From cracking into a lobster tail on a craggy coastline to the Freedom Trail, New England has long been a draw for tourists. The six-state region also has a world-class beer scene, bolstered by such iconic breweries as Massachusetts’s Tree House and Hill Farmstead in Vermont, and an eponymous IPA.
For some time, the bulk of its craft beer heritage has been in three states: Maine, Massachusetts, and Vermont. Now, however, a New Hampshire beer scene is emerging.
“[New Hampshire] used to be like a halfway stopping point for people going to drink in Maine,” laughs Scott Thornton of Great Rhythm Brewing Co. in Portsmouth, N.H., whose brewery pumps out some of the area’s best hop-forward beers and a killer kolsch. “Or stopping on their way back.”
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“N.H. has as good tasting beer as any one of our neighboring states,” says Paul St. Onge of Manchester’s Backyard Brewing. “But if you’re talking about notoriety, that’s an entirely different subject.”
Thornton and St. Onge believe this change is happening because many breweries have started embracing their communities, focusing on creating welcoming spaces and excellent beer instead of packaging and exports. Much of this is a result of new legislation supporting small-scale breweries and on- and off-premise sales.
“The N.H. beer scene has been here a while,” says Thornton. “It just hasn’t seen the growth or development that we’ve been seeing over the last few years.”
Indeed, the beer scene in New Hampshire spans centuries. The first European settlers arrived in Portsmouth (or, as it was first called, Strawbery Banke) in the 17th century and built taverns, most of which served their own creations. Frank Jones Brewing Company eventually came to dominate the region and brewed over 250,000 barrels at its peak.
The state was also home to the first line-around-the-block beer release, in 2008. Kate the Great, a Russian imperial stout brewed by Portsmouth Brewery, was once regarded by Beer Advocate magazine as the finest beer in the country (and No. 2 in the world), and its limited production run and release on “Kate Day” had patrons camped outside brewery doors.
In 2014, New Hampshire legislators introduced 178:12a, which is helping contemporary New Hampshire brewers embrace their brewing roots.
“[New Hampshire beer legislation] hasn’t always been the friendliest,” says Thornton. “In the past few years, we’ve seen favorable legislation to favor nanobreweries or nano-plus or beverage manufacturers.”
Put simply, the new legislation allows for a few major changes. Licenses for smaller operations, such as nanobreweries, are less expensive, so more aspiring brewers can enter the industry professionally. Additionally, breweries like Portsmouth’s Great Rhythm, which were once legally restricted to free, on-site samples, are now allowed to sell samples and offer pints, but also sell packaged beer to go.
“That’s a huge piece to it,” says Thornton. “Having more favorable license types really overcame a huge barrier to get into the industry.”
The new legislation encourages small and aspiring brewers to get in the game, and means that iconic mainstays like Smuttynose and Red Hook — and industry giant Budweiser, which has a plant in Merrimack — are no longer the only players.
“N.H. had a reputation — probably deserved — as having subpar beer,” says St. Onge, whose Backyard Brewing tap list is expansive. There’s an IPA that St. Onge considers the brewery’s flagship, but the team has built a menu that includes a Belgian-style dubbel, a Dortmunder lager, a witbier, and a wild ale.
“Now with more competition and more breweries popping up, I feel like that’s no longer the case,” he says.
One of the state’s most sought-after breweries is Kettlehead Brewing in Tilton, in the heart of New Hampshire’s Lakes Region.
“As soon as we opened, it just exploded,” says owner-brewer Sam Morrissette, whose outfit will be celebrating its second anniversary in November. “People were excited to have something to do. As soon as it hit, it was way more than expected.”
Kettlehead offers a full menu of mostly farm-to-table food, which means the group could register as a restaurant, which Morrissette says “really helped.”
That, plus a little press and good word of mouth, encouraged beer fans to head to the Lakes Region for Kettlehead’s flagship IPA, The Agent, and its opaque, juicy, and refreshingly bitter double IPA, Quest, a four-hop blend of Mosaic, Simcoe, El Dorado, and Columbus.
Morissette hopes Kettlehead will help develop beer tourism in the Lakes region. “We’re not that far from [the state capital] Concord,” he says. “We’ve got people coming up from Massachusetts, but our goal really is to have good beer, good food, and a good atmosphere for our community.”
Thornton agrees. “We want to be deeply rooted in our communities,” he says. “But we also want to help build a brand for New Hampshire to make this an attractive beer destination.”
“More than ever, people are kind of embracing their own communities,” says St. Onge. “Not just with beer but with consumer products and farmers’ markets. That’s what we sought out to do. We wanted to be that community, public house, taproom that people can just kind of sit at the bar and shoot the shit.”
Smuttynose, a New Hampshire beer landmark since 1994, is similarly inspired by this local movement, despite being widely distributed. Following struggles that culminated in a 2018 sale at foreclosure auction, the company rebranded its flagship beers and introduced an array of beer styles targeting a new generation of consumers, from hazy IPAs to low-ABV offerings like sub-5 percent sours.
On the new labels, the marketing team “really doubled down on N.H,” says Alex Weaver, communications director at Smuttynose Brewing. Finestkind IPA, for instance, shows a recumbent tuber on Echo Lake and Robust Porter illustrates Carleton Bridge, one of New Hampshire’s iconic covered bridges.
“N.H. is definitely seeing the proliferation of the small, neighborhood taproom model,” Weaver says. “That [community brewery] model has caught on. People are now so much more aware of what a brewery is. And these places move in and become part of the community.”
What’s next for New Hampshire’s next-wave breweries? Kettlehead and Backyard are focusing on their communities and hope to increase the volume of their to-go options. Morrissette is aiming for a few more keg sales around the state, and St. Onge is encouraged by widening demographics in the industry.
“We want to have a community where people feel safe to explore craft beer,” he says. “We had a very loyal customer base of people in their 50s and 60s [at the restaurant] and then we opened up the brewery and we had people in their 20s flocking in. Now we have both because both sides are so open to trying new things.”
All share the same goal: to make excellent beer in New Hampshire and put their state on beer travelers’ maps.
“This is our state and we have a lot of pride in that,” Thornton says. “N.H. has this potential to build this awesome brand around itself.”
Five Breweries to Visit in New Hampshire
Despite its relatively small size, New Hampshire has a set of distinct regions spanning mountain ranges, lakes, seacoast, and the wilderness near Canada. Here are five beer destinations wherever you find yourself in the Granite State.
Regardless of season, the Lakes Region is stunning to visit. End your day of hiking or skiing with any of the hop-forward options at Kettlehead in Tilton.
Coos Brewing Co.
Located in the heart of the Great North Woods, closer to the Canadian border than the capitol building, Coos serves a delicious variety of beers, including Snowbound Stout, a rich and subtle dark beer with cinnamon, or any of the Puckerbrush Berlinerweiss series.
Situated on a busy road behind the Manchester Airport, Backyard Brewing crushes everything from lagers to witbiers.
Great Rhythm Brewing
Along the seacoast lies New Hampshire’s richest history. Grab a seat at a picnic table outside overlooking the water and enjoy a Squeeze IPA or its big brother Double Squeeze.
Flying Goose Brewpub
The Flying Goose is a New London brewpub that was just named one of the top five breweries in the state. Try the Forever Locked Lager, a Vienna lager, whose proceeds go toward a New Hampshire Fish & Game scholarship.