While on my two week journey throughout New England, one of the stops included a two night stay my friend’s house in New Hampshire. I already knew that I would be visiting Portsmouth beforehand. Who could deny such a scenic town with a varied beer resume including the breweries such as Smuttynose, Redhook, Earth Eagle and Portsmouth – or well known pubs like the Thirsty Moose? What I didn’t know was that a new craft beer bar had just opened around Memorial Day – coincidentally the very week I was visiting. Thankfully, my friend tipped me off, prompting the addition of this new place to my “must visit” list.
I swung by WHYM right after it opened at 3:00 p.m. I was hoping that there would be no crowd at that time on a Wednesday, letting me take in the full experience and to see exactly what the owner intended for the location. I was correct in my assumption and was able to grab a seat right at the bar without problem.
The first impression from this bar was one of what I would term “enthusiast, yet efficient”. Nothing was extraneous – but that’s not to say that the bar wasn’t aesthetically pleasing – because it certainly was. I mean that physical composition of it all served a purpose: the hiking clips under the bar used as hangers, the old farm doors used for supporting the glass hanging rack (I believe all the wood for the tables was locally sourced) and perhaps most surprisingly was that there were only about 10 taps. Yes, that’s right – in the town that is used to Thirsty Moose’s 100+ taps, here’s a bar trying to get away with a fraction of that. Why? The photo tells part of the tale:
Yes, that’s barrel aged Old Rasputin on nitro being poured for me. WHYM skirts the line between local fare, non-local domestic craft beer and imports. Prior to the Rasputin, I enjoyed a Biere De Miel (Lunatique Homard) from Blue Lobster which hit the spot. Since I was not familiar with Blue Lobster, I began to throw relentless questions at the bartender. Alex, the bartender and also the co-owner of WHYM with his wife, Gretchin, were as open and friendly as one has come to enjoy in the craft beer world. We spoke about Blue Lobster’s partnership with WHYM as well as its history (the head brewer interned at Hill Farmstead – How did I not know about this place again!?).
The food followed the theme of “enthusiast, yet efficient”. There were only 8 apps and 8 entrees, but they represented a variety of flavors that complemented the spread of beers. Beyond that, the quality of the food seemed phenomenal. I am only using the word “seemed” because I only tried one appetizer and one entree (Spicy buffalo chicken fritter & IPA marinated shrimp with prosciutto, risotto and arugula). However, I significantly doubt that they weren’t representative of the quality of the rest of the menu. It was reminiscent of Armsby Abbey (see Armsby Abbey: Worcester, MA )a fine location in which Alex shares my appreciation. I can only imagine the gems that the chef, Melissa brings out for their specials.
Alex and I continued to speak at length on a number of topics. Given that his grand opening was the prior Friday and yesterday had been his first normal day of business, I was curious what challenges he anticipated. He’d been told by folks that he was crazy for not opening in downtown Portsmouth (the location is a few miles south on Route 1), but I understood WHYM’s location. Craft beer bars are still a unique and burgeoning business, particularly with the superb food pairing focus. The last thing Alex needed to deal with would be negative reviews from folks complaining about the lack of TVs for sports or about the prices for a snifter of barrel aged Old Rasputin when they’re looking for a Bud Light Lime.
The entire time we were conversing, Alex was meticulously drying glassware and sorting it appropriately. When speaking with a new hire, his direction as to which glassware to use with which beers came from someone who clearly espoused close testing and comparison. As I’d informed Alex of my trip, he was not terribly surprised when I offered to share one a bottle of Chinooker’d IPA from Lawson’s Finest with him in celebration of his opening. He declined at first, but after a more of his staff showed up it was clear that he could step away for a moment. He told his wife that he was taking his break and took me up on my offer.
Alex took me to the back room in the restaurant, something of an alcove that his friends had apparently termed “the grotto”. There, we partook in fine meats and cheese while discussing the evolution of the craft beer scene and his intentions. For starters, I was curious about “the grotto” – what was the intent for this portion of the restaurant? He wanted it to be something of a “members only” area where he could conduct tasting or pairing lessons. I chuckled and informed him that I had full faith in his instructional capabilities, given what I’d observed earlier with the glasses.
Alex nodded and responded that he felt it was an undervalued aspect of appreciation. He observed that when most folks become interested in craft beer, it would not be uncommon for the trigger to be a wheat beer. When that Franziskaner Hefe-Weisse is first served in a weizen glass to someone, interest is piqued. He wanted to ensure that he nurtured that curiosity and let folks know that it was more than simply a gimmick. This was another example of how his approach differed from that of downtown Portsmouth. I love the Portsmouth Brewery, but when I had visited the previous day, I was slightly disappointed to have their wheatwine served to me in a pint glass.
It made more sense when Alex told me a bit more about his background. Significant time spent in both ME and VT? Even more significantly, time spent learning from the folks at sister bars Ebenezer’s and Lion’s Pride? He was clearly quite serious about bringing that same spirit back home to NH.
WHYM’s motto is “good people drink good beer”. Mottos can be hollow phrases, but Alex and WHYM understand that actions speak louder than words. Their passion is palpable, their sincerity obvious, and their goals admirable. If you’re visiting Portsmouth, take a trip outside of the city to visit this place. The 10 minute drive is well worth it.
Written by Gene Shevchuk
3548 Lafayette Rd
Portsmouth, NH 03801