B&W: OCTOBER FEATURE
CANTERBURY ALEWORKS AND THE HOLY GRAIL
Round up Lancelot and Galahad: It’s time for a quest
WORDS /CYNDLE PLAISTED RIALS
When you step out of your car on the grounds at Canterbury Aleworks, you may feel like you’ve traveled further than you thought. From the bright red telephone box near the entrance, down the steps past the water wheel and its earthy rushing sound, to the tasting room itself, whose cozy interior looks like a pub that would fit in a quiet, long-ago British hamlet, there’s a lot of history going on. The theme continues behind the dark wood bar, where Steve Allman, aka “The Aleman,” brews his beer with a single tank in a process that is water-powered and wood-fired.
“I call it a British-Irish pub,” Allman says with a wink, fully aware of the complicated history there. He raises his voice slightly to be heard over the earthy sound of the water wheel just outside the open door. “For them — and you could add in Germany — beer is such a central part of the culture.”
You can feel that appreciation for beer as a cornerstone of social life and life in general in Allman’s space — he tells me that when people come in, they point up to the second floor, asking, “Is the brewery up there?” Allman, lightly tanned and blue-eyed, says, “No, it’s all right here!” He gestures around where he’s standing, and, indeed, a 31-gallon barrel is steaming on a stove right behind the bar. He also has two fermenting tanks, just a few yards from the bar, which can take double batches from the barrel.
It’s a short journey from kettle to tank to tap lines in his economical layout.
It’s a brew day, and the air is thick with a biscuity, slightly sweet scent. Though I’ve visited a number of breweries behind the scenes at this point, it’s the first time I’ve been somewhere where the aromas of the process permeate the whole space, likely due to the snug scale of the tasting room and the fact that the brewing happens right here in the same room, not behind closed doors. Allman says he often starts brew days by shuffling out early from his house in his slippers and pajamas to get the stove going — one of the benefits of having a business at home. As a woman who’s been known to ruin a batch of chocolate chip cookies when my kids interrupt me to recount their latest Minecraft build in exhaustive detail, I marvel at how Allman deftly keeps an eye on everything as we talk. I mean, he has to. “It’s just the three of us,” he says, a twinkle in his eye. “Me, myself, and I, and we get along well on a good day.”
“Brewery owner” is not Allman’s only career; he studied philosophy at Amherst in the ’80s and he’s spent around a decade each on two other ventures, including a very successful woodworking business with international sales, then a farm selling raw milk, meat, and vegetables. I quickly get the sense that he tackles every one of his very different ventures with robust passion.
One venture that’s just for fun, though I’m not sure I would personally call it that, is his participation in obstacle course races, like Tough Mudder and Spartan Races, which explains his toned physique and moisture-wicking athletic shirt. He excitedly tells me he needs to show me the upstairs before I leave today — it’s a gym he designed with monkey bars, rings, and ropes to train for the races, for which he even travels around the country. Tonight the gym will house a dozen folks there to train for the next team race. Looks like he’s pretty good at it — 30 or so medals with colorful ribbons hang over the bar.
The building that houses the training space and the brewery was originally Allman’s wood shop — he designed and built it 26 years ago. He was able to use his woodworking skills additionally for the brewery, which he describes as a scaled-up home brewing setup, complete with his self-designed rocket stove with a combustion chamber where he efficiently boils his beer. “I’m a doer kind of guy — I’ve always made things work. I enjoy a steep learning curve.”
If all of this sounds like the result of some painstaking planning, that’s because it is. Allman is “a research geek” when he tackles any new curiosity or project, from digging into the details of how taste receptors work (he tells me we all have around 400, while supertasters will have more like 600-800; this subject grabbed his interest when he lost his sense of taste for nearly a year following a “COVID-like virus” he experienced a couple years ago), to making a new beer.
“This is decidedly not the place to come for 50 Shades of IPA,” he says, chuckling. He does often have one on tap, but he’s most animated talking about the styles he considers easy to get wrong, like Extra Special Bitter (ESB) and helles (a light German lager): “They’re all process beers. There’re only a couple ingredients, and it’s not so much about what grains or hops you use but how you do it. There’s this Malcolm Gladwell-esque point where art and science collide.”
One such effort to find where those curves intersect has been perfecting his ESB — it’s taken him a decade to bring it to the point where he’s happy with it. He goes on to speak about how he sees other U.S. breweries getting the style wrong, like too much caramel malt, using other grain additions, or not including the decoction process, and while I can’t pretend to know exactly what he’s talking about (it’s all sounding like equations involving swallows and coconuts to me), his knowledge and attention to detail, as well as the philosophical ideas he drops along the way, make it all fascinating. Now, after 10 years of well researched experimentation, “certified English people” say his ESB hits the mark, including a friend from Manchester who doesn’t let him get away with anything. Here he provides an impression of him sampling the brew in a dry Mancunian accent and sounding passably pleased, which Yanks can interpret as almost peak enthusiasm for a Brit.
A few of the eight beers on tap at the time of my visit besides his “Big Ben” ESB include the mesquite-smoked habanero wheat “Weisscracker” (the tap is a bundle of dynamite whose fuse lights when a glass is poured) and “Enlightened Peasant,” a Bavarian Farmhouse Ale, Allman’s take on a little known peasant beer that involves a unique fermentation of a barley beer using a traditional Southern German wheat beer yeast. One of the most eye-catching is “I shall taunt you a second time,” a barrel-fermented saison, the tap for which includes the familiar visage of John Cleese as the quotable sneering French knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
In fact, that comic crew could be indirectly credited for the entire existence of this nano-brewery. When I ask what started his fascination with traditional British beer styles, I expect a story about heritage and deep roots, and it is, in a way, though not what I expected. “I was always a hopeless Monty Python fan,” he notes, going on to add that his father was a huge Britophile who traveled to England frequently for work when the company that employed him was purchased by a London firm.
“He spent his whole life in business, so when I told him, ‘I think I’m gonna start a brewery in the basement of the wood shop,’ he thought I was crazy.” But that was nearly a decade ago now, and business shows no sign of slowing. Allman saw his busiest day of all time last fall, amid the pandemic, and even though summer is usually his slower time, he’s had a very steady season, with both visitors on the hunt for the next big beer thing, and Sunday drivers guided down the densely-wooded, winding roads as if by magic, agog when they happen upon his fairy tale spot in the woods.
The day of my visit is an important one for Steve and for breweries around the state, as New Hampshire’s governor is set to sign a bill allowing tasting rooms to sell pints, a welcome change to a law that formerly only allowed establishments like Allman’s to serve one taster per customer and sell growlers to go, as no food was offered on the premises. “I’m curious and hopeful for how pints will change my game,” Allman says, adding that he’s thinking about adding another day to his strictly controlled schedule, perhaps bringing in some live music for Friday nights.
He mentions that he hears people talk about when the craft beer bubble is going to burst. The way he sees it, “As long as the brewery, the tasting room, becomes part of our culture . . . we’re not even close to having as many pubs per capita as they do (in England, Ireland, and Germany).” He bends to feed a few more chunks of wood into the fire under the kettle. “It’s not anywhere close to bursting as long as there’s more cool relevant places popping up.”
“Even big companies like Sam Adams are shifting toward tasting rooms,” he says. “There’s no room in distribution. There’s gotta be a focus on on-premise and a super cool experience.” That’s definitely what he has here. Canterbury Aleworks is a place you’ll not find duplicated; in fact, it’s that way by design. “I alway tell people, ‘If you see anything that reminds you of another brewery, tell me,’” Allman grins and speaks low, as if telling me a secret even though we’re the only ones here, “because I want to get rid of it.”
With towering display cases of mugs his father collected all over the UK adorning the homey space, the transportive quality of the styles he meticulously brews, the rushing sound of the water wheel just outside to the upholstered walls studded with polaroids of smiling visitors, notes and names scribbled in Sharpie along the bottom, this is a place where traditional flavors are savored and new stories are made deep in the New Hampshire woods.
Allman lifts the lid of the kettle, releasing more of that rich, yeasty aroma, and gives the boiling brew a stir with a long wooden spoon. He leans in conspiratorially. “You know, beer is definitely involved, but what I really sell is experience.”
Where can you find us in the wild?
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