We’re in the wilds of Grafton County, which occupies the left-hand side of the mid-section of New Hampshire. As the state tapers severely north of us, only one county separates us from Canada. But Grafton County itself borders entirely on the state of Vermont. In our neck of the woods, the natural division between us is more or less the Connecticut River, traversed by innumerable bridges along its length. The points of juncture charmingly and invariably occur between what are essentially a pair of otherwise nondescript towns—twins divided by the umbilicus of the river. I mean no disrespect by this. They are for the most part simply very small towns populated mainly by the same kind of people who founded them and have always lived there, small landholders, essentially farmers, workers, and small business owners.
The area is neither rich nor poor. Nevertheless there is an air of not so much scraping by, as sustaining one’s place on the earth, not so much struggle as constant labor. Many of the towns have remnants of commercial enterprise to provide and maintain the daily needs of the populace. In our town, in a disconnected string of buildings along the main drag, some with dwellings attached, there’s a discount gasoline station, a combination general store and gasoline station, a dollar store, several produce stands that see business only in the growing season, a John Deere dealership with ranks of tractors of various sizes, but mostly of a diminutive if hefty size, small, yet powerful, dedicated to mowing, a lumber yard, a gun store, an ice cream stand and dairy store owned by the dairy that supplies its stock, a United States post office, a second-hand store. Farther out of town is an automobile repair shop, actually of some repute for the quality of their work. And beyond the stores in the other direction, headed north is a complex of buildings belonging to the administrative affairs of the state, including a courthouse and a small prison facility, as the town is the county seat. As you drive by on warm days, residents of the state assisted care and nursing facilities within the complex sit in their wheel chairs and on benches and watch as the intermittent somehow desultory two-lane traffic goes by in each direction. Prisoners in orange jump suits tend to vegetable beds across the road that supply the small farm stand, built of raw pine, that sees business—sometimes quite a brisk business—during the summer months.
Strung along the highway, in our town and beyond in neighboring villages and hamlets are farms, a number of huge stands of corn meant for silage, but mainly dairy farms, which also sell their meat, modestly promoted on fading signs as honest organic, grass fed beef (along with the occasional pork and lamb) that you can buy year round. Somewhere or other nearby is the abattoir of modest proportions patronized by most of these farmers, who, after the butchery is done, have the usual cuts, as well as ground portions flash frozen, in which condition they sit in solid icy splendor in lockers or freezers. It’s the frozen meat one purchases out of road-side stands and shacks, winter or summer, just off the road on which each farm sits. It is good, honest tasty meat.
The small industry of restaurants that has grown up south of us, mainly catering to the better-heeled natives and winter and summer birds with second homes, that live closer to Hanover, still in Grafton County, yet the southern-most town but one, as much as 40 miles away on the main road that passes through our town as well. Indeed, the road, US 10, hewing to the contours of the river, is known as the Dartmouth College Highway, lest anyone forget the most renowned enterprise in this otherwise fairly remote part of the middle of of one of the three northernmost of the states. Both CNN and Money Magazine, each diligent to the needs and predilections of the still great upper middle class of the nation, deemed Hanover the sixth best place to live in America in 2011. The folks thereabouts can afford the delightful preparations the quiet, unpretentious restaurants, manned by talented chefs, trained in the fleshpots of the big city, and now seeking the quieter pleasures of a still truly rural vanishing bit of U.S. civilization, still accurately and appropriately deemed bucolic.
Where well-heeled residents of the larger cities of New England or the Mid-Atlantic will think nothing of a daring half-hour jaunt along the clogged, haplessly designated “expressways” that take them downtown for a praiseworthy meal, equally well fed patrons take a journey hereabouts that is of equal duration, at worst, for a meal equally good, here in the sticks. Invariably, whatever potentiality there is for invidious comparisons, it is to the disadvantage of the urban experience. Here, there is barely any traffic. What there is, keeps moving along. And the scenery is marvelous, which is to say, there is scenery, as opposed to views of the current architectural modes of the urban milieu.
Heading north from our town for recreation and sustenance produces a somewhat different result, though the rewards and attractions have been steadily improving of late, having degraded for awhile long since, that is, since well before the economic downturn of 2007. Travel Route 10, which eventually joins Route 302 that slowly meanders eastward toward the White Mountains National Park, and it will take you ultimately to towns that are a bit larger, more industrious, more visibly mercantile, more seemingly prosperous. The largest of these, and the most northerly and last of the towns in Grafton County is Littleton, whose founding in the 18th century and history are connected with that of Newburyport, Massachusetts, and which is notable, among a handful of reasons, for its grist mill, built on the banks of the Amonoosuc River, still running through the main village, in 1798. The mill, fallen into disuse long ago, has been restored to its original appearance. Milled product, proudly offered as all natural, with no preservatives, pesticides or insecticides, is still sold, through a Web-only store, and is ground virtually on a per order basis. The mill website lists local restaurants from Littleton to Franconia to Manchester that use their corn, whole wheat and buckwheat meal, mainly for whole grain pancakes.
The mill had a retail store at its original location, but lost their lease for unexplained, though observing the current uses of the same space are easily inferred, reasons.
Given that the space is now occupied by a spiffy new brew pub, constantly being expanded, and with in-house vats, tanks, pumps and the like, one can guess at the financial exigencies that put the property in the hands of an energetic crew of beer lovers and entrepreneurs. They have opened a bar and restaurant under the same brand as the house brews, which they call Schilling. The provenance of the name is unclear, especially as the preponderance of the executive staff, from the Chairman to the CEO, the CFO, as well as several other officers, share the family name of Cozzens. Cozzens or not, the principals and managers all appear to be men. Half of them are bearded.
Patrons are greeted jovially. Originally, starting almost two years ago, the bar and taproom were open for lunch and dinner, serving their small batch (five barrels at a time) brews in various permutations, as well as pizzas from the prominently featured, obviously hand-built brick oven, fired by wood, for pizzas to order, as well as platters of charcuterie, cheese, and various de rigeur Middle Eastern ground legume spreads and dips—hummus and the like.
Since those ambitious beginnings, Schilling seems to have settled into a different routine, opening in mid-afternoon for the first of the week and opening for lunch only on Fridays and the weekend. Originally the beers, ales, and other concoctions were served on premises. They have just begun a program of supplying “select craft beer retailers” in “limited quantities.”
The brews are generally quite good, and it appears that at any one time they offer from ten to a dozen choices, in varying degrees of abv (alcohol by volume). At the moment, the most robust is a Belgian style dark strong brew they call “Thaddeus.” As seems to be the style among craft brewers, all variants have names, unique to the product. Thaddeus is 8.3% abv, and you are advised to “let it warm in your hands to taste its full complexity.” I wouldn’t know. There is also the usual kind of mix of ales, IPAs, Hefeweizen, and lagers. They seem to make an earnest and sincere intent to satisfy all palates.
We had lunch there yesterday. I rarely drink beers and ales, etc., or any yeast-laden beverages as any significant, that is, truly satisfying quantity, would only aggravate an otherwise benign and dormant medical ailment I otherwise manage to keep under control. I don’t particularly like the taste of hops either, so even when I was free to drink as I chose in any reasonable volume, I didn’t deign to drink the brew of choice, it seems, nationally, the ubiquitous IPA. My taste runs to brews that put more emphasis on the malt part of the formula and I do have a preference for darker brews, though porter is the optimum, and I shy away from stout, if not especially disdaining the touchstone of serious imbibers, Guinness Stout. My wife drinks no beer at all, and is no guide or source of a variant point of view.
We discovered Schilling early, well before the now universal application of its rather slick logo, which seems to be some abstracted representation of a sheaved grass, like barley, though it has been rendered into a state of such deep genericism, it’s hard to say what the deeper branding intent was, except to look very slick. Somehow vaguely heraldic, somehow vaguely from the Bauhaus school of typography and iconography that calls for spare minimalist strokes, reminiscent of any number of ‘grotesk’ styled fonts. It’s an odd thing to do, to this antique former ad man, for a craft brewery hidden away in a working class town, 90 minutes from the Canadian frontier, with a population of 6,000 all told spread over 54 square miles. The owners of Schilling are proud of their Littleton roots, and the website, equally as slick as the logo, gives an account written with an almost patriotic fervor about Littleton as, essentially, what the town apparently calls itself, “the main street of the mountains.” Though one must hasten to add, that in Littleton you are not quite in the mountains, not by several thousand feet of elevation.
We’ve liked their way with pizza from the start, though the careful and I’m tempted to say almost meditative approach (and pace) they take to the fulfillment of orders can only heighten one’s anticipation, as well as one’s appetite, and perhaps there is a slightly more favorable impression of the flavor and composition. But, all in all, sarcasm aside, it’s good fresh pizza, made by hand, and with the savory notes possibly only in a wood-burning oven. The ingredients are always as described and super fresh, and applied as toppings at appropriate stages of preparation, some before baking, some as the pie exits the oven.
As for what to quaff, I noticed immediately on the current list of brews a porter, which they call “Kamarade,” presumably as it is allegedly of a Baltic style. I will provide you with their description, which is accurate in the main, and not misleading.
[from the Schilling site] Kamarade (Baltic Porter, Nitro-Poured), 7.8% abv. Inspired by the brewing traditions of Scandinavia and Russia, where porters have a higher ABV than their English counterparts. Ours has a dose of chocolate rye and restrained hopping to produce a malt-centric, lingering finish.
One of the telling parts of the description, aside from the obviously elevated abv, is the specified nitro-poured. Not being familiar with the intricacies and science of brewing—remembering I’m not only a big beer drinker, but I am certainly no beer fanatic, the province of younger men, with bigger beards—I went searching for an adequate, sort of brief explanation of the science, and found the following on the chicagofoodies blog site. It seemed a pretty good take and described the experience I had at the drinking end:
“The nitrogen pour does this in a few ways. Most notably, it creates a creamier mouthfeel to stouts and porters. Nitrogen bubbles are smaller than carbon dioxide bubbles, meaning beers don’t feel as carbonated when served on nitro. Nitrogen is also a large component in the air we breath, so the bubbles in the head don’t feel the need to escape into the air as quickly, producing a thicker head. It’s no surprise that the most common beer experienced on nitro pour is a Guinness.”
This helped me understand, and validated, the experience I had with the “Kamarade,” which replicated what I recall of tastes of cask-aged and cask-poured brews in other brew pubs in my past. The net effect is that the carbonation is subdued, refined, civilized, and allows the tastes and flavors of the beverage to be experienced and differentiated without the confusion and distraction of more vigorous activity from larger bubbles of gas in much higher volume. For me, and probably in a very singular way, it’s what diminishes my appreciation for Guinness Stout, which clearly has a preponderance of admirers vs. the number of detractors willing to speak against it. In short, I’m a stout wuss, not able to appreciate the onslaught of powerful—to me, almost primeval—flavors and textures of this stalwart, thick in the mouth, and very flavor-forward beverage. I am supposing, in a very crude thought experiment, that with the kind of titillating and powerful carbonation of a Coca-Cola added to Guinness, the experience would be similar, without the sickening cloying aftertaste of that aggressive assault on the palate. Whatever. I’m content with porter, which stops somewhere short in my mind as a signifier of my manliness, about which I have no doubt, at least with respect to what I sit there, beardless, in the rough-hewn environs of an essentially backwoods tavern—21st century style—however sans the hirsute, plaid-clad, steel-toed boot style called for by the latter-day hipster.
And, to be sure as well as clear, I was very happy with the “Kamarade” on offer at Schilling, save for one thing. Speaking of short, that is, falling short, I had noticed that the current beer list was mainly offered in two serving sizes, not designated otherwise but as a lower-priced portion and a higher-priced, usually indicators of the size of the serving vessel. At the risk of being over-repetitive on a very small and wholly personal detail, as I am not a big beer drinker, I ordered, as I always do in these circumstances, literally a “small” portion, not knowing what else to call it. I am also not sufficiently a frequent imbiber in establishments offering craft brews, and am, hence, unfamiliar with the terms of art. I infer, in the spirit of the hollow marketing manipulations of the language, best embodied in the Italianate and ridiculous drink sizes memorialized by Starbucks where a “small” is transmuted linguistically into a “tall,” a “medium” into a “grande,” etc., a small glass of beer is a “short” pour, which adds a further even more deeply embedded crypto shaming inherent in taproom sensibility—isn’t there an apocryphal legend that in the more roughhouse atmosphere of certain taverns, at least for awhile in certain cultures and counties, that the sport of choice, once all participants, properly bearded, barrel-chested, and beer-bellied were sufficiently lubricated on the warm ale “in good nick” and direct from the cask, was “dwarf tossing?” Pardon the offensive-to-some terminology, but that’s what it was called.
In all events, to be accurate, it seems to me a “short” pour would go in the same glass as an implied “long” pour (though it’s never referred to in this way) only short of the mark as full. It should also be noted that, like the iconic Guinness Stout, the king of nitro-poured craft beers, especially of the dark-hued variety, with far greater barley and malted notes, the hallmark of porter or a stout is a very large head of foam, built up in layers as the expert tapster or barman or maid lets the glass sit under the tap, filling it in increments, in order to maximize its mainly gaseous lighter hued cap of light tan—contrasted handsomely and compellingly with the darker chocolate-hued liquid beneath—to build a foam barrier of optimal depth once a pour is complete. The sign of fullness of the vessel occurs when the foam reaches the top rim of the glass, it no longer subsides.
Naturally, a short pour in any commercial establishment bent on making a profit from the complex, labor-intensive, and delicate ministrations required to produce a fit product for consumption is served in a glass commensurate with the measure they have deemed fit to match the lower price of the smaller portion. As I indicated, all that were shown were two prices. In the case of “Kamarade” these were $3.25 and $6.50. The lower price seemed a fair amount to extract from me, the light drinker, and sufficient to satisfy my taste, my thirst for what I must otherwise and in any event drink in moderation, and would be not the usual waste of money I manage to commit each time I drink in a bar, because, no matter what the usual portion (and it’s usually 12 or 16 ounces of a draft beverage) I never finish the glass. However this “small,” as I ordered it arrived, indeed, in a lilliputian bit of glassware, almost comical in its diminished proportions, and pretty much the size of a glass I have been offered in other establishments when a “taste” (that is a swallow or two) was offered on a complimentary basis, in order to measure the brew against my preferred palate satisfactions. Moreover, there was the exaggerated head, which took up perhaps an inch, perhaps closer to 3/4 of an inch, in a glass that could not measure more than four or four and-a-half inches in total height.
In my astonishment, I remarked to my wife, that I imagined the glass held, at best, four ounces of any liquid. She disagreed but not by much, but there was no scientific way to make even a rough measure to hand so that part of the conversation was dropped, especially as it was irrelevant. I could not see even this generous whistle-wetter as a sufficient quantity to accompany as much of my pizza (to which I will allude, briefly, in a moment) as I was likely to care to consume, that is, a half of it. When the staff member returned, I pointed out that I had not known what to expect in liquid volume as to the size I would be offered, and that I was sure I would want more, and she inquired, blandly, with no sign of being surprised or non-plussed, and with no indication that she saw her role as anything other than in the capacity of server, as opposed, say, to enlightener of the taproom of craft brewers customers still in the dark as to the arcana of their craft and trade. So, “Do you want another,” she asked, “a short pour again [I had been very careful not to allude, again, to anything as “small”], or a full pour?” I allowed that another short one would be sufficient and that was what was delivered. As i never saw the size of the glass used for a “full” pour, I cannot say that the amount I paid for two shorts, $6.50, though the mathematical equivalent of the charge for a single full glass, represented equal value.
Suffice it to say, and I will say it, for added dramatic effect, in a single sentence, which will constitute this entire paragraph, that I was flabbergasted, and remain so, and discovered I had nothing else to think, never mind to say, on the subject.
The pizza I ordered was given the name “Salsiccia,” referring to the slices of Italian sausage that adorned the top in a random pattern, accompanied by carmelized onions, a very thin film of fresh house-made tomato sauce, and copious amounts of mozzarella cheese. It was all very tasty, though the amount of cheese was considerably in excess of my preference, and that the pie was about 10″ in diameter, and I ate half as an adequate lunch.
There is no indication that there is a “short” order of pizza, should one want to exercise restraint on the food side of the bill of fare.
Having warned you, especially the ranks of my equally fastidious consumers of brew-pub food and drink, I would recommend Schilling, should you ever find yourself in Littleton, NH. Given the shortcomings of trying to bottle the more attractive qualities of a nitro-pour, I’d probably avoid the porters and stouts under the Schilling brand, should you stumble into one of that select list of retailers of their craft beers.