The Canterbury Ales
Canterbury's Baptist Hill Road is a timeless stretch of pavement, meandering through the rolling hills of northern Merrimack County, closely guarded by a phalanx of trees on either side. Though many years and even more miles separate Chaucer's Canterbury from its New Hampshire counterpart, it's easy to picture the famed English writer's caravan of story-telling pilgrims making their way along the path in search of a hearty meal and a frothy pint. The former can be had by taking a quick detour down Briar Bush Road, where the nearby Fox Country Smokehouse offers locally prepared meats and cheeses to satisfy any traveler's appetite; for the latter, however, our wayfarers need look no further, for they will find a cool draught served with warm conversation at Baptist Hill's own Canterbury AleWorks.
The brewery is located at 305 Baptist Hill Road, but a lengthy driveway keeps it hidden from casual passersby. Nonetheless, when the “open” flag is flying, you can rest assured the beer is flowing.
As if to heighten the anticipation, the driveway must be taken at nearly walking speeds. It hugs several ponds as it weaves through the woods on the property. A pasture eventually opens on the right and an old but well-kempt farm building becomes visible at the top of a rise ahead. Before the driveway reaches the barn, however, another pond appears on the left, larger than the others. And once you have passed a wind break of trees, to the right, at last, sits the brewery.
Canterbury AleWorks occupies a long building, still reminiscent of its original function as a woodworking shop. The most striking difference is the addition of a British phone booth positioned to the left of the structure. While definitely out of place, it looks strangely at home. The phone booth also serves as a visual cue to the location of the entrance, which lies behind the booth and past a large teal water wheel.
One side of a large brick structure known as a Russian Stove greets visitors just beyond the doorway. A spiral staircase to the left ascends to a loft area, past a sizable, wood covered vat and a system of copper pipes. On the right are pub-style tables and chairs offering an invitation to stay and sample the malty fare.
Steve Allman is the owner and brewer. He mans the bar, which faces the table-side of the room on the other side of the stove. Steve started the business over a year ago. His is one of many nanobreweries to emerge in the New Hampshire brewing Renaissance that came about when Free State Project participant Kevin Bloom and others obtained passage of a law that recognized nanobreweries as a distinct class and allowed them to obtain a much cheaper license to operate. According to Steve, this has helped to spur smaller, local producers who can be as varied as the communities they serve.
Before we get to the beer, we continue to work up a thirst while we learn about the process. The brew pot, adorned with wood to match the vat near the stairs, is located behind the bar. It is capable of producing one barrel of beer (31.5 gallons). The pot is parked atop a circular contraption Steve calls a rocket stove. This, he tells us, enables him to quickly bring a batch's contents to appropriate brewing temperatures. Exhaust from the rocket stove vents into the flue shared by its Russian counterpart. The operation has an almost MacGyver-meets-Steampunk feel to it; it is impressive, both in its design and efficiency.
We also get a glimpse into a closed, temperature-controlled room where the fermentation tanks are housed. Fermentation is the lengthiest portion of beer-making, taking typically two to four weeks, so the room is filled with seven or eight conical stainless steel containers for holding different batches of beer. Once the yeast have performed their magic, the beer is kegged and ready to delight taste buds.
Finally, we stand before the bar and wait for Steve to pour us samples. First up is Canterbury Ale, an American Pale Ale with nice notes of citrus. Next is davESBeer. This Extra Special Bitter is named after a friend of Steve's who loves that style. davESBeer is darker than the Canterbury Ale, though its character is still more golden than brown. The bitterness is balanced by the malt and the effect is quite good. Our third tasting is Val-Halla Weizen. This is a Bavarian Hefe Weizen, lighter but more carbonated than the previous two samples. The simply-named Light Ale is last. It is a German Kolsch. Its grassy flavor profile and blonde hue make it more like a lager than an ale. For those fearful of anything not named Budweiser, this may be the style to try. It's similar enough to not shock the taste buds, but it has enough character to hint at the expansive world of beer that awaits.
To show the craftsman your appreciation, a tip jar waits at one end of the bar. We each leave a token of our thanks, say our goodbyes to Steve, and head back to the 21st Century.
We are still pilgrims, but our journey seems less wearisome. Our destination seems closer. This is our story and it takes place in heady hills of New Hampshire.
Photo by Steve Allman