Road Trip: Allagash Brewing Company

On a recent trip to Portland, Maine I had the pleasure of touring the facility of Allagash Brewing Company, one of the premiere producers of Belgian style beers in the US. While known for their flagship – Allagash White, they also produce quite a variety of offerings, all staying within the Belgian style. The tour begins in the brewhouse with a brief history of Rob Tod’s venture of founding of the company in 1995 after getting his start washing kegs at Otter Creek in 1993.

​Then you get into the brewing process starting with the hot side of things (pre-fermenting). In a lofted area, control panels rest atop the steel vats that are used as a mash tun, lauter tun, boil kettle, and whirlpool. At such a large scale, most of the brewing equipment is automated at this point, so boiling, stirring, transferring are all at the touch of a few buttons. The brewing process starts with mashing in your grains – meaning, steeping your chosen specialty grains in hot water for about an hour, where starches from the grain are converted to fermentable sugars. Then comes lautering, the process of separating the liquid from the spent grains, rinsing the grain with more hot water to make sure all the sugars are extracted. This wort (unfermented beer) is then boiled again while hops and spices are added at certain intervals depending on desired results. Earlier addition of hops result in more bitterness, while later additions contribute more to flavor/aroma. Spices such as coriander, peppercorn, star anise, ginger and lemongrass that can be found in Belgian Saisons, are added later in the boil process as to not extract any unwanted bitterness or off-flavors. Once complete, the wort is rapidly cooled to a temperature in which yeast can survive and ferment those sugars into alcohol and CO2. While walking out of the brewhouse to move onto the cold side of production (fermentation etc.), you can glance below the massive automated system and check out a 15-gal homebrew set-up where employees are encouraged to test out pilot batches that could eventually make it into the big leagues for production.

While most of their large scale beers (White, Tripel, Saison, Black) are fermented in stainless steel vats, they are also known for their extensive barrel program. One room is devoted entirely to storing used Bourbon Barrels to age Tripel, which then becomes a new beer in itself – Curioux. Then the next barrel room has more variety. This is where their specialty offerings (sometimes only done once, sometimes on an annual basis) are aged in barrels that contain certain Yeast and Bacteria (Brettanomyces, Lactobacillus, Pediococcus) to impart sour or “funky”/earthy qualities, then sometimes aged on fruits as well.

Allagash was also the first brewery in the US to build a traditional piece of brewing equipment called a coolship. This was first used for production of Lambic and Geuze (blended lambic), a wild fermented ale from the Senne Valley of Belgium. This tradition began in farmhouse attics, where hot wort was poured onto the floor which was lined metal. This allows maximum surface area for air coming in from open windows to cool it overnight. This ambient air contained the same yeast and bacteria mentioned above, along with many other strains to contribute to the distinct flavor of a lambic, picking up the terroir of the Senne Valley. The concept remains consistent at Allagash. In the fall/winter, the coolship gets put to use. Their hot wort is piped into the coolship, where the windows are opened overnight and the beer is allowed to pick up native Maine yeast and bacteria.
If you’re in the Portland area, I highly suggest swinging by Allagash for a tour (free to the public, reservations reccomended) which can either start or finish with a flight of four rotating offerings. Currently in stock, we’ve got Allagash White, Tripel, and a new offering Hoppy Table Beer in 4-pack format along with Interlude(750ml) , Curioux (750ml) and Mattina Rossa (375ml) in single bottle format. Unfortunately the coolship series from Allagash is a brewery only release, but if interested in an example of Geuze, we do have Geuze Boon Black label and Lindemans Cuvee Rene, along with a few domestic wild ales. If you’re interested in exploring some of these offerings or learning more about beer, feel free to come down to the store where Nick or I would be more than happy to assist you.