Even though 2015 is just getting started, my wife and I decided that it was time to get out of town for a long weekend. In going through our short list of places, Portsmouth, NH ended up being our destination of choice. It had a lot of things to offer in line with our interests and was only about an hour drive north from the Boston area.
Where to Stay
After weighing our options, we decided to spend a little bit more for our hotel to stay right in the downtown area and could not have been happier about that decision. Portsmouth is a small and extremely walkable town and not having to worry about finding a parking space or driving back to the hotel after having a few drinks was a definite plus. Where we ended up staying was the Mariott Residence on the west end of town. It was the most affordable option we came across when looking at places and I would recommend it based on our stay here. The room was a good size and had a kitchen area complete with a full refrigerator, two panel range, microwave, and plates/utensils. The shower was pretty amazing and had excellent water pressure and no issues with hot water. The bed and pillows were a little soft for my tastes but were by no means a major problem. The continental breakfast was provided each morning and was on the nicer end of your typical fair and had surprisingly good coffee. Just brace yourself for the lack of proper bacon (we had ham one morning and Canadian bacon rounds on two others).
The Downtown Area
The Downtown area of Portsmouth is roughly a mile to a mile and a half end to end. For our visit, things where rather snowy as the remnants of the recent blizzard were topped off by an extra 5-8 inches that fell our first day there. All that snow still didn’t stop us from walking everywhere we needed to go though it did complicate some of our photo destinations. We were snowed out of three cemeteries, a lot of the Harborwalk, Prescott Park, and much of Pierce Island but still had a fun time walking around and certainly got in our fair share of photo ops. Part of the fun here was the variety of shops we came across. Juice bars, vape shops, and the occasional book store were among the places that caught our interest and lured us in out of the snow and cold.
Another thing we encountered in our walks to help keep warm was Portsmouth’s vibrant restaurant and pub scene. More than one person we talked to brought up the fact that all told there are more restaurant seats and bar stools in town than there are people. We stopped into a fair number of places and one thing I found particularly exciting here was how widespread access to good beer was. Everywhere we went had at least a couple of local beers on tap from smaller locals and Smuttynose was ubiquitous with its street signage.
Smuttynose is also the sister brewery of local hotspot the Portsmouth Brewery which I can’t recommend highly enough. This was perhaps our favorite spot in the city and seemed to be a popular destination for others as well. Our first night in town in we sat at the bar area of the upstairs restaurant to split a plate of nachos and grab a few drinks (they have a full bar for the non-beer drinkers). I of course went for a flight of some house beers, though they did have a number of Smuttynose offerings on tap as well. All the beers in the flight were solid, but the Pale Ale and the Oatmeal Raisin Brown were the two standouts. There were also two casks being offered that I couldn’t pass up. Pouring that night was the Pale Ale with Orange Juice and their Rye Not Ale with Molasses. As much as I liked the regular Pale Ale, I think the Rye Not won out between the casks. The sweetness from the molasses really blended well with the hops and rye.
On our second visit, we went downstairs on a recommendation and stepped into a different world than what was above. The atmosphere was much more lively and fun. The main focuses down here are the bar and the pool tables in the background. Downstairs serves the same house and Smuttynose brews with a few added guest taps from popular national breweries. I couldn’t resist hitting up the casks again, this time going for the Le Chat Noir Stout with cacao nibs; another excellent pairing decision. On both occasions we had a great time, had an awesome bartender, and felt really comfortable and relaxed being there. The food was good, the beer (and drink) options were solid across the board, and the place was a lot of fun to be at. Anyone in town that doesn’t spend time here is missing out.
Another brewery of note in the downtown area is Earth Eagle Brewings, an eclectic little brewery hidden on a side street on the edge of the downtown area. Once inside the door you walk into a small room with bar area and a few tables off to the side. It offers a nice cozy feeling that somehow didn’t feel cramped even as more customers started flowing in. The beers are where this place gets really interesting.
The first question I was asked was if I was in the mood for hoppy or malty, which was easily reconciled by ordering a flight of all six beers on tap, but the follow up asking me if I was a vegetarian caught me by surprise. It seems that people finally figured out something to do with at least one of the moose up north, and the Bog Mare, an amber gruit, is brewed with moose head broth. This may be one of the most unique beers I have ever had, kind of sweetly malty start with a noticeably gamey/meaty finish. It was actually quite good for what it was but I’m not sure I’d want a full pint. Rounding out the flight that day was a more traditional gruit called Echoes which was brewed in collaboration with the Cambridge Brewing Company, a sweet and malty wee heavy called Coats and Kilts, ‘Murican Revolution an ESB, a pale wheat ale called Shepard’s Crook, and Yankee Cran-Ass, an IPA dry hopped with Sorachi Ace and brewed with 18 pounds of cranberries.
There were some really tasty things brewing and the people there were laid back and friendly. They even had grown-up (no, not that kind) coloring books to keep my non-beer drinking wife entertained. We didn’t stay for food but did see a tempting plate of nachos go by. If you’re in town you’ll want to check this place out. Looks like they tend to do a lot less mainstream styles and were well regarded around town.
There were also a few noteworthy non-brewery drinking stops as well. The Gas Light Grill is where I got my first taste of local superstar Stoneface Brewing (which the weather prevented us from getting out to). First up was the house-exclusive porter called the Gas Light Pour-Tier, a medium roasty and smooth drinking porter. In all honesty, it’s not something I personally found too exciting but it was well done and a good example of the style. It was also a $2 pint on account of the snow, and you seriously can’t beat that. The stand out though was definitely the IPA that got the brewery most of its initial attention. It has a huge juicy pineapple-orange taste upfront and a nice hoppy bitterness that certainly makes this beer worth seeking out. Opinions were split on the food here though I enjoyed my burger well enough. I think the key thing to keep in mind is that if you’re doing food here, take advantage of the wood fire grill.
The Coat of Arms (not be confused with the British Beer Company across the street that had a good tap list in its own right) is an English style pub notable in my mind for having several cask beers on hand. Between this place and the casks at Portsmouth Brewery, I am all set to do some serious sampling at the NERAX booth when I hit up the Extreme Beer Fest next month. As examples of that they had I first enjoyed a Dippity Do Brown Ale with Molasses from nearby Throwback Brewery in North Hampton, NH that was another well executed molasses cask. Next up was the Frye’s Leap IPA dry hopped with Amarillo, Citra, and Simcoe from Sebago Brewing Company just over the border in Maine. I thought the dry hopping really stood out well and added a nice dimension to the beer I’m not sure it would have had without them. Lastly came the Matilda’s Red Rage Red Ale from Moat Mountain in Conway, NH. Brewed in the style of a classic Irish red ale that tasted just right being on cask. I would rave on about this place if not for the fact that the atmosphere here was a bit colder than some of the other places in town. Good place to grab a few pints since I found the beer selection spot on, but I wouldn’t plan on settling in here.
The Thirsty Moose Taphouse was also notable, boasting 116 or so taps ranging from the usual suspects to some interesting and exciting options in a variety of styles. All the options can be a bit overwhelming but the list is solid and I’d imagine just about anyone even remotely into beer could find something they’d like there. And for those that just don’t (or can’t) drink beer, there’s always the full bar. The atmosphere here was laid back, casual, and fun and this is certainly a place I’d go back to for a few beers and a plate of nachos (yes that’s our go to when sharing food if you haven’t figured that out yet).
If you’re looking for food, two standouts for us on that front are Agave and Blue Mermaid. Agave is a Mexican restaurant on the other side of town from us that has plenty of enticing menu options and serves up a good round of homemade chips and guacamole. Of course I’d be remiss if I didn’t note the limited, but better than expected tap list. They had the usual Mexican beers you’d expect but also had a few other things as well. To take full advantage of my location I went with the Moat Mountain Square Tail Stout over the Dogfish Head and Lagunitas taps. The Blue Mermaid is a “Carribean-inspired” restaurant that left us both very satisfied without our meals. They had a full bar of course, but the small tap list was well constructed with good local and national offerings. Trying to keep in the local spirit of things I continued trying things I don’t have as easy access to back home, I had a delicious Black IPA from Throwback Brewery called Hippo-HOP-amus and a Smuttynose Zinneke (Belgian-style Stout). Good food, good beer, friendly staff, and right across from our hotel, what more could you want?
On the way back home we stopped by the Smuttynose Brewery in Hampton, NH. Visitors are offered a free tour and card good for four samples from the tap area. I got to try a couple of Smuttlabs beers, Ol’ Grundy Humper and Schmutzig, I had passed on back in town (knowing that I would be ending up here on the way home) and found them enjoyable. The facility was aesthetically very pretty (even with the snow) and it is always nice to stop by a brewery and grab some samples. The atmosphere was kind of dead, though, and I get the impression that of the four employees we encountered that day two weren’t that into beer at all. One was just getting the tour guide thing down, and one was very knowledgeable. Might have been the time of day but I don’t know if I’d go back next time I was in the area unless I was with someone that really wanted to check it out.
Portsmouth was a pretty awesome place to spend a long weekend. As an amateur photographer and dedicated beer drinker, I felt that it had a lot to offer. Obviously some of the photo opportunities would have been more accessible in the spring (or without the mountains of snow New England has this winter) but even with that we were able to take advantage and enjoyed walking around. Downtown offers some interesting shops and plenty of pubs in which to take a break and relax. The local beer scene was pretty solid. Perhaps even surprisingly solid given the size of the town. It is definitely on the list of places we would go back to in warmer weather at which time I would really want to explore more of the parks and cemeteries, and try to hit some of the breweries in the surrounding area, like Stoneface and Throwback.