Gritty McDuff’s, Portland and Freeport, Maine, USA

Gritty McDuff’s Brewpub, Portland

I got to visit both the Portland and Freeport locations of the oldest brewpub in Maine within 24 hours. I am glad to say the brew in each is fine even if the setting of the Freeport pub is a bit rough. It is a bit like drinking in an old storage shed though – to be very fair – it is clearly a summer spot and dropping in during a late winter snow storm did not show it to its best. I liked the food in both spots.





If I was in Freeport again I probably would stop in for a stout but if you are heading to visit just one, go to Portland. In each you can see bench seating which is fairly common in New England and Atlantic Canada but less so as you move west. Superb. Their use of rolled raw barley creates a creamy mouthfeel that out strips Guinness anyday. It is like melted ice cream…ok…it reminds me of melted ice cream with a pin-fine nitro beige head above black malt roasty double devon. It is exceptional.





I also tried the Scotch Ale in the Freeport location and was similarly impressed. I sometime wonder about the style and whether you can put anything in it you want as long as it has less hops and a black malt roughness. This offering has an orangey hue as well as that flavour in the mouth – a nod to Scotch seville marmadade? The fruitiness is counteracted with the rough black malt, subdued green hop and a slight smokey feel. With an additional tangy edge, the overall effect is slightly Belgian and slightly Scots. Very nice and at 6.3% a wee methodical ale worth deconstructing over an afternoon’s sip.

So definitely worth the visit for the ales, Portland for the ales and the location. Gritty’s also bottles its own – or at least has it contract brewed somewhere – which you can pick up pretty much anywhere in southern Maine. I think I brought a quart of Black Fly home for further study. Below are some shots from the Freeport location which you can click on for a larger view.

The Blue Tusk, Syracuse, New York

The last of what Lew Bryson has called “the triumvirate” of Syracuse’s temples to ale, the Blue Tusk, was my favorite for the mood of the day. Much Middle Ages on tap as well as Stone and Victory and even Blue Lite for who knows why. Loud and chatty, we walked in and immediately got into a two and a half hour conversation about Canadian and American differences with a couple of chemical engineers who were regulars. SU had just won a basketball game at the Dome and the place and the streets were loaded with fully grown men dressed in orange. The staff were happy to please and, though busy, a pleasure. One thing I liked is that the place smelled like beer. Not fried food and not smoke.





The real surprise of the night was the Syracuse Pale Ale on tap, a revelation of simplicity and quality over complexity and gimmick. If I had one beef it was the understocking of lower alcohol styles. There are some great milds and ordinary bitters out there and, unless you are aiming at getting plastered, a session of 8% to 10% beers is a bit much. Even with that being said, as with Clark’s, the Blue Tusk is all about the quality and handling of real ale but with the hubbub that you sometimes want with your brew.

Awful Al’s, Syracuse, New York

Never was a beer from Stone so appropriate…

We only stopped in Awful Al’s briefly when walking between Clark’s and the Blue Tusk. Two reasons. I was told to stop taking photos and it is a reminder of how great the anti-smoking laws are for the consumption of fine beers. It is, however, the dimmest lit bar I think I have ever been in and as a result the doctored photos give you the sense of the place as cross between photographer’s dark room, a 1970s era Soviet submarine and a very merry upper level of Hell.

One kind correspondent, Jim of Maltblog, has written me:

Awful Al’s is the place to go for whiskeys and bottled beers. They have a very good selection and a hip atmosphere and clientele. It’s a bit of a meat market, so be warned – it can be very crowded and is filled with the yuppies that you didn’t find at Clark’s. But if you are looking for a dram of Balvenie PortWood or a Laphroaig, this is your place. It’s also the only place I know of in Syracuse that have a waiver from the smoking ban in bars and restaurants – it’s very smoky as a result.

Very smoky as the streets by dark industrial mills at midnight in 1840 were smoky. The ever excellent Lew Bryson is warmer to this particular flame to the moth in his ever informing book New York Breweries (1st ed, p. 205):

…walk over to Awful Al’s Whiskey and Cigar Bar (321 South Clinton Street, 315-472-4427), across from the Suds Factory and lose yourself in contemplation of hundreds of bottles of spirits. Come back to your senses and realize there are some great taps of beer here as well, a big old humidor, and big couches and armchairs to relax in while you enjoy your smoke whiskey. This is civilization….

Look – he’s right. The wall of wickedness. You know, you really ought to buy Lew’s books if you have any interest in ales and find yourself in New York or Pennsylvania or coming soon Delaware, Virginia and Maryland. You can’t be relying on us for every good opinion. Sure I am looking for a signed copy to review…but I will pay. The piper is due his wages.






So in the end I did not have a dram or a drop in Awful Al’s, driven by oxygen deficit syndrome as well as my fear of such a complete temple to appetite and someone’s reasonable sensitivity to having your face on the internet. I think that I would have to get to know it better, drop the residual asthma and have a change of clothes so that I could burn the nicotine soaked ones I would be leaving in. And buy those spy camera glasses everyone is talking about. But that is just me. Every heaven is not the same heaven and you might like Lou’s better than mine. I know I found mine at the Blue Tusk which I will report on anon.

It is, in reflection, interesting that Al’s, Clarks, the Blue Tusk and even the hotel bar at the Marx where we stayed each suited a different definition of comfort-and-joy and God-rest-ye-merry-gentlemanliness. All distinct from the Maritime and New England taverns of benches and heavy wood tables like those of Halifax or Portland Maine’s Gritty McDuff’s and Three Dollar Dooies, again, despite the shared goal. Speaks to the differences in local culture as much as anything I suppose.

Clark’s Ale House, Syracuse, New York

Click above for bigger beauty

I came away from a visit to Clark’s Ale House knowing I should visit it again in a different circumstance. In the middle of a semi-sub-roaring tour of the town with friends, the quiet of Clark’s was a little disconcerting and, given a wrong moment, felt like pretense…but I figure it was me. It has no TV, no music, no bellowing bartendings shouting to be heard. It is also smaller than I had expected with a few tables up on a second level above the bar.





Clark’s famous roast beef sandwich on an onion bun. Dapper gents neatly sliced beef and pulled pints behind the bar. I had an excellent Armory Ale, a Middle Ages brew only available at Clark’s. Every brew I’ve had from Middle Ages is so well done, I should have expected this American pale ale to be as good as it was but well-made and well-handled beers are actually so rare that you have to note when you are in their presence.

The reviewers over at the Beer Advocate are far more certain and with a return visit maybe on a Sunday afternoon as opposed to after the game on Saturday night I would also write as does one from Michigan:

From the outside Clark’s is mighty inviting when your walking about the streets of downtown Syracuse on a biting cold late Autumn evening. You can see the jovial patrons, their heads reared back with laughter, through the large paned glass front. The warmth draws you in. The beer keeps you there. A pint of Middle Ages and a warm roast beef sandwich amid the chatter of beer lovers melts the icicles fixed to your eyebrows. Nifty layout holds pockets of seating, against the bar, under a window, in the back room with your best buddy, even an upper level I didn’t explore. Dark stained woods around and ivyed trellis above. Cozy.

Go to Clark’s and know a quiet night with their beers.

Kingston Brewing Company, Kingston, Ontario

Readers in the local area may have noticed I have yet to write about the Kingston Brewing Company, more commonly called the Kingston Brew Pub. It’s just that I have not got a set of photos that capture the place more than anything but I popped in mid-afternoon today and made a start.

I have been going to the Kingston Brew Pub for more than a decade. When we lived three hours drive away, during LBK (Life Before Kids) we planned long weekends around meals there. Now I work a block away and am happy because of it, even to pop in for the lunch special or a cup of coffee mid-afternoon. The beers on tap are mainly their own but they do have McAuslan Oatmeal Stout and Guinness – based on the belief, I think, that now one can improve much on these examples of the styles. There is a bloggers meet up tomorrow evening there at 5 pm so I will have more thoughts and notes on a couple of ales after that.

Later: Ok. I never took any notes. I blabbed about blogs and failed to note the Winter Whallop or the Dragon’s Breath IPA. But I did get a couple of pictures of the upstairs.

Last of the Speakeasies?

Big news from a little place. One of the last vestiges of the prohibition-era speakeasies of the first half of the last century has left the scene in Canada’s smallest province. 
CBC PEI reports

In 1900 Prince Edward Island became the first province to ban alcohol. It was the last to end prohibition almost 50 years later. However, there continued to be dozens of bootleggers around the province…

It seems Charlottetown’s bootleggers have raised the white flag, choosing to close their illegal establishments in the face of tough new legislation passed by the Binns government. The bootleggers run illegal bars in homes. The houses are gutted, a bar is put in, and the people who run them resell liquor and beer. They don’t have liquor licences, and don’t conform to any provincial or municipal laws. They’ve been raided, railed against and reviled. But mostly, they’ve been tolerated, selling booze for much cheaper prices than legal lounges and nightclubs. That’s until this past weekend, when the doors of the known bootlegging establishments in Charlottetown were suddenly locked.

The writing has been on the wall for these illegal bars – one of which is illustrated as shown on the CBC PEI website – for a few years since a man died at a table and was not detected as being dead for some time. It is interesting to note, however, that on the main street of Ogdensburg, NY, one of the last holdouts of British North America in what is now the eastern USA, these sorts of small home-sized bars do operate under license as one might also see in St. John’s Newfoundland. With any luck they will become similarly licensed in PEI but that may destroy some of the attraction to their customers who took advantage of after-hours drinking and unregulated low pricing.

Of somewhat finer interest is the use of “bootlegger” in PEI for an illegal bar. Growing up in Nova Scotia it meant an illegal retailer only.

An Ordinary Bar in Bayonne, France

[This post was authored by Bruno Bord.]

Cold November late afternoon. I’m entering an ordinary bar in Bayonne, in front of the market. There are half a dozen of customers, drinking coffee, tea, milk with chocolate. The bartender says a loud “hello” as I sit at the bar. I often sit on bar chair, lean on the counter.

Bartender: What will you?…
Me: Well… What kind of beer on draught do you have?
Bartender: Well…Kronenbourg.

Only Kronenbourg. All right. It’s not the best beer, but if there’s no choice…in France, when you order beer, the usual glass is the demi. France invented metric system, but some remains of the old days are still alive. A demi is in fact about half a pint, rounded to be 250ml. While a pint is being named distingué, and a liter of beer is a formidable (which I think means “smashing” – who knows why?)
Me: How much?
Bartender: Two euros.

France had changed its currency in the beginning of the century, as millions of people in Europe. Now, everyone counts in Euros, which are about a USD worth. Prices on everyday products are rising at a dangerous rate, not only because of the economic crisis. The government raises heavy taxes on alcohol (and tobacco) to struggle against alcohol and tobacco-addiction.Kronenbourg. The ordinary beer. Low price. Low quality. Better draught than from a bottle, though. As I am sipping my glass, I’m looking in front of me. There are shelves, with bottles on them. A lot of them are not beer, in fact. Strong alcohols, mainly. Four bottles of beer on the shelf. Adelscott (a smoked malt beer, with a sweet sugar-like taste), Leffe Blonde (a Belgian you may have already read about), Blanche de Bruges (a Belgian wheat beer), and Pelforth Brune (a French brown beer, very good in fact). Well… That’s not large as a choice as the newly born beer writer might want.

A man enters the bar. He says something I don’t get to the bartender. It’s obviously Basque (or Euskara), one of the oldest languages in the world, and maybe the oldest tongue in Europe. This language comes from “nowhere”. Well… not really from nowhere, but actually no one knows exactly where and when it comes from. The Basque culture is really alive and strong in the Basque Country population, and its unique language is one of the most important part of it. I often see the colorful sticker “Euskara badakigu” on the door of some shops, or bars, it means “Here, we speak Basque”.

I assume that the bartender and the customer are talking about the latest rugby results. Rugby is the most important sport in the south-west France, way more than football (yeah, it’s not soccer here – it’s football). And Bayonne has a long rivalry with Biarritz. The two cities are five miles away and the two rubgy teams are deadly enemies. It’s the fight against the rich-and-smart city (Biarritz), with a bunch of highly-paid stars playing in the team, against the popular and young student populated one (Bayonne). The discussion between the bartender and the customer is now part French, part Euskara.

My glass is empty now. I’ve got to leave. The sun is low on the horizon. Usually, November is a rainy month on the coast. By the way… every month is rainy, here. There are many bars in Bayonne, maybe too many. All kinds of bars. From the Irish-ish pub to the Cuban bar, from the upper-class café to the drunken factoryman’s hangout. But I really need to find a good bar specializing in good beers.

Irene’s, Bank St., Ottawa, Canada

Last night before going to see the Pixies, the siblings and I took advantage of the moment to visit an old friend, Irene’s pub in Ottawa’s Glebe district. Irene’s is a neighbourhood bar which means it is not necessarily the place to take someone on a first date unless you are on a serious testing night-out. If she agrees to go to Irene’s again, she wins. If she suggests going to Irene’s again, you win.

Opened in 1985 as a sort of Maritime Canadian bar in Upper Canada, its almost 20 years of experience shows in the honeying pine of the wainscoting and the furniture, the colour of good real pale ale. I have seen bands play there, ended work weeks there with pals, had dinner parties collapse into it and wished often I lived nearer to it. People there can be loud. They can also be worse for wear for the night – or even for the decade. A little harder than the Pilot House in Kingston but the same idea. The beer selection is pretty good but not great. The Guinness moves well, however, meaning it is always fresh. Upper Canada Dark on tap is also a good choice. I was driving so those were the brother’s choices.