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Will New Hampshire ever catch up with Vermont in the beer-reputation race?

  • A colorful beer flights is illuminated against a bright sunset. 

  • A sample of craft beer is served during the New Hampshire Brewers Festival at Kiwanis Riverfront Park in Concord on Saturday, July 22, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) ELIZABETH FRANTZ

Monitor staff
Published: 7/21/2017 2:16:17 PM

As New Hampshire celebrated its fast-growing beer industry at the fourth annual Brewers Festival on Saturday, it’s faced with the realization that we’re still in the shadow of our neighbors to the west.

“On a nationwide level, people still think of Vermont as the epicenter of the craft beer earthquake. Before it was ‘Ewwww, New Hampshire beer’ – but now there’s really good stuff,” said Brian Frampton, general manager of the Salt Hill Pub in West Lebanon.

A few years ago, overlooking brews in the Granite State might have been understandable, but nowadays the number of cans, cases and kegs are hard to miss.

New Hampshire now has more craft breweries and brew pubs than Vermont (60 compared to 48, as measured by the latest issue of Yankee Brew News) and more than twice as many breweries per capita as Massachusetts (5.4 compared to 2.2, according to the Brewers Association).

But those numbers don’t tell the whole story. While we rival Vermont for total number of breweries, our neighbors out produce us nearly 3-1: New Hampshire makes about 100,000 barrels of craft beer, compared with 295,000 barrels in Vermont. Put another way, that’s 3.1 gallons of beer for everyone older than 21 in the Granite State versus a whopping 19.8 gallons for legal drinking age adults living in the Green Mountains.

But perhaps more than anything, Vermont has a reputation for quality, which grew over time.

“The whole Vermont granola lifestyle, they have a higher reputation than New Hampshire,” said Glenn Knoblock of Wolfeboro, a historian who writes about the history of brewing as a sub-specialty (which sounds like a great gig). “But if you were to ask any brewer, the beers that we produce here are now equally good and the brewing scene is just as good.”

That’s the message that New Hampshire has been trying to get across ever since it loosened up laws about selling your own beer, and especially since the 2011 first-in-the-nation law creating “nano breweries,” those making less than 2,000 barrels annually.

It’s starting to sink in.

“Now when they go on their craft beer vacation to Vermont, they might stop in New Hampshire and like what they find,” Frampton said.

The Salt Hill Pub in West Lebanon is on the frontlines of this sort-of-friendly interstate competition. That’s partly because of geography – one of Vermont’s up-and-coming breweries, River Roost in White River Junction, is just across the Connecticut River – but also because of history.

It occupies what was until last year the iconic Seven Barrel Brewery, founded in 1994 by Greg Noonan, who did more than anybody to launch New England’s craft brewing industry. Six years earlier, Noonan had opened Vermont Pub and Brewery, only the third brewpub on the East Coast, after helping push the Vermont Legislature to allow breweries to sell their own beer, something that New Hampshire didn’t allow until years later.

Seven Barrel Brewery was Noonan’s first expansion outside Vermont and he used it in the title of the Seven Barrel Brewers Handbook, which he co-authored in 1996. That handbook remains one of the bibles of the home-brewer and craft-brewing industry, although Noonan’s Vermont links have drowned out its New Hampshire connection.

Due to the work of Noonan and others, Vermont got a head start and a reputation that remains, notably in limited runs from well-known brews like Heady Topper, which draw long lines at the brewery in Stowe, Vt.

“In the past, Vermont was heads above New Hampshire. They were the birthplace of the New England IPAs and got a good name for themselves early on,” said Frampton, who has 18 taps in his pub, nine of which are in heavy rotation to showcase new entries. “But in the past couple of years, New Hampshire breweries have stepped up and made some excellent beers.”

Now that New Hampshire is catching up in quality, getting people to try the beer is 90 percent of the battle, said David Currier, the founder of the Henniker Brewing Company, which is why events like the brew festival are so important.

“In New Hampshire, we have a lot of catching up to do,” Currier said. “I think some of the beers are at a mark where they can compete against any beer in New England, quality-wise.”

Currier’s brewery is located off Interstate 89, which happens to lead directly to Vermont. They opened five years ago, in July 2012, and were the 17th brewery in the state. Now with 60 breweries and counting, they’re considered a veteran of the state’s brewing scene. They make about 3,000 barrels of beer a year now, with plenty of space to expand.

“We’re at a point where people come in and say, ‘We see your beer everywhere,’ ” Currier said.

New Hampshire’s craft beer numbers are difficult to ignore.

In 2016, New Hampshire ranked ninth in craft breweries per capita among all the states, according to the Breweries Association, a lobbying grew for small-scale brewers. The breweries generated an estimated $359 million in “economic impact.”

That figure explains why the state has become enthusiastic about small breweries, speeding up the process for licensing. “The state, since 2010, has come to fully embrace this and say it’s not just a passing fad,” said Knoblock, the historian.

Like maple syrup and leaf-peeping, craft beer is seen as a draw for tourists, above and beyond the local business it generates.

It certainly was on Saturday at the N.H. Brewers Festival, when “more than 40” New Hampshire breweries were represented – which, Knoblock noted, says something in itself.

“When I wrote Brewing in New Hampshire in 2005, there were maybe 20 craft breweries, total,” he mused. “That’s quite a change.”

But a shadow still loomed over the fourth annual New Hampshire brewfest, since it was held on the same weekend of the 25th anniversary of Vermont Brewers Festival.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)

David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog granitegeek.org, as well as moderator of the monthly Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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