Allagash Brewery: Belgian Inspired Brewing
The cool breezy weather (hello, DC humidity) is not the only reason Maine is one of my favorite places on earth – the beers, like the people, are just damn good.
It’s no secret that I love Belgian inspired beer, so I’ve long been a fan of Allagash Brewing Company out of Portland, Maine. A big enough fan that I convinced (not exactly a tough sell) my husband to take a detour to Allagash on our summer vacation to Portland and Acadia National Park.
Nestled in the outskirts of Portland, Allagash Brewing Company is the creation of founder Rob Tod. After traveling abroad, Tod recognized a void within the US beer market – while German and English style ales had gained momentum in the US, few craft breweries were producing Belgian style ales. With that, Tod started Allagash in 1995 on a simple 15-barrel production system. The first beer Tod sold? The ever popular brew and Allagash flagship – Allagash White.
Allagash has certainly seen some changes since 1995 – they’ve expanded production significantly and the fleet is up to six year round beers. But, some things haven’t changed, like the ever presence of Tod who we saw strolling around the brewery during our tour.
We started our tour by equipping ourselves with the required safety goggles and headsets so we could hear our guide over the loud production noises. We felt very sexy and very official in our gear.
The tour started in Allagash’s main production facility where the majority of the brewing happens – the mashing of the grains, boiling the wort including hop additions, and the cooling of the wort prior to pitching the yeast. While most beer typically includes only four main ingredients – grain, water, hops and yeast – Belgian style beer typically pushes the creative boundaries when it comes to ingredients. Allagash is no different. We learned that Allagash White includes additions of coriander, orange peel, sugar and one secret ingredient. Any guesses!?
While the production facility was sweet, the thing that immediately caught my eye was Allagash’s pilot system located in the middle of the production floor. This five-gallon brewing system provides an experimentation platform for Allagash employees near and far. Any employee can use the pilot system to brew up whatever their little heart desires. During our visit, an Allagash rep from New England was trying out his own recipe on the system. Turns out Allagash’s second best seller – Allagash Saison – was created by an employee on the pilot system.
From production, we moved into the kegging and bottling area. Having spent some time watching smaller breweries bottle, I was blown away by the automation of Allagash’s bottling and kegging systems. (I was also really into the chic Hunter-style rainboots the employees were wearing.) Allagash kegs 70 percent of their beer and, surprisingly, the largest region for Allagash consumption is Southern California. Makes sense, I do want an Allagash White on a perfectly sunny San Diego day. This logistical combo makes Allagash proud users of MicroStar keg sharing program – Allagash fills a keg, ships the keg to SoCal for consumption, the empty keg is brought to a local brewery such as Stone for refill, and the whole process starts over again. A cost savings and recycling win for the breweries.
In keeping with the Belgian style, Allagash has also put a focus on bottle conditioning (for the beer nerds, Allagash bottle conditions every beer except Allagash White!), aging and souring of beers. In 2008, Allagash built a coolship – a large shallow pool used during the cooling process to encourage fermentation using wild, naturally occurring yeast. Once the beer has cooled, it’s moved into barrels for fermentation and aging. This method of wild fermentation typically gives a “sour” flavor to the final beer. So naturally, the last stop on the tour was a visit to Allagash’s barrel aging cellar so we could check out Allagash’s souring program at work. The cellar includes an impressive array of barrels – including the aging of Allagash’s own brews such as Curieux as well as Allagash employee’s own brews (talk about an amazing job perk).
In the barrel aging room, we wrapped up the tour with samples of the White, the Speciale Blonde, the Dubbel (my fav!), and the Midnight Brett. We'll see you next summer Allagash!