As a student at Boston University, Tod Mott planned on being an artist. But he thought his medium would be ceramics, not, as it would come to be, ales and lagers.
Now, Mott, 57, a fixture in New England brewing for more than 20 years, has opened his own brewery. Along with his wife, Galen, Mott runs Tributary Brewing Co. in Kittery, ME, not far from the famous Kittery outlets.
“Brewing is a process, just like ceramics,” said Mott. “It’s a different medium, but it’s a similar process. It’s understanding your ingredients. The whole art mixing with science was very intriguing to me.”
Mott got his start as a homebrewer and then as an intern at the defunct Catamount Brewing Co. in Vermont, where he learned the difference between homebrewing and brewing on a commercial level. It also convinced him he wanted a fulltime job working as a brewer.
That goal brought him into contact with Rich Doyle, co-founder and then-CEO of the Harpoon Brewery in Boston.
Doyle said he remembers getting Mott’s resume and filing it away because they had no openings. But an injury to a brewer led to Mott’s original hire in the early 1990s. It was supposed to be temporary, but after a few weeks he was named head brewer.
“He was very passionate about beer—very knowledgeable,” said Doyle. “He really had a spark and a real flair to make great beer. There was something there that wasn’t there in other people.”
Although he brewed many beers at Harpoon, the one that everyone remembers is the Harpoon IPA, originally brewed in 1993 as a summer seasonal. It was so popular it quickly became a year-round beer and is considered by many to be the first East Coast IPA.
“I had gone on vacation to Maine and picked up a six-pack of Ballantine IPA,” said Mott. “It totally changed my life. When I tasted that Ballantine, I knew I had to brew a beer like that. It’s very exciting and quite an accomplishment and accolade that I brought a style back to the East Coast.”
Although things were good at Harpoon, Mott said he wanted something different. He wanted to brew on a smaller scale. He left to brew at first the Commonwealth Brewing Co., a defunct but nearly legendary Boston brewpub, and its sister brewpub, the Back Bay Brewing Co.
It was at Back Bay where Mott brewed a beast of a beer—the Boston Strangler Stout—an imperial stout aged with oak spirals coming in at more than 10%. However, the name of the beer caused some controversy that led to a cease-and-desist order forcing Back Bay to change the name of the beer.
“Family members (of the victims of the Boston Strangler serial killer) weren’t happy with the name so we just changed it to imperial stout,” Mott said.
Doyle said he was not happy when Mott left, but realized it was the best move for him.
“I think it got to the point where he rather brew than manage people,” said Doyle. “Working in a brewpub was a totally different kind of community and business, and I think that’s what he wanted.”
After stops at a couple of more Massachusetts brewpubs—the Quincy Ships Brewing Co., which lasted a year, and the Tap in Haverhill—Mott began brewing at the Portsmouth Brewery, a small brewpub located in Portsmouth, NH.
There, he brought back the Boston Strangler Stout, renamed Kate the Great. It caused a circus in downtown Portsmouth for several years as hundreds of people would line up for hours to buy Kate the Great, which sold out the one day it was available. People drove from as far as Vancouver, Canada for a chance to buy the bottles of the stout.
“It was crazy, it was really crazy,” said Mott. “Just before BeerAdvocate named it the best beer in the world, you could get a growler of it. Then we had a monster on our hands.”
But after a decade in Portsmouth, Mott decided to take a chance to open his own brewery, opening the 15-barrel Tributary Brewing in September 2014.
“I thought long and hard about it,” said Mott. “I had the ability to learn craft on other people’s dime, and I thought it was time to do it myself.”
Tributary is small, but Mott said that’s what he always wanted. He brews the beers (including a new version of a yet-to-be named oak-aged Russian imperial stout). He cleans kegs.
Most of the taproom is filled with communal tables, with a few padded seats. Mott’s dog, Kate, greets people as they come in. Bands play there occasionally, and there is a food truck outside for those who are hungry.
And Mott is having fun brewing beers he likes—standout IPAs, stouts and porters. He said he still has almost all of his recipes of beers he has created over the years, although he said he plans on creating new beers often. Beers are available in flights of 4-ounce glasses, full pints, and half and full growlers to go. The only beer that will always will be available is the flagship Pale Ale. Other than that, each week there will be different beers that are replaced only when the kegs kick. The beers are also available at a few local restaurants, but Mott said he has no plans to start bottling and distributing.
“It has been an amazing ride,” said Mott. “I’ve learned a shitload over the years, and I’ve never seen the growth and passion that’s out there now. It’s very exciting. I wanted this to be an artistic endeavor. It’s serendipitous, all of these things that have happened. I had a really good time doing ceramics and creating art, and I’m very lucky to still be creating art.”
Norman Miller is the author of two regional beer books and he writes the weekly Beer Nut column for GateHouse Media.