The New Boys of Summer
Maine craft beer catches a second wave
By Anders Nielsen and Chris Busby
As we celebrate our country’s independence this month, let’s raise a glass to the second great American revolution: the resurgence of craft beer.
The craft beer revolution has the potential to be as culturally significant to our nation as the American revolution was politically. There are many parallels. For example, Sam Adams played a key role in both uprisings — the man himself helped ferment the first revolt; his namesake brew the second. In both revolutions, individuals thirsty for freedom took on huge institutions with enormous economic power. Back in the day, it was the British. These days, it’s the dominant breweries in the industry founded by Germans: Budweiser, Miller and Coors.
As detailed in the 2009 documentary Beer Wars, the so-called Big Three (now the Big Two, since the merger of MillerCoors) crushed most of the small, regional breweries established in the ’50s and ’60s through the brute force of mass marketing. By the ’80s, Americans had been effectively brainwashed by bikini-clad babes and talking animals into believing that their largely indistinguishable light lagers were what beer is supposed to be.
This fight is the struggle of innovation versus homogenization, the flavorful versus the bland, the local against the multinational. Maine has been on the front lines of this war since the beginning. And in Portland, the tide is clearly turning.
For evidence, take a look at the tap handles in the bars and restaurants around town. Craft beers now commonly outnumber the Big Two’s drafts, assuming they’re present at all. New places like Mama’s CrowBar on Munjoy Hill and L.F.K. in Longfellow Square are doing what was once unthinkable: snubbing the big breweries and thriving.
The battle is becoming a rout. No fewer than six homegrown breweries have been established in Maine in the past three years. Portland is home to four: Bunker Brewing, Maine Beer Company, Bull Jagger and Rising Tide. Baxter Brewing Co. is cranking out cans in Lewiston’s Bates Mill. Oxbow crafts Belgian farmhouse beers in a remodeled barn in Newcastle.
All six are operating at or near capacity. They cannot make enough beer fast enough to satisfy the demand. And this is happening in a local craft beer market already crowded with great brews: Geary’s, Gritty’s, Sebago, Shipyard, Allagash, Peak Organic.
“It’s magnificent,” said Dave Evans, owner of The Great Lost Bear, which has been serving suds on Forest Avenue for 33 years. The Bear is like the Library of Congress of Maine Beer. Pretty much every commercial beer brewed in the Pine Tree State, past and present, has had a turn at one of the taps. Of course, this being a drinking establishment, that rich history has mostly been forgotten, but Evans has a list in his office that documents some of it.
In began in the mid-80s, he said, with the introduction of Sam Adams. Harpoon showed up in ’86, and Maine’s first microbrew, Geary’s Pale Ale, was flowing by Christmas of that year.
What followed is considered the first great wave of Maine craft beer. New breweries and brew pubs popped up statewide, from Federal Jack’s down in Kennebunk all the way up to Belfast Bay. Bray’s Brew Pub was established in Naples in 1995; The Liberal Cup opened in Hallowell five years later.
The first wave crested at the turn of the century. A smattering of new brews and pubs appeared last decade, but the second great wave began with this one.
Those involved in the local beer industry cite a generational shift as the cause of Maine’s second wave. People who came of drinking age in the late ’80s and ’90s did so at a time when craft beer was no longer considered strange brew.
“I think we have a greater awareness of craft beers because your jumping-off point might be Shipyard instead of Budweiser,” said Greg Norton, proprietor of the Bier Cellar, an artisanal shop that opened on Forest Avenue earlier this year. “You grow up on that instead of in these other markets, where some of the crazy things these brewers are doing might be way out of what you’re used to and you might not even be willing to try it.”
“When we started 26 years ago, we were it,” said David Geary, “and I think it was very difficult in those days because you had to explain to people what you were doing. They’d look at you funny and say, ‘What, you make it in your basement?’”
“I think it’s the second wind of beer drinkers,” said Evans. “The first wave was geeky people who’d come in with magnifying glasses. The new group has been weaned on a better product.”
Some of those early beer geeks became homebrewers and then made the leap to commercial production. Chresten Sorensen of Bunker Brewing Company started an “underground brewery” in his apartment in Chicago and sold beer under the radar all over the Windy City. After moving to Maine, he partnered with Jay Villani, chef and owner of Local 188 and Sonny’s, and Bunker went legit.
Luke Livingston of Baxter Brewing was a dorm-brewer and beer blogger before he launched his company. He tapped into two big trends transforming the industry: craft beer and canned beer, which is catching on due to its portability and environmental benefits (it takes less energy to make and transport cans than bottles).
Bunker and Baxter represent two ends of the craft beer spectrum. Bunker is a two-man operation (Sorensen and Villani) that brews one batch at a time in a small brick building in East Bayside. It’s only available on tap at a handful of locations other than Villani’s two restaurants. Baxter has 10 employees, plenty of room to expand, and is widely available on tap and in cans. Livingston scored the rights to distribute in chain convenience stores like Cumberland Farms, Big Apple and Circle K.
Sorensen dreams of having a seven-barrel brewhouse, but doesn’t envision Bunker spreading much beyond Maine. Livingston wants Baxter on shelves and in bars all along the East Coast within the next few years. (We’ll bet you a beer that he achieves that goal — Livingston was recognized by Forbes last year as one of the 30 most promising entrepreneurs in the food and wine world.)
It’s not easy to take a local beer to the national level. The Big Two continue to spend billions pushing their best-known brands, and have been buying up smaller breweries and introducing faux-micros into the market in recent years. There are also hundreds of small, independent craft brewers with excellent beers vying for drinkers in enlightened markets like New York, Denver, Chicago, and the Pacific Northwest.
Maine brewers have to develop relationships with beer distributors in other states and do what they can, usually from afar, to push back against the strategic advantages the Big Two have in their dealings with supermarkets and chain retailers. Just getting beer to other markets in reasonably fresh condition is a major undertaking.
Shipyard made a big push to go national in the mid-1990s and was lucky to survive the experience. They sold half the business to Miller in 1996 only to buy that share back four years later. “It was a big education,” said founder and president Fred Forsley. “At first it was very good and kind of intriguing and interesting. I got to go to two Super Bowls with them, and that was kind of fun.”
Miller “brought a lot of quality assurance stuff to the table … and introduced us to different distributors throughout the country,” Forsley continued, but Shipyard’s way of doing business didn’t mesh with Miller’s corporate culture. “Big companies don’t move as fast on a lot of issues,” said Forsley. Miller execs had a “big-brand mentality” that made it difficult for them to “understand the culture of a small family business.”
Forsley’s advice to the second wavers: make sure there’s good communication with your out-of-state distributors, who become “almost like your partners.” That, and “have realistic expectations.” Shipyard has its independence and has managed to continue growing. It’s now available in over 30 states.
Geary’s is available in 14 states, and has long been one of the most popular beers in Maine, but Geary himself is less bullish on the market than others. “My advice to someone looking to start a brewery is, don’t,” he said. “It’s a zero-sum game. There are only so many tap handles, only so many feet on store shelves, and if somebody gains a spot then somebody loses a spot. The competition is fierce.”
Thus far, among the second wavers, competition is high but still friendly. “We’re all pretty close,” said Bull Jagger co-founder Tom Bull. “We ask each other questions and help each other out.”
“Maine is so supportive of its local businesses, and so supportive of its microbreweries, that when a new microbrewery opens there’s an instant reception that’s really uplifting,” said Oxbow co-owner Geoff Masland. “As long as you can balance making good beers with making good business decisions, Maine will support a lot more breweries. I don’t think we’ve hit any sort of capacity in terms of what Maine can handle or what Mainers can drink.”
Back at the Bear, Evans is reaching capacity — at least in terms of tap lines. When it opened the Bear had five or six beers on tap: Miller, Michelob, and Genesse Cream Ale among them. As the first wave hit, the total grew to 16 taps, then 32. Some Maine beers came and went, either for lack of production, or sales, or both. But these days the local beer selection is growing and sustaining itself.
Earlier this year Evans added three more taps, bringing the Bear’s total to 72. It’s not really feasible to add more than that (to reach 72, the bar has had to stock smaller kegs).
When Eric Michaud opened Novare Res Bier Café in the Old Port four years ago, the bar had 25 taps of micros, imports and crafts. They’ve since grown to 33, in part to keep pace with all the great Maine beers introduced since ’08. Rising Tide’s Daymark, an American pale ale made with rye, is one of Michaud’s favorite beers. Novare routinely rotates its entire tap selection, but Daymark is “one I feel like we’ll always have on,” he said.
Marshall Wharf, a small brewing company with a brewpub in Belfast, is another regular on Novare’s tap list, but you seldom encounter the same beer twice. Brewer and owner Dave Carlson and his crew produce a (literally) dizzying array of seasonal beers and single-batch experiments, like Sexy Chaos, a brew aged with vanilla beans and toasted oak chips that’s got enough alcohol by volume (11.2%) to be a wine. Marshall Wharf is available on tap at about 20 Maine bars and restaurants, and Carlson typically services those accounts in person. This summer Marshall Wharf is beginning production of 16-ounce cans.
The Latin phrase “novare res” means “to start a revolution.”
“We wanted to revolutionize the beer scene locally, get people tasting other things, opening up their palette to other cultures and other flavors,” Michaud said. He also hoped the bar would be a place for people to gather and plot political change, like the Founding Fathers did in the taverns of their day.
That may not have happened yet, but appreciating the fact there’s a world of beer beyond the piss being peddled by the Big Two — and world-class brews being made here in Maine — is a tangible step toward freedom from the mass-market culture that’s done so much to dilute our unique American spirit.
The Maine Brewers Guild is presenting its big annual event, titled “Craft Beer Comes to Boothbay,” on July 14 at the Boothbay Resort. More info on that event and Maine’s craft beer industry is at mainebrewersguild.org.