I have written about other breweries in the area before (Green Flash and O’Connor)–and even did a brief about Smartmouth over the summer–but had not yet had the chance to get in depth with what I consider to be the best overall brewery in Hampton Roads. I realize that many will disagree with me, which is fine. Smartmouth does not make my favorite local beer (Hoptopus from Beach Brewing gets that one), but they do make what I consider the best beers as a whole. I am a homebrewer, and the search for “clean” beers is my white whale. It’s a difficult thing to explain, but Smartmouth makes very clean beers. Maybe “balanced” is a better word, but that doesn’t adequately cover it. Brewing beer is equal parts art and science, and to make consistently good beer you have to be adept at both. Smartmouth definitely is; you can even see the blend of art and science on their cans.
Two years in, Hardy admits to being pleased and humbled by the success of the small craft brewery in Chelsea. They are canning their flagship beers as fast as they can to keep up with demand, have added three more fermenters, and are starting to send beer up north to Richmond. The demand for product has definitely been a blessing, but you can tell that Porter is bothered when they can’t get the beers to the people that want them. When I admitted that I had been frustrated that I was never able to find Rule G cans on store shelves, he told me that those cans had picked up the nickname “unicorns;” there were rumors that they existed but few had ever actually seen one. IPAs are more difficult to make in bulk, as the large amounts of hops soak up a lot of beer during the process. Their priority is to take care of their draft accounts first, leaving less Rule G available for the canning line. The additional fermenters have definitely helped; I can now find Rule G occasionally on shelves, and had just missed them canning more of it when I stopped in.
Something that had always perplexed me about Smartmouth was their inclusion of Alter Ego as one of their flagship beers, one of the first three to get the can treatment. Alter Ego is a saison, a Belgian style that is pretty unique. Most people either love saisons or hate them; the yeast used for the style contributes a very distinct flavor. For the record, I hate them. Including a saison in the short list seems like a ballsy move, and both Porter and Head Brewer Greg Papp agreed that it was a gamble. Porter had loved to brew them as a homebrewer, but still needed some nudging from his wife to include the style as an initial staple at Smartmouth. She convinced him that he would regret it if he didn’t try. The other two, Murphy’s Law and Rule G, were easy choices. What this allowed the brewery to do was have a representation of the ingredients of beer on the front lines, which I had never thought about. Murphy’s Law highlights the malt, Rule G highlights the hops, and Alter Ego highlights the yeast (the fourth ingredient in beer is water, and if you want a beer that highlights that I would recommend Bud Light). They don’t expect anyone to like all three. Despite my personal tastes, Alter Ego is their best seller; the move paid off.
I asked Porter what’s next in the cans, but clearly no firm decision has been made. The tasting room at the brewery is the market test, with Cowcatcher Milk Stout and the seasonal Sommer Fling Hefeweizen being the front runners. Smartmouth has been generous to tasting room patrons looking to try new brews, with seasonal and special offerings being turned out with great regularity. For many of these beers it seems like a cruel tease, and there have been a few that I would love to see again. I all but begged Porter to bring back Bandwagon Citra. Maybe I should talk to his wife.
Chalkboard art in the tasting room by Studio Otzi
We will get our next taste of a special release on November 1st, when Smartmouth hosts its second annual birthday street party. The as-yet-unnamed beer will be a “Southern Hemisphere” IPA, and the party will no doubt be a blast. There will be two bands, seven food vendors, and all that great beer. If you’ve never experienced the brewery before this would be a great time to do it. If you see Porter Hardy, IV, don’t be afraid to shake his hand and tell him that you love the beer. As is the case with any good brewer, making something that people enjoy is the main reason he’s doing it.
For more of Smartmouth, here is their Facebook page.