There’s a certain sameness to so many small cities across the country, ones that have an abundance of chain shops and chain restaurants on the outer fringes (usually by a highway), a mix of chains and independent businesses downtown and perhaps more in the way of independent spots in their residential areas. Once you leave New England, it feels like even there, the chains seem to be taking over.
That’s why more than a few small cities in the Northeast can feel like a breath of fresh air, with indie shops and eateries giving the communities a feel of uniqueness. Newport, Rhode Island; Burlington, Vermont; Lowell, Massachusetts; and Portland, Maine, are great examples, along with the seaside city of Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
With its funky downtown area and historic neighborhoods attracting visitors from far, far away, it would be tough to think of a more visually appealing city center than Portsmouth’s, thanks to its quaint old buildings, cozy alleyways and stunning vistas of the water.
And when it comes to dining (and drinking), it can be quite difficult to choose where to go because of the sheer variety of options ranging from ultra-casual cheap eats spots to high-end special occasion places and almost every kind of cuisine imaginable. You might think that any breweries in Portsmouth would be on the outskirts where some of the old industrial buildings are, and you’d be right to an extent – a few such places are found along the railroad tracks southwest of the city center – but a couple do reside downtown, including the Portsmouth Brewery, a spot that can’t get any more “downtown” than it is and which has been in operation for many years now.
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From the outside, the Portsmouth Brewery doesn’t exactly look like a beermaker where you run in to grab some cans or bottles or maybe sample some brews in a taproom. Instead, the exterior of the place looks much like many of the restaurants downtown, which makes sense because the Portsmouth Brewery is basically a restaurant that happens to include an area where beer is made.
The business prides itself on being a public house of sorts where people can come in and enjoy food and drink with family, friends, loved ones and co-workers in a low-key, relaxing environment. This is interesting because some of the newer breweries seem to be focusing on this concept of combining hospitality with great beer, which is partly as a response to mandates early in the pandemic that required the serving of food with alcohol. But the Portsmouth Brewery has been doing this since 1991 and is actually considered to be the oldest brewpub in all of New Hampshire.
The exterior of the Portsmouth Brewery makes it appear that the interior could be rather small, but the place is actually quite spacious, especially considering its downtown location with where many spaces are tiny. The space extends far back and also has levels above and below. A small but attractive bar sits to the right of the entrance while booths line the left wall, and partitions separate the booths from the bar while also creating two other dining areas: One in the middle of the space that has low-top tables, and another lounge-type space a few steps up and along the right wall beyond the bar, giving an almost terraced look to it all.
A small outdoor beer garden can be found through a doorway to the left, and three other sections (the Side Room to the left, the Jimmy LaPanza Lounge downstairs and the “Big Ass Table” in the back) are used for everything from beer socials to trivia nights to live music, private events and functions. And yes, that other space in the back with the windows? That is the brewery part of the brewery, where the beer is made.
PHOTOS: Food and Beer Are Both on the Menu at the Portsmouth Brewery
The menu — which includes comfort food dishes with global influences — reflects the fact that the Portsmouth Brewery feels more like a restaurant that happens to include a brewery than a brewery that happens to include a restaurant.
On the menu, you’ll find a huge plate of nachos with a choice of short rib, mushrooms, chili or chicken tinga (shredded chicken in chili sauce). There’s a spectacular take on an often ordinary appetizer, bean dip, that comes with fried tortillas, goat cheese-stuffed shishito peppers, two types of beans, Monterey jack cheese and pico de gallo, and it can also be made with vegan “cheese.” Speaking of cheese, they serve a hearty poutine with cheese curds, fries, gravy and short rib meat, as well as a sleep-inducing smash burger with two patties, Vermont cheddar cheese, bacon onion jam and a zesty cream sauce. There’s also a classic fish and chips plate with whitefish from the nearby Gulf of Maine; a gluten-free jambalaya that can be made with andouille sausage and shrimp or as a vegan dish with tempeh; a yellow curry that is both vegan and gluten free and which includes braised tofu; and, for dessert, whoopie pies, which may or may not have been invented in New Hampshire (other states, including neighboring Maine, may have something to say about that).
With all that to get through, it's almost easy to forget that the Portsmouth Brewery is, well, a brewery, and that it features an array of beer options. A real favorite here is Torn & Frayed, a traditional IPA that tends to straddle the line between bitter and citrusy, giving it a near-perfect balance that goes well with a variety of foods. The Lietuvens Baltic Porter is one of the darkest beers you’ll ever see, and its strong chocolate and coffee flavors are tempered a bit by just a hint of fruitiness. For a real kick, try Sunbird, which leans toward being a mead and has the type of warm smells and flavors that go well on a cold winter night (the kick comes from the high alcohol content, so be careful!). A much lighter beer is the Dirty Blonde Ale, which is very easy to drink and is more of a thirst quencher, perfect for those warm summer days that will be here before you know it (knock wood). Also offered are beers made by other breweries, including from Maine Beer Company and Allagash, and wines and cocktails for those who might not be in the mood for beer.
The Greater Boston area has seen some restaurant/brewery hybrid models work very well of late, but the Portsmouth Brewery has been doing this for a lot longer than some of the others. And it does it well, making it that much more difficult to choose where to eat when wandering through this enchanting city at the northern edge of New Hampshire’s small but wonderful coastline.
Portsmouth Brewery, 56 Market Street, Portsmouth, NH, 03801. portsmouthbrewery.com