Before Mott the Lesser, There was the Legend of Kate the Great
This weekend, Kittery, Maine’s Tributary Brewing Company will release Mott the Lesser, a 10.5% ABV Russian Imperial Stout named for Tributary brewer/owner Tod Mott. This marks the 10th release of Mott the Lesser since the brewery opened, and the variants will have been aged in port, apple brandy, madeira, and Jamaican rum barrels.
While beer geeks can attend stout releases virtually weekly, to understand the context of the Mott the Lesser release, first you’ll have to learn about Kate the Great and “Kate Day,” the OG of beer release days. Before pre-dawn lines became the norm in craft beer, there was Kate Day: a once a year event at a small New Hampshire brewpub that took place in the frigid early spring to celebrate the release of a 12% ABV Russian Imperial Stout.
‘Kate the Great’ Crowned as Legendary Beer
In spring 2008, at The Portsmouth Brewery, then-assistant brewer Tyler Jones came to work on the morning of the annual release day for a beer called Kate the Great. The beer was packaged in 22 oz. bottles, hand-capped, and adorned with handwritten labels. Each transfer from tank to bottle netted around two-and-a-half cases.
As he’d done countless times before, Jones walked the two cases through The Portsmouth Brewery restaurant and into the shop, where he placed them atop the counter to be loaded into the cooler.
“Walking through the brewery, I could feel the eyes on me,” says Jones, who is now a co-founder at Oxford, Connecticut’s Black Hog Brewing. “It wasn’t normal.”
When Jones got back downstairs, the phone rang. They needed more Kate. When Jones insisted he just dropped off two cases, he was shocked to find out they had sold out.
“That’s f**king weird,” he said. “Okay, you have to give me like a half an hour, 45 minutes.”
It became mythologized and sought-after on every beer trading board imaginable. The legend of Kate the Great was born.
“It was the first beer that people lined up for,” says Tod Mott, the recipe’s creator, who was The Portsmouth Brewery’s head brewer at the time. “Now, with technology and social media, people are just herded to the release of the next Holy Grail.”
“It really blew me away the first time people lined up,” says Mott. “Oh my God, [it was] insane.”
Artistry of ‘Kate the Great’ Brewer Tod Mott
At that time, as is true now, New England beer drinkers would be hard-pressed to find a brewer more revered than Mott. Kate the Great was a recipe that Mott had been developing for years, beginning at the long-gone Commonwealth Brewing Company in Boston. Kate the Great was, in December 2007, rated the No. 1 beer in the United States by Beer Advocate and No. 2 in the world, and still lives in infamy.
“When that accolade came out, we knew we needed to brew another batch,” he says. “We doubled our production. When it blew out in a month I thought, ‘We’re in deep sh*t.’ It used to last a few months and we were selling it in f**king growlers.”
“The reason it is great is because of what Tod is as a brewer,” says Jones. “He’s a true artist. He’s really known for these beautiful malt bills in his beers.”
The original Kate the Great beer was ahead of its time. It was a recipe being “tweaked at every spot” he worked, Mott says. Even though it wasn’t billed as a barrel-aged stout, it utilized port wine-soaked oak spiral from a nearby distillery. Before barrel-aging became the norm, Mott understood the alchemy that would make the beer better. And beer lovers responded by lining up before the sun came up in the cold each spring. Drinkers lined the streets for their allotment of Kate the Great.
The limits of a small brewpub made it tough to defend having an imperial stout take up so much tank space regardless of how good it was. Mott used this to his advantage.
“When it blew out in a month I thought, ‘We’re in deep sh*t.’” Brewer Tod Mott
“We could make this beer once a year, enjoy it, but then we’d have another year to think about how to make it better,” says Jones.
In 2009, the beer sold out in a day, both in bottles and on-tap (much to the chagrin of locals, who flooded the brewery’s website with complaints). The system changed annually to get Kate into the hands of as many customers as possible. In 2011, the brewery sold scratch-off lottery tickets for $2 apiece at 10 per person per day. Scattered throughout those tickets were winners that allowed for purchase of bottles. The next year, the brewery moved the format of the beer from 22 oz. bottles to 11.2 oz steinie bottles (and reduced the price), thus essentially doubling the amount of bottles available. One year, there was even a literary contest where writers were asked to pen a poem that was judged by Portsmouth Brewery employees. Winners received a bottle for their superior literary chops.
In 2012, Mott, who’d been brewing professionally for the better part of two decades, decided it was time to move on from The Portsmouth Brewery to open Tributary Brewing in 2014. The Portsmouth Brewery owned the naming rights to Kate the Great, so the empress was laid to rest when Mott departed. Jones took over for Mott and, while he didn’t shy away from brewing an imperial stout, Kate the Great was no more.
The recipe — which evolved at every professional brewing stint and from Boston to Maine — lives on with Mott the Lesser.
Mott the Lesser’s More ‘Civilized’ Release
At the Mott the Lesser release, it would be difficult to find people lining up solely out of “Fear of Missing Out.” It’s not the social media crowd getting its filtered photos into everyone’s feed.
“The crowd at these releases is experienced beer drinkers,” Mott says. “The whole thing about Mott the Lesser is that it’s civilized. No one needs to get out early in the morning. People show up at four in the afternoon and will get the beer.”
This is the 10th release of the beer, and Mott said that he’s got all 10 versions. He’s going to do a staggered release of all 10 versions in the coming weeks. As for this iteration:
“It’s a beautiful beer,” he says.