Late this spring I happened to take a seat at the bar at Acre near Matt Modica from Windy City Distributing. We hadn't yet met, but an open bottle in front of him inspired me to make his acquaintance: Maine Beer Company's Zoe. I knew the brewery didn't distribute in Chicago, but its reputation had preceded it. It's famous for hoppy American ales, unfancy but exceptionally well made—perhaps most notably an IPA called Lunch, which has attracted comparisons to Russian River's stratospherically rated Pliny the Elder.
Modica not only shared that bottle of Zoe, he also told me that Maine beer would be coming to Chicago imminently—probably within the month. Of course, in any business as heavily regulated as the selling of alcohol, forecasting is a fool's errand: it actually took almost half a year. But the happy day arrived about five weeks ago, and on November 6 at the Hopleaf I paid for my first proper pour of a Maine beer—an American pale ale called MO.
The Maine Beer Company was founded in 2009 by brothers David and Daniel Kleban, Michigan natives who'd settled in Maine ten years earlier. In April 2013 they moved from an industrial park in Portland to a new facility about 20 miles away in Freeport, in the process bumping their capacity from 3,000 barrels per year to roughly 5,000. New tanks being installed this week will further increase the brewery's output to 6,800 barrels annually. This expansion—plus the fact that the Klebans have friends and family in Chicago—helped bring Maine beer to town.
To put these numbers in perspective, Revolution Brewing produced 24,000 barrels in 2013, and expects to hit 42,000 next year. It distributes in much of Illinois and part of Ohio (assuming its website is current). Maine ships a small fraction of that amount to a significantly larger area—the east coast from Maine down to Virginia, plus Chicago—so its beer ends up spread pretty thin.
The idea, says David Kleban, is to throw a little bit of beer at a big market, so that people will go through it quickly. The Maine folks want their beer to get drunk within 90 days—they don't care about consistent shelf presence, and are happy for their products to come and go if it means that everything they sell is fresh.
The first shipment of Maine beer to Chicago included MO and Zoe, of course, as well as a measly 13 cases of Lunch, which are long gone (Small Bar Division had a few bottles at a meet-and-greet this past Saturday evening, but they didn't even last till 8 PM). You could also find Peeper (another American pale), Mean Old Tom (a stout with vanilla beans—Maine's only regular-rotation beer to use an adjunct), Weez (an American black ale), King Titus (a hoppy porter), Red Wheelbarrow (a hoppy red ale), and Maine's 2013 anniversary collaboration (a Belgo-American pale made with fellow Maine breweries Allagash and In'finiti).
A second shipment, due this week, will omit Red Wheelbarrow (something I didn't know when I decided to review it) and the 2013 anniversary beer, but the others will be back—with the likely addition of an IPA called Another One and a strong winter ale called Lil One. All come in 16.9-ounce bottles (500 milliliters) that cost $6 to $8 retail. Windy City's Beer Hunter search engine appears to indicate that Maine beers are thick on the ground in Chicago, but its results tell you only which stores and bars receive bottles or kegs when they arrive, not which ones still have anything to sell. I recommend using your phone, or at least consulting BeerMenus.
This is hardly cheap stuff—most craft beer costs less—but you might find the price easier to take in light of the fact that the Maine Beer Company participates in the 1% for the Planet campaign, donating 1 percent of its sales to local environmental nonprofits. It also gives away the tips from its tap room (in May that meant more than $500 to a cat shelter), recycles everything it can (diverting spent grain, yeast, and grain bags to farmers, for instance), and buys wind credits to offset its electricity use.
And of course it helps that the beer is delicious.
Maine's recipes are about balance above all else, as David Kleban puts it. "We're into being pleasant," he says. For exactly that reason, I was a little apprehensive about reviewing Zoe and Red Wheelbarrow—it's often difficult to put words to beers that don't lean hard in any one direction. Kleban admits it's tough to describe them: "I don't know—just drink it," he says. "Otherwise I'd be a poet."
Zoe's label says "Our Happy, Hoppy, Amber," in a profligacy of commas. The beer is 7.2 percent alcohol, with a pillowy, clingy head of almond-colored froth and a deep, clear ruby body. Its aroma is exhilaratingly zingy and lush: first a rush of young pine needles, tangerine zest, grilled pineapple, and pink grapefruit, then honey, cocoa powder, jasmine tea, and a touch of milk caramel.
In this case "Do what's right" clearly means "Remove this bottle cap at once."
The taste is equally complex, with a bright, astringent bitterness up top and loads of malts underneath, contributing black raisin, baker's chocolate, toasted wheat bread, and stewed plums with cardamom. The bitterness lingers, combining pine, grapefruit pith, and orange marmalade—the flavors complement one another as inextricably as the light and dark sides of the moon.
Zoe's high level of carbonation gives it a tingly effervescence, and it's easy to kick up a quarter-inch of new foam by swirling it in your glass, even 20 or 30 minutes after the pour. The beer's fine-grained bubbles give it a texture that feels the way glossy silk looks.
Red Wheelbarrow (7 percent alcohol) is named after the William Carlos Williams poem, and its color is somewhere between garnet and vermilion. My bottle was slightly hazy, which made the beer seem almost luminous in the sun. It's fruitier on the nose than Zoe—it smells more like cedar than pine, leaving lots of room for candied orange peel, red grapefruit, dried apricot, and something floral that's a bit like violet. Between and around those aromas, roasted barley floats atop raspberry-chocolate cake.
Red Wheelbarrow's flavor is mellower than Zoe's, with more richness in the malts—toasted biscuit, buttery toffee, milk chocolate, and iced coffee with caramel syrup. The fruitiness is milder too, reminding me of yellow peaches, cantaloupe, and baked apples with cherries. The bitterness is considerable, but gentler and more rounded, like the nearly burnt crust of a brioche. The flavors don't contrast as sharply, so that the beer's opposite poles aren't as far apart.
Compared to Zoe, Red Wheelbarrow is less spritzy, but it's still lively, with a creamy, chewy texture. Both of these beers are great arguments for bottle conditioning—that's how Maine carbonates everything, with the exception of Lil One.
I didn't plan to review Zoe and Red Wheelbarrow immediately after this year's Bourbon County variants, but the juxtaposition presents an instructive contrast. On one hand, you've got beers that carry barrel-aging and the addition of adjuncts to ambitious extremes, and that claim to develop for years in the bottle; on the other, you've got beers that self-consciously aim to perfect a traditionalist malt-hops-and-yeast approach, and that demand to be consumed at once. Just don't make me choose between them.
The head on Zoe is nice and sticky.
Those of you familiar with my usual ridiculous method of shoehorning metal into these Beer and Metal posts may be wondering how I'm going to manage it this week, given the paucity of opportunities for metal-related wordplay presented by "Maine," "Zoe," and "Red Wheelbarrow." Bear with me.
If there's one word that goes with "Maine" in the minds of midwesterners, it's "lobster," right? And what's the best-known song about lobsters? "Rock Lobster" by the B-52s, of course.
"But wait," I imagine you saying. "There's no way 'Rock Lobster' is metal."
Au contraire, mon frere! Beloved Houston band Dead Horse, who started playing together in 1988, broke up in '97, and reunited in 2011, released a cover of "Rock Lobster" on their 1991 album Peaceful Death and Pretty Flowers. I had the pleasure of seeing these degenerates perform it live while I was in college at Rice in the early 90s. I'd like to call your attention to their rendition of the "ooh-aah" backup vocals at 2:06, as well as to the "Down! Down!" break at 2:32.