Lately, most beer manufacturers across both the size and quality spectrums have been inching toward the Cheesecake Factory production model, wherein they roll out endless streams of new products in a desperate attempt to stay relevant by being all buffalo-sauced things to all baked-stuffed people.
At the chain restaurants, that tends to mean 12-page menus full of Frozen Margarita Chicken Kixx and Wasabi-Crusted Old-Fashioneds. Whereas in the beer game, it means that ambitious—and/or schizophrenic— brewers hit us with a noisy, pointless racket of new IPAs every season, the same damn stout aged in a dozen different whiskey barrels, and more shandy iterations than you can shake a stick at, except the stick is also holding a sign that says, "Shandies are fine, but I don't need you to pre-bottle them for me; I have my own damn jugs of beer and lemonade!"
Craft-beer market-leader Boston Beer Company (brewers of Samuel Adams) actually has commercials in which they brag about their 60 different beers, as if that were an awesome idea. I'm not saying that's inherently too many, I suppose, because if all 60 were good, well, then wouldn't the world be a more splendid place? But I've had at least half of these 60 beers, and at least half of that sample size varies between "fine" and "you sure it's not time to retire the Cherry Wheat?" And lately, West Coast beer behemoth Sierra Nevada has followed suit with a ramped-up array of seasonal IPAs and kellerweises and what have you.
Most of these Sierra Nevada beers are pretty damn good, of course, and furthermore, I realize that the competition for shelf space and tap lines grows fiercer every day, as more and more bad-beer-drinkers see the light and come on over to the tastier side of things. Meanwhile, veteran craft-drinkers are getting increasingly restless in their obsession with trying as many new things as possible. And then, of course, there are the dipshit bloggers. Nine of 10 people I explain my job to confess to having no idea such a field existed. And I'm not sure it should, on a sane planet! But here we are, me with a cat to feed and a mandate to find a new beer every day. Which means that as much as I love Sierra Nevada Pale Ale itself, they need to keep plying me with new Dry-Hopped Third Tuesday in March Magenta Sour IPA if they want to keep getting free media attention. It's perverse, if occasionally delicious.
One new brewer rejecting this crowded-house trend is Bissell Brothers of Portland, Maine—a tiny new storefront operation in the same industrial park as the state's brewing colossus Allagash, and fellow upstarts Foundation and Austin Street. There's a ton of good, new beer in Maine. A couple weekends ago, my wife and I slimed our way into a free ride on the excellent Maine Brew Bus tour around the town; we stopped at Allagash, Bissell Brothers, Sebago, and Rising Tide. I've rapped at you about Allagash before, and I'll probably get to those other two at some point, but today we're dealing with the Bissell Brothers Substance pale ale.
The Bissell brothers are a couple young dudes: The brewer, Noah, is 25, and his older brother, Peter, who seems to run the day-to-day business-type shit in addition to doing all the graphic design and party promotion and such, is around 30. They're cool guys, and they make fantastic beer. Part of their success is just due to being very damn talented when it comes to liquefying barley, but another big part is that they only make a few different beers, which way back in the day—five or 10 years ago—was considered more than enough for a brewery run by a couple of young knuckleheads who've only been in business for a bit north of a year.
Substance is a bright, juicy, resinous 6.5-percent alcohol-by-volume pale ale that's sometimes classified as an IPA (whatever). It's great, which is why there's a line out the door to buy it at the brewery every Saturday morning. The Bissell boys also sell it on draft at a lot of the better bars around Portland, and you can get cans at a few select stores now and again, but the primary means of getting your Substance is to wait in line in an industrial part of the coldest damn city in the universe, which is why the brothers hook standees up with coffee and donuts until they get their chance to spend $13 for a four-pack of Substance tallboys.
Every other Saturday, they release their double IPA, Swish; I happened to swing through on an off week for that, but they snuck me a couple glugs of the previous week's release, and, yo. That is fantastic beer. I don't know that there's any line in Vermont—or anywhere else—that terminates in a better pale ale. Bissell Brothers has weathered their first year of business, and along the way built a reputation for excellence and a bit of exclusivity (some folks around town seem to find them a touch cocky; again, I liked them, but just trying to be somewhat fair in my reporting here). Individual mileage will vary on how much patience you have for the exclusivity part, but from my perspective—compromised, remember, by the free tour and a conversation with the cool older brother—they seem to be good dudes making great beer that's worth a little bit of a chase.
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Will Gordon loves life and tolerates dissent. He lives in Cambridge, Mass., and some of his closest friends have met Certified Cicerones. Find him on Twitter @WillGordonAgain. Image by Jim Cooke.
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