Tod Mott of Portsmouth Brewery

Going Pro by | Oct 2007 | Issue #10

Photo by Joshi Radin

Tod Mott has worked all over New England, but in recent years he has settled into a nice groove at the Portsmouth Brewery, Smuttynose’s brewpub sister. He’s pairing some excellent, classically inspired beers with killer pub food; the crowds outside his door want more beer than he can make on his tiny seven-barrel system, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

1. The first step is admitting that you’re drinking swill
We all have pasts we’re not proud of: Mott cops to being “a Bud drinker until probably 1986, 1987.” That all changed when he was given a homebrew kit. His first two batches netted mixed results, but, he recalls, “The third time, it was actually really good, and then I sort of got this little bug.” He took an all-grain course at a local homebrew shop, overcame some serious difficulties in the siphoning department, and the rest has been gravy.

2. Get strong
The first beer that really got Mott on fire for brewing was from Boston’s Commonwealth Brewery. He recalls being “totally blown away by their Old Ale—it was an English strong old ale, but more along the lines of a barleywine. I tasted it and was like, holy fuck this is not beer—what the hell is this? I was just blown away, and that just whetted my appetite. I was like, this is what I’ve gotta do, I’ve gotta make some strong beers.”

3. Break it into pieces
Mott has his Master’s in ceramics, and he says his education in that field has informed the way he brews to this day. “I was process oriented. In ceramics, it’s understand your ingredients, time and temperature, chemistry and a little bit of magic. So when I got that can of extract, it’s like, what is this, what the hell is this made of?”

4. Go crazy
Ceramics was a passion, but it didn’t pay the bills. “I kept pounding the pavement, looking for jobs, and I just wasn’t getting the job offers,” he says. “My wife said, ‘Why don’t you do an internship?’” Mott spent four months in the fall of 1990 studying at Catamount Brewing in Vermont (now owned by Harpoon); he brewed under Tony Lubold, and worked the cellar with current American Flatbread-Burlington Hearth brewmaster Paul Sayler. “The knowledge I gained was crazy.”

5. Size has its disadvantages
Mott got his first job at Harpoon, as the head brewer’s “hands;” six months later, he was the head brewer. He developed the original recipe for the beer that’s become one of the brewery’s signature brews, Harpoon IPA. Back then, Mott says, Harpoon’s tanks were much smaller, and the brewing process astoundingly hands-on. “I was sending people home with malted barley. Everybody was taking home pale malt and home-toasting it.” Mott points to a pint of his Bottle Rocket IPA: “It’s in this—it’s my signature. Here, our tanks are only seven barrels, so we have a lot of flexibility. We can play around a shitload.”

6. Stop and smell the flowers in your beer
Hop Harvest, Portsmouth Brewery’s wet hop IPA, nicely illustrates what Mott tries to do with his beers. Each year, he has crammed more and more hops into the beer—next year, he says, it’ll be 65 pounds of Simcoe in a seven-barrel batch—but, because the hops are wet, “you get these beautiful aromatics, this beautiful hop flavor, and you’re not getting the bitterness. We don’t use hops for the bitterness; we just use them for the flavor and the aromatics.” He calls his year-round IPA “balanced,” which, in his mind, is a high compliment. “It’s got hops in it, but it is certainly restrained compared to Russian River or any of those Pacific Northwest guys.”

7. Never forget your first love
When Mott speaks about beer and brewing, his passion for his craft shines through. A discussion of hops aromas leads into a story about the best pint Mott has ever had: “I had a Worthington’s White Shield in the Lake District in England one year. We stopped at this pub and they had just tapped this cask of White Shield. It was sublime. It was perfect. It was conditioned perfectly; it had a beautiful white lacy head; the lines were clean as a whistle. I could’ve drunk a hundred gallons of it—it tasted like velvet going down. I’ve always tried to make my cask beers like it, and I just can’t do it.”

8. Don’t neglect the basics
“I’m a traditionalist,” Mott admits. “I’ve never been one for throwing out tradition, and putting just craziness to the wind.” These days, such a statement sounds almost countercultural. He loves the beers that Will Meyers, Vinnie Cilurzo, Tomme Arthur and Adam Avery are making, but speculates that maybe “they’ve got bigger balls than I have.” “I don’t do Brett,” he says. “The Belgians I do are with fairly cultured yeast strains. My background was in process—how the ingredients work together, the chemistry or microbiology. I think some people work really hard at going to the extreme when they don’t even have the basics down. To produce a really good lager? That’s a chore unto itself.”

9. Sometimes, it’s OK to gloat
Mott knows he’s got the best job in the world. “Making beer is the most incredible process there is,” he says. “It’s art and science. This is the most magnificent job. You sit in this place in the afternoon, and the beer is bubbling away. There’s a natural process that’s contained in those tanks—it’s just incredible. I wake up every morning and I can’t wait to get to work, and it’s always hard for me to leave.”