New England is known for its craft beer. Vermont, famously, has more craft breweries per capita than any state in the country. Portland, Maine, holds the same title out of the nation’s cities. Across New England, and around the country, craft beer culture has both made inroads with locals and tourists and expanded the base of hobbyists pursuing brewery-centric tourism.
In New Hampshire, craft breweries have been more diffused throughout the state, unlike in neighboring states, whose craft breweries tend to hub in pockets around cities.
“We’re a little unique in that there’s definitely a sprawl, we’ll say, to our breweries,” said C.J. Haines, executive director of the New Hampshire Brewers Association. Some places, like the Seacoast, are exceptions to that rule.
In the Lakes Region, however, that dynamic could be changing. As new spots hit their post-pandemic stride and established breweries extend their reach, craft beer is added to the list of local flaunts that make the area a destination.
For Kettlehead Brewing Co. in Tilton, the pressures of the pandemic relaxed to reveal a new growth model through distribution.
“Initially, we were all about in-house sales,” owner Sam Morrisette said. But when the pandemic hit, “we really had to shift gears and we had to package all our beer, really, in order to stay alive.” Kettlehead bought a canning machine and beefed up its distribution network.
Even once the taproom could reopen, stores still thirsted for stock because demand remained high, Morrisette said. As people gradually returned in person, they could barely brew enough to ship out and serve up. Upping production resources became imperative.
Around Thanksgiving of this year, Kettlehead debuted a second location in downtown Franklin’s newly revived Stevens Mill, adding a satellite taproom and increasing its production capacity more than twofold. They join Vulgar Brewing, which opened in 2019, in the neighborhood.
Kettlehead, which opened in 2017, was among the first craft breweries to set up shop in the Lakes Region in recent years. As more breweries open in the area, Morrisette said, it increases the number of people who come to the area to taste craft beer.
“We like that Vulgar opened just down the street, it’s not a competition thing. People seek out breweries, and to have something they can go with, like multiple breweries… that just brings more people in,” Morrisette said.
At Vulgar Brewing, less than a block from Kettlehead’s new site, 2022 felt like a second grand opening.
“I feel like we’re finally getting our feet out from under us and developing who we are as a brewery,” said Damon Lewis, who co-owns Vulgar with his wife Megan and Jason and Shelly Harrington.
Vulgar’s buzz-worthy pizza menu helped them endure the pandemic after opening in October 2019. This year, as going-out habits revived to near full force, they renewed their focus on beer and formed bonds within the local craft beer community.
“Breweries weren’t really getting to know each other, unless you were existing before” the pandemic, Lewis said.
“New Hampshire is definitely playing a little catch up compared to all the surrounding states,” Jason Harrington added. He complimented the brewers association on helping breweries to build those bonds and collaborations.
Harrington and Lewis are Texas transplants who have long shared a passion for craft beer. After Harrington moved to the Granite State to work at the Tilton school, he became inspired by, and wanted to participate in, Franklin’s revitalization endeavors. He invited Lewis to join him in the area and add a brewery to the city’s downtown.
Breweries are great places to meet new people compared to bars, Harrington said, because craft beer gives people an easy topic of conversation, a thing for hobbyists and casual sippers alike to mull over together.
This year, the pair said, there’s been an uptick in brewery hoppers, or people who string together multiple stops as the focus of a trip.
“I do see a trend of people who are doing the Lakes Region area and hitting all the breweries,” Harrington said. “I’m getting a lot of questions about, ‘Where should I go next?’ And I get to suggest places for them. So there’s a lot of piggybacking for the next guy.”
Pour Decisions, facing Route 3 on the Winnisquam side of Tilton, is set to open in the next few weeks.
Owner Ron Cormier has been in touch with owners at several local breweries, he said, who have been supportive as he prepares to welcome customers.
“That’s something that I like about this industry,” Cormier said. “It’s not competitive in that way. Everyone believes that anyone who comes in just adds to the momentum.”
Cormier aims for his brewery to be about more than just beer, offering a robust menu, games and frequent live entertainment.
The location is great, Cormier said, because it bridges already vibrant local groups. Pour Decisions is along the way between the Tilton and Franklin breweries and Meredith-area ones, Cormier noted, and increases the link between those two hotspots for brewery hoppers.
In October, Twin Barns opened its North Taproom in Woodstock, hoping to leverage the White Mountain region’s winter crowds. The second location of the Meredith-based brewery, opened in 2018 by co-owners and co-founders Dave Picarillo and Bruce Walton, uses a bring-your-own-food model.
Rather than vamping up distribution, this expansion model helps broaden the reach of Twin Barn’s “vibe” rather than just its beer, according to Picarillo.
A customer survey by the brewery found that the most popular archetype among its customers was “social-gatherers,” or people who come because of the events and overall atmosphere.
“We try to run our place to be a more casual space,” Picarillo said. “We don’t have that pressure of a restaurant to table-turn. … To us, it’s about environment.”
After buying the restaurant next door, Burnt Timber Tavern in Wolfeboro opened its expansion this summer. Owner Eddie Michno opened Burnt Timber in 2017, bringing a slow food approach to his menu and a vision for approachable yet experimental flavor to his rotating brews.
By centering on local ingredients and partner organizations, said head of marketing Robert Levey, Burnt Timber sees itself as both a community hub and a conduit for visitors to become immersed in local culture.
“We see ourselves as a cog in that larger machine” of community exposure, Levey said. Collaborating with other breweries, such as oft partner Twin Barns, furthers that because visitors “are more likely to make a point of going to both of our places.”
While tourism is the economic pulse statewide, it is especially true of the Lakes Region and of its breweries. The area’s already-booming tourism market both attracts and buoys craft breweries, which are a seamless fit into the multi-season lake culture of tourists and part-time residents.
“It’s a natural transition,” Haines said.
“I think New Hampshire relies a lot more on tourism” in its beer economy than its neighbors, Morrisette said. Based on its QR code menu statistics, 80% of Kettlehead’s summer customers are from out of state.
In other New England states, locals have several breweries in walking distance, he continued. That’s not the case in New Hampshire, though it’s changing.
It makes distribution a key expansion tool for Kettlehead. Without that proximity exposure, getting cans on shelves is a primary way to build name recognition, Morrisette said.
Expanding brick-and-mortar offerings is another strategy to garner excitement, Haines explained.
Further industry growth in New Hampshire could be accelerated by changes to state liquor laws and regulations. Most brewers interviewed for this story described how the state’s complicated array of licenses and corresponding restrictions makes it harder to open, operate, and expand breweries in the Granite State than elsewhere in New England, though the brewers association has successfully lobbied state lawmakers to relax some of those in recent years.
Whether the Lakes Region becomes a bonafide craft beer destination could come down to sheer volume. With Kettlehead and Vulgar’s new proximity, Pour Decisions’ opening and other new sites cropping up around the region, it could only be a matter of time.
“I do think the Lakes Region is probably poised for a little bit of that, you know, we call them beer-cation folks,” Picarillo said. “I’ve been trying to talk some private, good entrepreneur into doing the very first brewery tour by boat.”