Federal Jack better clean up his act

The pleasant Kennebunkport harbor provides a lovely backdrop for this legendary brewpub.

Mention Shipyard to any New England beer drinker and you’re likely to get a pretty clear impression that it’s generally a popular and well-liked beer.  Not at the very high end like Allagash or Oxbow, but closer to those than it is to Bud Light.  If the label says Shipyard it’s affordable, tasty, and safe to serve to someone no matter where they are on the spectrum of beer appreciation.  A solid go-to for many a Mainer.  Shipyard also contracts for, or owns a number of additional brands, including Gritty’s, Sea Dog, and others.

This now sizable regional regional brewery all began at a modest, 7-barrel brewpub in Kennebunkport.  Master brewer Alan Pugsley, who apprenticed at Ringwood Brewery in Hampshire, UK, teamed with market-savvy Fred Forsley in 1992 as Kennebunkport Brewing Company and Federal Jack’s restaurant/bar and all-around-happening place.  A combination of excellent beer with location, location, location put KBC on the map and within a few years was the impetus for Shipyard.

A little more backstory is in order here, to provide some insight as to why I was so pissed off at Federal Jacks last week.

Pugsley — and the British influence in general — just might be one of the most under-appreciated forces in the craft beer boom of recent years.  The guy simply knows how to make good beer.  Before Maine Beer Co. et al were making jammy hop forward New England style IPAs, Pugsley and a small cadre of Maine brewers were producing Brit style beers that were arguably better than the original.  Excellent malt-forward offerings like Geary’s Hampshire Ale and Gritty’s ESB are examples of this, unfortunately losing popularity to the hoppy stuff.  (I yearn for the day when the market strongly supports and encourages a wider range of styles).

As Shipyard exploded on the scene, Kennebunkport Brewing Co. became a pilot lab of sorts, still cranking out the Export for the restaurant upstairs while serving as a test lab for new creations.  Today KBC is also a training site, nurturing apprentices as Ringwood did for Pugsley so many years ago.  Regardless of the occasional horror such as Raspberry Sea Dog — and who knows if Pugsley plays any part in that — the guy has guaranteed enshrinement in the brewery hall of fame.

So it was with great anticipation and much fanfare that I made my first trip to Federal Jack’s,  clearly a key landmark in the history of the New England craft beer scene.  First stop is to peer through the expansive windows at the inner workings of the Kennebunkport Brewing Company, then up the stairs to Federal Jack’s with its breezy atmosphere and sweeping views of the cozy harbor.

A very pleasant young man summering from his studies at U Maine Orono quickly served up the sample flight requested.  That’s when everything went south.

shipyardmenuI rattled off the first four or five selections for a sampler flight, many of which I’ve had in bottles on numerous occasions.  First up was Goat Island Light, which was new to me.  I found it refreshing but decidedly odd, due to a strong off taste dominating the flavor.  Butter? Wet Cardboard?   Well ok, this is a brewery steeped in British tradition, so maybe a little of that buttery is what they were going for.  I didn’t think much of it.

Second up was old reliable, Shipyard’s Export Ale.  This is a go-to for quite a few Mainers, I figured it would be a good palate cleanser after the Goat Island oddity.  Instead I was treated to a full-blown, beyond butter or mild cardboard  and well into the realm of much too much.  What the heck?

Next up, Taint Town. Now I know what a pale ale is supposed to taste like, and this taint it.  Brown Ale, same deal.  One of my companions was working on a Crow’s Nest IPA, and he wondered what the off taste was.  Dirty tap lines?  I offered my Old Thumper sample, a beer licensed from Ringwood and a long-time favorite of mine.  I couldn’t bear to try it, and sure enough, he said “tastes like the IPA.”  Butter?  “Well, kind of,” he replied, “but more like a dirty tap taste from an old keg at the firehouse.”

Jumping ahead on the list…Sam-A-Rye…same thing.  Diacetyl? Oxidized kegs? I couldn’t put my finger on it, but indeed it tasted exactly like beer served through the tap lines at a decaying social hall.  The lone exception was the County Pale Ale served on nitro, which warranted a full glass.  This leads me to believe that the rest of the stuff was suffering from oxidation or funky tap lines or both.

Whatever the cause, the reputation of Maine’s fine beer tradition suffered this day, and Federal Jack needs to clean up his act.