I don't generally describe drinks in terms of hints of this or notes of that.
But sampling a Baltic Porter in a downtown Providence basement, the first thing I think is "this lights up your mouth." It provides a pleasant tingling, as if my mouth had fallen asleep and blood is returning to it.
That liveliness comes from a liberal dose of star anise and aging the beer in bourbon barrels, Sean Larkin, brewmaster at Trinity Brewhouse (186 Fountain St; 401-453-2337), tells me as we stand surrounded by 3,600 gallons of beer.
It's fitting that I'm tasting these beers in the basement because Trinity — the building and business — is built around its brewery.
Starting with the Brewery
Trinity, owned by state senator Josh Miller, was built from the inside out: the brewery first, then the restaurant built around it, says Larkin.
Trinity and Larkin made their debut at the same time: 1994. Larkin left Johnson & Wales’s renowned culinary program and signed on with Trinity for various non-brewing jobs, but after returning from a stint at another restaurant, he entered Trinity’s brewery, becoming head brewer in 1996.
When Trinity opened its taps to the public, it featured six brews, including the Kolsch and IPA that can still be enjoyed today. Since then the restaurant has offered diners, beer devotees, and theatergoers (the well-respected Trinity Repertory Company shares the block) six meticulously crafted beers in the same arrangement: two light, two amber, two dark.
While Larkin brews seasonal drafts (dark beers in the winter, for instance), he constantly tweaks recipes and incorporates customer feedback in his plans.
"We have fanatical sorts of customers who come in expecting certain styles of beers in certain seasons," Larkin says.
Creating ties with customers extends to Trinity's 300-member Mug Club, an annual $35 membership that offers a personalized 25-oz. mug, discounts on beer and food, and customer appreciation events.
Satisfying diverse palettes leads Larkin and his team — a co-brewer and a part-time assistant — to brew about 30 different styles of beer annually. The trio produced 2,200 kegs — roughly 37,000 gallons — in 2008.
Hard Work in Plain Sight
Trinity's most visually striking element is the part of its brewery displayed behind the bar. It’s here that Larkin and his team begin the brewing process —milling and soaking grain and boiling the mixture.
Seeing brewers work is an element of many brewpubs and lets customers "know that someone is working hard for their beverage," Larkin says.
With the initial brewing complete, the nascent beer is piped to the basement to ferment in six 594-gallon tanks. When it’s ready to be served, the beer is moved to tanks in a refrigerated serving room.
But not all beer is served right away, as the Baltic Porter that caused me to wax poetic proved.
The basement also hosts four large Woodford Reserve bourbon barrels containing beers Larkin is aging for competition (two barrels dominate his office, effectively evicting him). Trinity has garnered prizes including a Gold Medal at the Great Northeast International Beer Festival, and being named both the Providence Phoenix’s Best Brewpub In Rhode Island and the Best Beer In Southern New England by the local ABC affiliate (Trinity's menu has garnered a number of awards, too).
Trinity is also respected among the toughest crowd: beer enthusiasts. It carries a B+ rating on the influential BeerAdvocate.com, where reviews include raves like "very drinkable and bursting with sparkling life" and "one of the most impressive local beers I've had in a while."
Craft and Creativity
The competition beers, which will hit the taps if they’re received well, are Larkin's creative expression.
"Beer has gone through its stages," he says. "I've seen the purist stage, (when) brewers wanted everything to taste distinctly like its country of origin … now we’ve sort of reached the age where brewers are becoming more adventurous."
"You don't know what will happen when you take a clean-tasting beer and put it in a wooden barrel," allowing natural bacteria to influence the beer’s flavor and color.
It's this kind of experimentation that aligns Larkin with the endeavors of Providence’s creative community.
"I can look back and know I’ve spent 14 years doing a craft art," he says. "In a city full of artists, this is a commercialized artistic endeavor."
But brewing isn't solely creative for Larkin. It's also about craft and science. Larkin liberally sprinkles scientific terms and says his Johnson & Wales education influences his recipe and brewing decisions.
"I've tried to apply what I learned about cooking – learning your ingredients, what they do, their smell and taste" to brewing beer.
It's that combination of creativity, science, and craft that has been making mouths happy since 1994.
"I do it for the love of beer," he says.