There’s something you should know about getting the best beer in America – it ain’t easy.
Kate the Great is a Russian Imperial Stout brewed by Portsmouth Brewery in Portsmouth, NH. In December of 2007, Beer Advocate magazine named Kate the Great the Best Beer in America (and 2nd-best on Planet Earth), based on the beer reviews posted online at BeerAdvocate.com. Since Portsmouth is such a small brewery, and because an imperial stout takes so long to brew and age, Kate only gets a very limited release – approximately ten barrels per batch, brewed once or twice a year. This works out to about 900 22oz bottles and five barrels put on draft. Of course scarcity only breeds further demand, and the beer has become something of a phenomenon since the high rating from Beer Advocate. After missing the January and June releases last year, I needed to get to Portsmouth this year to sample some Kate before the taps ran dry.
After making the short jaunt down to Portsmouth from Portland, I arrived at the Portsmouth Brewery a little after nine on “Kate the Great Day”, February 11, 2009. While the beer was to be released on draft and in bottles simultaneously in the early afternoon (1:14 PM, to be exact), the brewery was kind enough to give people pages from page-a-day calendar to hold a spot in line for the bottle release. The earlier your page, the earlier you could buy your bottles of Kate. Surprised to find no one in line, I sauntered into the brewery and happily snagged a mid-January calendar date – obviously a great, early date! At least I thought it was, until I was informed that the “Dilberts” (those of us with pages from a Dilbert page-a-day) were the first batch of people on the second calendar. Suddenly, I had plummeted from the first month to the thirteenth.
After a few hours of visiting my favorite independent stores in Portsmouth and walking around the waterfront, I returned to the brewery around 12:30. The scene was a complete 180 from the morning. Not only was the pub filled to capacity with people 1) getting lunch and 2) staking out tables to wait for the KtG release, the line for tables and bottles stretched out the brewery, down the block and around the corner. While I ended up between a beer-lover from the Burlington area and a group down from upstate NH, word traveled down the line that people were here from as far away as Florida, Chicago and Ottawa. A crew from the brewery came by interviewing people in line, and staff came out to explain the calendar system to new arrivals.
Forty-five minutes later, a roar came down the line as the magical time of 1:14 was reached. The line for bottles had begun to move slowly, although the good company and promise of great beer kept everyone still in line in good spirits. Month after month was called, and the line shrank as people who got in to the pub stayed to sample some Kate the Great on tap. Around 2:00, I’d moved up the block to the outside of the brewery. By 2:30 I was a few feet from the front steps, and just before 3:00 “Dilbert January” was called. The bottle-buying process made me feel like a VIP – rather than selling bottles upstairs in the pub proper, we were directed down a stairway to a lounge in the brewery basement. It was instantly obvious where everyone buying bottles was drinking, as the lounge was a raucous, barely-controlled chaos of tipsy beer-lovers. My calendar page was taken, my date checked off, and I took my two bottles of Kate the Great with a smile and $20 lighter. Back to Maine!
Even with the crowd in Portsmouth, I was a bit surprised to find that by Tuesday morning all the Kate was completely gone. Thankful to have made it away with two bottles, I gave one to my buddy Luke, author of A Blog About Beer and writer for the Maine Beer Writers’ Guild. I popped the other bottle of the 22 oz beauty open last night.
Kate poured exactly how you’d expect for the style – black and thick as motor oil, with a healthy toffee-colored head that eventually faded to a nice ring that lasted ’til the end of the glass. Smells of dark chocolate, coffee, roasted malt and a touch of vanilla – if the 10+% alcohol was hidden in there somewhere, I couldn’t detect it. Taste was … wow. SO complex, with so many flavors. From the start to the finish I tasted molasses, chocolate, citrus hops, coffee, smoky-sweet tobacco, and a sweet brown sugar. The flavors don’t drown out or clash with each other, but follow one another in a magical mystery tour of taste. Again, alcohol is astoundingly well-hidden. Mouthfeel was nice and full, almost velvety. Perfectly dry finish, and not too thick or cloying. The hidden alcohol, smoothness and complex flavors make Kate the Great absurdly drinkable. If it were still available in growlers, I doubt many beer lovers would have trouble killing the 64-oz bottle with a friend quickly. I hate to feed the hype machine, but I have to – Kate the Great is the best imperial stout I’ve had, and is up with Westy 12, Cadillac Mountain Stout and Aventinus among my favorite beers. And this is after just one bottle of the stuff!
Whenever Kate the Great comes out again, I’ll see you in line.