste buds scream and your lips pucker. If you like sours, chances are you’ve heard of OEC. Oh, and for the curious: OEC stands for Ordinem Ecentrici Coctores, which translates to "Order of the Eccentric Boilers."
Growlers: Yes. You can purchase growlers there (and at a very reasonable price) or bring your own. OEC prefers to fill pop-top growlers rather than screw-top because of the process through which they inject CO2 into each beer. Because of the added CO2, OEC’s growlers keep much longer than growlers from many other breweries. According to the brewers, an unopened OEC growler can last several months before declining in quality. It’s worth noting that not every beer is available for growler fills. When I visited, there were just two options for fills, with the remainder able to be purchased in bottles.
The Beers: OEC had eight beers on tap when I wandered in, and, of course, I had to try all eight of them. Normally I wouldn’t bat an eye at tasting eight different beers, but sours are a bit of a different animal, and a part of me was nervous about pouring that much acid into my system at once. I shouldn’t have been. Each and every one of these beers was delicious, well balanced, and left me wanting more.
Vibe: This place is awesome. Getting here is a bit of an experience as Oxford, CT isn’t...well, it isn’t particularly close to anything. About two hours outside New York City and 45 minutes or so from the shore of the Long Island Sound, OEC is nestled into the lush, beautiful countryside of Connecticut. To get there, you’ll pass through some small towns, drive along some narrow, winding roads, and ultimately make your way through a generously spaced neighborhood of commercial buildings before you find OEC nestled atop a small, wooded hillside.
The facility itself looks almost homey. Some tanks are visible and the people walking out the front door dollying pallets of beer to their cars are hard to miss. But overall, it doesn’t necessarily look the way you might expect one of the most celebrated breweries in New England to look.
That all changes when you open the front door (which, I would like to note, is so tall and beautifully crafted that it almost feels like entering a castle). Take one step into the interior of the building and you’ll see a handful of brewing tanks to your right, just behind a small row of tables. Go up a small set of stairs and the area opens up in a big way. Looming before you is a huge tasting room, filled with various types of seating, and a door to a small porch outside where you can sit and sip your beer in sunny weather (sadly, it was raining when I arrived).
I sat at the bar myself, where I had to laugh a little every time someone new sidled up to order a drink. Each new person was greeted with some variation of “hi, welcome to OEC! You know all of our beers are sour, right?” I can only imagine how many surprised (and probably negative) reactions they’ve received in the past from people expecting a more standard brew. As much as I love sours, I fully understand that they are an acquired taste, and it’s probably best to make sure people know what they’re getting into.
I ordered all eight beers that OEC had on tap, and sat there for probably a little over an hour, sipping each one in turn. Sours are delicious, but, as much as I love tart beer, I figured it was best to give myself a little time to adjust to the acidic assault on my stomach. I only say this because, although I spent a lot of time at the bar, I never felt like I was being hustled out the door or pressured to leave. The staff could not have been friendlier, and I enjoyed talking to the women running the house. The patrons were friendly as well, and I had the chance to talk to a few different people as they came up to order drinks. If it weren’t for the fact that I had to get back in my car and drive home, I would have been happy to order another drink and spend even more time there.
Dogs: Yes, you can bring your dog to OEC Brewing. A little while after I arrived, someone came in and sat just behind the bar with the most adorable black lab puppy I’ve ever seen in my life. A few minutes later a family with three tiny children came in and sat at the bar. The kids playing with the puppy pretty much put my beer drinking experience on cute overload.
Price ($ to $$$$$): $$$$$. Look, there are no two ways about it: these are pricey beers. Even the tasters aren't cheap--the eight-beer sample flight I ordered cost me $25. But the fact is, you get what you pay for. You’re not going to find a place that puts more care into the brewing process. Hell, you’re not going to find a place that puts more care into the bottling process. Or the growler filling process. Every step of the way, OEC is dedicated to putting the best possible product in front of their customers. That translates to higher prices, but it’s something you’ll have to make peace with. Beer this good doesn’t happen by accident, and you’re paying premium prices for a premium product. Bottles generally run in the $13 to $20 range, though some occasionally run low and others occasionally run high.
It’s also worth noting that you can purchase bottles online and pick them up in the taproom. Although the taproom itself is only open one day a week, you can also pick up your purchases during normal 9-5 hours on weekdays (although you should reach out to give them a heads-up 24 hours before). OEC will store your purchases for you until the end of the calendar year, giving you plenty of time to make it to the taproom for pickup. That said, they also charge a $1.50 storage fee per bottle. This is more than reasonable, but it is something you should be aware of.
Did Shane Buy Yet ANOTHER glass? You bet I did! As always, if a brewery I like sells a style of glass that I don’t have, I am literally powerless to resist buying it. This time, it was a stemmed sour glass with a slightly fluted body.
Food: Not really. There are some snacky options like chips or a soft pretzel, but OEC isn’t equipped with a full kitchen for food service. That said, from what I saw it looks like they are fine with you bringing outside food in. I saw a couple of pizza floating around on the tables inside.
Final Thoughts: If you like sours, you absolutely have to visit OEC. I’ll put it in the simplest possible terms: they are the best. They know what they’re doing. They had a half dozen or so different styles of sour beer on tap when I visited, and each one was better than the last. They aren’t just experts on goses. They aren’t just experts on weisses. They aren’t just experts on lambics. They’re expects on all of those styles and more. OEC has my highest possible recommendation. For lovers of sour beer, this is a can’t miss place.
Brewery Name: Auburn Alehouse
Type of Brewery: Brewpub
Location: Auburn, California
Facebook: Auburn Alehouse Craft Brewery
Background: I grew up in New York and lived in Washington, DC for quite some time after that. I thought I knew what traffic was. Then I got to California and was re-educated. This particular time, I was headed from San Francisco to Tahoe, and for one reason or another got a bit of a later start than planned. This meant that what could potentially be a three-hour drive was going to take us closer to eight. Thankfully, Auburn Alehouse was a perfect pit stop to aim for along the way. Far enough to make good progress, close enough to provide a light at the end of the traffic tunnel.
I had heard a bit about Auburn Alehouse and tried a few of their brews at last year's beer week, but, since it's a ways outside of the city, I hadn't ever gone to visit. Enter the perfect opportunity. Auburn Alehouse brews a huge spectrum of beer styles, which is something that is always attractive to me. Better yet, they pull it off--Auburn Alehouse has great beers in all parts of that spectrum.
Growlers: On almost everything, yes. They've got a couple nitros along with a small number of the specialty seasonals that aren't eligible, but everything else is fair game!
The Beers: So, so, so many beers here. They do a great job of bottling enough to provide for sale but not so much that it starts to get old. Their bar sports a few nitro taps, some cask ales, and a whole mess of taps for their house and seasonal beers. I couldn't resist the hoppy stuff, but I threw a black lager in for good measure. Here's what I tried:
Vibe: "Town square brewpub" feel here. It was clear upon arrival that this is the place to be on a Friday night for good craft beer and a solid end of the week reward meal. We hadn't seen much in the way of crowds or even many other places to stop before arriving here, but when we did, it was definitely a buzzing place.
Family friendly and a great watering hole with a large group, the layout is conducive to having whatever type of experience you're looking for. Plenty of room to sit at a table and a huge bar make for a great use of space and easy ability to get the next round. Staff was great and managed the crowd extremely well.
This was also one of the better incorporations of the actual brewing section into a pub area that I've seen. Two floors of windows at the far end of the building give you a glimpse into the tank area, and they have it lit in a way that highlights the machinery without blinding the dining room. By design, it's definitely a different feel from the warehouse-style brewery that I see a lot in the city, and I wish it were a little more obvious that you were actually in the brewery. That said, this allows them to have more space, a bigger menu, and to capture the town square vibe that works so well for them.
Dogs: No dogs inside here since it's more or less a restaurant. I went during the winter, but I believe when the weather gets nicer there is some outdoor seating that would provide pup-ability in the summer.
Price ($ to $$$$$): $$. Full pours range from $5ish to $8ish, depending on what's available. Their flagship stuff is delicious and is sold for $5 even, which is tough to beat. They do flights, half pours, and bottles of most beers as well. Food is very reasonably priced and a real highlight of this venue.
Food: The food here is a pretty significant plus as far as brewpubs go. The menu is huge, and everything we tried was excellent. Good food at a place like this is an absolute must, and Auburn Alehouse hits every mark with options ranging from small plates to southern food to pizza and burgers.
We visited during normal dinner time but also saw some info about all sorts of beer/food pairing events, special menus, holiday events, and several other fun happenings that centered on good food with good beer.
Final Thoughts: So very glad we made a point to stop here on our trip. There is so much beer in San Francisco and Oakland that I admittedly don't get nearly as much as I'd like from breweries in the rest of Northern California. Auburn Alehouse was a reminder that the rest of the area has beer just as good, and benefits from having a little more space to put up a shop. Happy to say that this will surely become a tradition as part of the trip to Tahoe moving forward!
Brewery Name: The Alchemist
Type of Brewery: Retail Brewery
Location: 100 Cottage Club Rd, Stowe, VT. Once you take the turn off the main road, you can’t miss it.
Facebook: The Alchemist
YouTube: Alchemist Beer
Background: Most people know about The Alchemist at this point. Most famous for Heady Topper, one of the most famous beers in the world, head brewer John Kimmich has become famous for making delicious and (until recently) difficult to obtain beers. The brewpub that originally served as the brewhouse for The Alchemist burned down years ago, and the brewery has had no retail taproom in the intervening years. As a result, getting your hands on beers like Heady Topper and Focal Banger required either spending hours outside a beer store waiting for a delivery or hitting up one of the local establishments with a distribution agreement. Fortunately, that changed last year. At long last, The Alchemist finally opened a brand new retail establishment, and good lord is it beautiful. My wonderful girlfriend planned a trip to Stowe for us on my birthday, and was only too happy to swing into the facility for some beer.
Growlers: No growlers, but all of their beers are available in cans.
The Beers: When the new facility opened, The Alchemist was finally able to get back to brewing more of the beers that helped put them on the map in the first place. Sure, Heady Topper and Focal Banger are the biggest names, but the expanded capacity has allowed Kimmich and his team to brew more of their classic recipes--as well as a few new, experimental beers. When I stopped by, there were five beers available:
Vibe: The new facility is, in a word, awesome. The building itself is absolutely gorgeous, with a stunning white facade adorned with Alchemist-themed art on all sides. There are massive picture windows that extend almost all the way to the roof, offering a glimpse at the brewing area that makes up the majority of the building’s interior.
Of course, the best part of the new building is the fact that The Alchemist has really figured out how to streamline purchasing. Gone are the days of standing in line for hours: they’ve made getting in simple, getting tasters simple, and purchasing beer simple. When you walk in the door, you can head to the left to sample the beers the have on tap, and, when you’ve made your decision, you can head over to the registers on the right. There are a few barriers to make sure things remain orderly, but you should get to the front of the line in short order. The fridges are continuously stocked, ensuring that even when the people ahead of you purchase the maximum amount of beer permitted, you’ll never have to wait to get yours.
Speaking of purchasing limits, the fact that you can now walk in on any given day and purchase an entire case of Heady Topper is crazy to me. I remember the days of fighting for every possible can, and you a simple trip to Stowe can result in multiple cases of amazing Alchemist beer. One of the best things about the new taproom is how cleanly laid out it is, and how well labeled everything is. You won’t have to guess about purchasing limits: there are multiple signs telling you exactly how much of each beer you can purchase. And at just $12.50 per four-pack, why wouldn’t you purchase the maximum?
The Alchemist offers a wide variety of merchandise to select from, including the classic t-shirts, sweatshirts, and hats. They also offer unique glassware, which I had to purchase, as well as a few more interesting offerings. The Alchemist partnered with a local restaurant to produce Heady Topper hot sauce, and I was too intrigued to pass it up. No shock here: it’s delicious.
Maybe the coolest part of the entire experience was seeing the massive brewing area behind the taproom. The Alchemist has come a long way from their old, limited brewing capacity, and an even longer way from their brewpub days. The massive tanks really drive home just how much beer the brewery is now able to produce, and anyone who has ever tasted what The Alchemist puts out can’t help but be excited by the prospect of more.
Dogs: Yes. You can bring your dog to The Alchemist taproom. They don’t serve food there, so there isn’t much trouble your pup can get into. You’ll obviously want to keep them on a leash, but they’re pretty dog-friendly. You can even get Alchemist-branded dog collars and leashes!
Price ($ to $$$$$): $$. I was floored by how affordable The Alchemist’s beers were. Every beer they make comes in at just $12.50 per four-pack, which is astonishingly low for beer of this quality. Given that beers from Tree House, Bissell Brothers, and other well-known New England breweries can cost upwards of $17-$20 per four-pack, this is amazingly affordable.
Food: No food (unless you count hot sauce). The taproom is for beer only.
Final Thoughts: I was thrilled with my experience at the new facility. It’s massive. It’s beautiful. It’s convenient. It’s streamlined. I’d honestly be hard-pressed to think of a single thing they could even improve. The Alchemist makes some of the most delicious beer in the world, and it’s great to see that they’re putting that brewing expertise to work by filling the new facility with old classics, new experiments, and, most of all, amazing people. I can’t wait for the chance to come back.
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