When the chips were down, Smuttynose Brewing Company took a huge gamble with its new Big Beer series, a line of higher alcohol brews with some serious flavor.
The bottom fell out of the craft beer market in 1996, and Smuttynose Brewing Company was among many beer makers that felt the impact. The Portsmouth, N.H., brewery lost 30 percent of its sales between 1996 and 1998, owner Peter Egelston said.
All of the company's wholesalers told Egelston he should make the beer ``more drinkable'' and ``mainstream'' - in other words, more like Budweiser, Miller or Coors.
Egelston, however, had another idea. Instead of making lighter, less flavorful beers, he went in the opposite direction, introducing a line of higher alcohol, flavorful beers called the Big Beer series.
``When I think about it, the decision to brew more robust, high gravity beers was one of the dumbest things we could think of doing,'' said Egelston. ``For me, that wasn't why I got into the business - to imitate the big-selling beers. In a way, we were almost defiant in introducing the Big Beer series. We said, `No, we want to assert our character. If we're going to go down, we're going to go down swinging.'"
The Big Beer series, introduced in 1998, has been a huge success for Smuttynose. Each release, several a year, is eagerly anticipated by better-beer lovers.
This year, Smuttynose has changed the series. Currently, the new Baltic Porter is in stores, available in 22-ounce bottles; and in December, a Belgian Quad, a strong style of ale, will hit the shelves.
The Baltic Porter is a phenomenal beer. Porters are typically ales, but a baltic porter is generally brewed with lager yeasts.
The Smuttynose version is brewed with a lager yeast, and it is full of flavors. There is some roasted malt flavor, slight chocolate undertones and a sweetness, maybe from raisins or another fruit.
``Once we realized, in fact, that we weren't going to go out of business and we had some traction, we've had a lot of fun with these,'' said Egelston. ``We're looking to push the boundaries and find a style we haven't tried before. We're actually fairly conservative. We really like to stay close to traditional styles, and this is a style we haven't done yet. We thought it was a brand that was somewhat underrepresented out on the market.''
Actually, Egelston was correct - until this year. Three Baltic porters will be hitting or have hit the market in 2008. Along with Smuttynose's Baltic Porter, Victory Brewing Company of Downington, Pa., and Otter Creek of Middlebury, Vt., are releasing their own versions of the style.
Some of my personal favorites in the Big Beer series include the Imperial Stout, which will be in stores later this month; the Big A IPA (India pale ale), in stores in May; the Wheat Wine, which hits shelves in August; and the Barley Wine, an October release.
Although the Big Beer series is the most well-known among the Smuttynose portfolio of beers, it is not all the brewery is known for.
``The Big Beer series is really a fairly small part of our business,'' said Egelston. ``It generates about 95 percent of the publicity for the brewery, but they're only about 5 percent of our sales.''
That could change, though. The brewery recently installed a new bottle labeler. Now, instead of hand-labeling each bottle in the Big Beer series, the machine will do the work.
``That's a huge difference for us,'' said Egelston. ``It's the most arduous part of the job. Making the beer is fun, but putting those damn labels on by hand is the hardest part. It has been the reason we haven't made more. Our supply does not meet the demands.''
Don't worry if you're having trouble finding the Big Beer series, because they sell out quickly. Smuttynose's regular beers, available in six-packs of 12-ounce bottles, are a good alternative.
The Old Brown Dog Ale is probably the best brown ale produced in New England, while the Shoal's Pale Ale is an easy beer to quaff down. The regular IPA (The Big A IPA is a double IPA) is the brewery's top seller and is pretty tasty.
The brewery's seasonals are worth trying, too. The Summer Weizen is one of the best New England summer beers, while the Pumpkin Ale is a step above most.
Norman Miller is a Daily News staff writer. For questions, comments, suggestions or recommendations, e-mail email@example.com or call 508-626-3823.Check out the Beer Nut blog at http://blogs.townonline.com/beernut/