Whether from a guide’s perspective or a participant, one of the great benefits of the Birds on Tap – Roadtrip! series of tours with The Maine Brew Bus is that no matter what the weather, no matter what the season, the breweries WILL be there. The same, obviously, cannot always be said for the birds, especially when rain and wind is forecast. Well, they will be there, but whether or not we get to see them is an entirely different thing.
And the forecast for Mother’s Day was not good. One of the local forecaster’s simply called it a “complete wash-out.” But rescheduling these events, outside of winter, is a real challenge, and like I said, we can at least guarantee that the breweries will be dry and open! Certainly, the radar, as we departed Portland, did not offer much in the way of optimism.
But despite the forecast, the May 14th “Warblers and Wort” Roadtrip was anything but a washout. In fact, half of the birding was done without a drop of rain and even a little filtered sun. But yeah, the first stop was rather damp.
We began at the Waterboro Barrens Preserve in Shapleigh, where we enjoyed numerous and conspicuous Eastern Towhees. Several people commented that they had never seen so many towhees, and seen them so well. But with light rainfall falling steadily, the birding was rather slow. We only heard one Prairie Warbler, did not locate a single Field Sparrow, but we were quite pleased to have a singing Red Crossbill fly over. We did get to see a rather rare habitat for Maine – managed Pitch Pine-Scrub Oak barrens – and we compared the forest composition within the reserve to the degraded woods outside the property. We didn’t see all of the denizens of this specialized habitat, but plans were made for return visits on drier days.
Female Red Crossbill and a Chipping Sparrow, from a different time and place.
Our second stop conveniently took place in the midst of a break in the precipitation. Unfortunately, wet, winding roads slowed down our transit, I spent a few more minutes than I should have at Waterboro, and a little communication error led to us falling well behind schedule. Therefore, we were on a mission as we marched into the Jagolinzer Preserve in Limington.
This beautiful little spot, which was one of my favorite discoveries while writing my new book, Birdwatching in Maine: A Site Guide is home to several territories of the localized Louisiana Waterthrush – a bird that today’s group was really hoping to see. As soon as we reached the river, we heard one singing, and then, in my favorite viewing spot, got one to immediately pop out of cover and provide unusually long and unimpeded views as he was clearly challenging the bird singing across the river.
Meanwhile, a rather confiding Veery competed for our attention. We would have worked harder for more of the breeding warblers here – this was “Warblers and Wort” afterall – but we celebrated our Louie success – the primary “target” of this visit.
The mixed woodlands here, and the deciduous-dominated riparian corridor on the banks of the Saco River were in marked contrast to the rather homogeneous pine barrens. A larger sample of the birdlife would show some significant differences in resultant avian species composition.
If “Louisiana Waterthrush Habitat” was listed in the dictionary, this picture would be it definition.
All too soon Andy, our driver and beer guide for the day, had to crack the whip and get us on our way. Back in the bus, we shed layers, and Andy took over on the microphone as we weaved our way back around Sawyer Mountain and over to Limerick’s Gneiss Brewing Company, fueled by our kale and feta hand pies for lunch.
Not only had they opened just for us, they fired up the woodstove, and we rapidly dried out the remnants of that rain in Waterboro. Concentrating on classic German styles, we learned about Gneiss’s brewing philosophy and operation. Having produced 400 barrels last year, plans are in the works for future expansion and canning. We glimpsed a Wild Turkey strutting through the backyard as we toured the facility and sampled four of their beers.
Beginning with their flagship Gneiss Weiss, a full-bodied wheat beer with low bitterness and a subtle hint of banana, we moved on to Sonnenschein, a crisp and well-balanced Kolsch. I really liked this beer; crisp, clean, and easy-drinking but with really good balance and flavor. Next up was Obsius, a stout brewed with roasted wheat and fermented with their house hefeweizen yeast, making for a subtle banana note to go along with the traditional roasty and nutty stout flavors.
Last but not least, we were offered a sample of any one of their ten beers on tap at the moment, and on recommendation, I sampled Pyroclast, a collaboration with Orono Brewing Company. Starting with a potent golden ale, it was aged for 13 months in various barrels, including those of both red and white wines, with several rounds of various wild yeasts. The result was an ultra-complex brew with lots of fruity and tart flavors. And, with the Brettanomyces, just a little bit of funk.
The second brewery on today’s itinerary was the production facility of Sebago Brewing Company in Gorham. It was fascinating to compare the size of the facility and equipment, and learning how craft beer is scaled up to accommodate growing demand. Ahead of the curve, opening their first brewpub way back (in the world of modern craft brewing, downright ancient) in 1998, Sebago now operates four brewpubs, and supplies cans and bottles around New England.
A generous helping of seven samples of a wide range of their offerings helped guide us through the tour and the discussion, starting with Yellow on Friday, their Czech Pilsner. Light in body, crisp, and mellow, this was a rare lager from Sebago. Next up was the Red X, a pale ale recipe using red malt. This one-time brew was surprising – the palette is expecting a sweet amber from the color, but this is an illusion – it was light and dry like a typical pale. It was definitely unique, and I quite liked it.
A single hopped pale ale featuring a new New Zealand hop variety offered some tangerine and bitter blood orange flavor, before we relaxed with a new stand-by, the light and refreshing session, Simmer Down. One of their new top-sellers, this was already the fourth release this year of what will likely be a new summer go-to, featuring lots of tropical fruit notes and low alcohol.
Sebago’s number one seller is their Frye’s Leap IPA, which may be up to 60% of what they produce in a month these days. Citrus and a touch of pine are featured in this classic IPA. Next up was one of my favorites from Sebago, the Whistlepunk DIPA, which has lots of citrus and other hop flavors, and although it’s a goodly 8% is not boozy to me. We then finished up with their Hop Yard Porter, with local hops, and a fairly light body for a porter.
Needless to say, we had all fully warmed up by now! The short trip to Portland and then on to Freeport, discussion revolved around the wide variety of beers that were sampled, and for many, life birds – especially the Louisiana Waterthrush – that were spotted. And the fact that it wasn’t even raining for the whole day; that is most definitely a win!