Winter trails lead to hot pizza and cold beer at the brewing company's outpost in Oxford.
By Will Grunewald Photographed by Cait Bourgault
I recently visited Oxbow Beer Garden on a snowy evening. Outside, several pairs of cross-country skis leaned against a wall like tipsy patrons, all askew of each other. Inside the 200-year-old post-and-beam barn, the skis’ owners were warming up and ordering beers. I’d also just spent the last few daylight hours skiing, and the wood fire burning in the pizza oven made for a welcome sight — as did the row of 18 tap handles behind the bar. I shed my jacket, ordered a bowl of chicken-and-rice soup and a smoked lager, and settled in for the evening.
Two years ago, Oxbow Brewing Company purchased the rural property in Oxford that for a quarter century was home to Carter’s X-C Ski Center and Carter’s Farm Market. Since opening the beer garden last spring, Oxbow has maintained both traditions, growing tomatoes, herbs, kale, squash, and other produce for the kitchen and keeping the ski trails open to the public.
The restaurant is the company’s third outpost — its Newcastle brewery opened in 2011, its Portland barrel room in 2014. The old barn required major renovation — including picking the whole thing up, moving it, pouring a new foundation, and setting it back. Now, much of the original woodwork is exposed, the floor is polished-concrete, and slate-blue subway tiles accent the space behind the bar. In warmer months, a new deck has German-style beer-garden tables, and the field beyond has picnic tables, lawn games, and a fire pit.
Pizza and beer have always married well, although marriage is a slightly awkward metaphor for their relationship at Oxbow because the pizza and the beer are biologically related: the sourdough starter for the pizza crust was dosed with yeast from the brewery. “The living culture of that yeast is the heart and soul of the restaurant,” Oxbow owner Tim Adams says. “I like thinking that the DNA of the pizza and the beer are linked up.”
In three trips to the beer garden, I’ve eaten three different pizzas, any of which I’d readily have again. One was spicy with a touch of sweetness: mozzarella and red sauce as a base, topped with Calabrian chilies, ‘Nduja (dollops of spicy ground pork, from pigs raised in the woods at Oxbow’s Newcastle brewery), and a drizzle of Maine wildflower honey. Another was a classic pepperoni, which provided a clearer showcase for the tomato sauce (made with tomatoes grown on the property) and the mozzarella (hand-pulled by cook Rachel Reynolds, who also works at Westbrook’s Smiling Hill dairy farm). My favorite pie was topped with mascarpone, ricotta, kale, and white-button mushrooms, those earthy ingredients providing the finest counterpoint to the tangy sourdough crust.
As for the draft list, one section of it comprises Oxbow’s signature farmhouse-style ales, plus a selection of lagers and stouts and an occasional IPA. The other section features mixed-fermentation beers, brewed with wild yeasts and lactic-acid bacteria that produce sourness and funk. One was aged in white-wine barrels, another was aged on Italian plums, and another yet was a blend of three beers variously aged on raspberries and oranges and refermented with red and white grape juices. (Oxbow, in my experience, makes neither boring nor bad beers.)
Price Range Starters and sides $5–$12, pizzas $11–$18.
Bottle Shop The restaurant is open Tuesday through Sunday for dinner, plus Saturday for lunch and Sunday for brunch, but the adjacent bar and bottle shop is open every day from noon to 6 p.m. for grabbing a fresh pour or taking bottles home.
Ski Trails The 5 miles of trail are free to use, and Portland Gear Hub is on site Friday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., renting out cross-country skis, boots, and poles, as well as snowshoes and fat-tire bikes.
And while the new place is centered on pizza and beer, some memorable bites also came from elsewhere on the menu. The chicken-and-rice soup’s broth delivered a deep smokiness from being made with veggies roasted in the pizza oven. The Caesar salad had croutons of leftover sourdough, turned crispy by frying in pork fat. One night, I even had a great sip of something that wasn’t beer. Several wines and cocktails are offered, and although it felt like sacrilege to order a cocktail while in beer heaven, the black-walnut negroni was well worth trying: gin, sweet vermouth, and — instead of the usual bittersweetness of Campari — the rounder sweetness of black-walnut liqueur made with nuts from a tree in a staff member’s yard.
Dessert brought similarly happy surprises. My favorite of the house-made ice creams was dairy-free and therefore not really ice cream at all. Kitchen manager Derek Richard had made a beer eggnog with Oxbow’s Sap Haus smoked lager and, on a lark, threw it in the ice-cream machine. The resulting texture was dense and icy, like a custard–sorbet hybrid, and the taste was malty and cocoa-y, with cinnamon and nutmeg undertones. Zeppole — fried dough balls tossed in powdered sugar — don’t sound exciting on paper. However, Oxbow’s are sourdough zeppole, and they’re brightened by a hint of sea salt.
On my most recent visit, I’d thrown a headlamp in the car, in case I wanted to ski again after dinner. But after finishing a bowl of those harmoniously sweet, sour, and salty zeppole, I still had half a glass of Max Tun, a viscous and opaque Belgian-style imperial stout aged in rye-whiskey barrels. I could feel the beer both warming me and anchoring me to my seat. It’s cold outside, I said to myself, and I’m rather content right here.
Oxbow Beer Garden is closed to in-house eating and drinking during the coronavirus pandemic but offers curbside food and beer pickup Thursday–Sunday, 4 p.m.–9 p.m. Oxbow’s Newcastle location offers beer pickup, and its Portland location offers beer pickup and delivery options. oxbowbeer.com/oxbow-to-go