The Beer Babe

by Carla Jean Lauter
by Carla Jean Lauter

A tasting room walks into a bar… 

“So, where can I get a local beer around here?” asked the forty-something when he saw me walking around the Old Port wearing a “BEER ME” shirt. “Any good bars?”

I opened my mouth to answer, and then stopped mid-word as I took stock of his simple question. The problem wasn’t that I didn’t know what to tell him. It was that the first suggestions I thought of weren’t bars at all.

A few years ago, I’d have answered by rattling off a list of the three or four places offering the widest breadth of local craft on tap — including The Great Lost Bear, which is still unmatched in the number of Maine-brewed beers available. That was the scene when this decade began: a few early converts to the craft-beer movement, a lot more bars pouring ales by some of the longer-running local breweries (e.g., Shipyard, Geary’s, Gritty’s), and a few breweries that handed out some free samples before or after a tour.

One reason this visitor’s simple question has become difficult to answer is that Portland’s craft-beer landscape is changing, rapidly. This is due not only to the boom in Maine craft breweries — though we have added 20 new ones over the past two years – but also the evolution of what it means to be a brewery.

We’ve entered the era of the tasting room.

Until recently, most breweries’ tasting rooms was just that: a room. They were typically cramped — no larger than an apartment’s kitchenette. Many were (and some still are) little more than a courtesy space where growlers were filled, a kind of beery waiting room. If you wanted a substantial amount of local beer, you hit the bar or a brewpub for a pint or two. It wouldn’t cross your mind to spend the afternoon sitting outside a brewery sipping beer, or to stumble out of one after 10.

Thanks in no small part to legislative changes that have made it more economically viable for breweries to open larger tasting spaces (particularly the law allowing breweries to charge for samples, and thus afford the extra staff), there has been a proliferation of tasting room openings and expansions.

The availability of large mill spaces (like the one Banded Horn inhabits in Biddeford) and cavernous, converted warehouses (like Oxbow’s “Blending & Bottling” facility on Munjoy Hill) has enabled breweries to transform their tasting rooms into community gathering places. Banded Horn hosts yoga classes, and Oxbow has screened documentaries by local filmmakers. Barreled Souls, in Saco, has shuffleboard tournaments and the occasional chili cook-off.

The parallel growth of the food-truck industry has also helped to support this scene. Food trucks offer breweries a convenient way to provide patrons with eats while they enjoy the beer samples. Tasting room samples are typically 4 or 10 oz. pours, and generally less expensive than the same quantity at a bar, since there’s no markup.

But what about those bars? If local-beer drinkers substantially shift to tasting rooms, what will happen to the neighborhood watering holes? Will the pubs be able to compete with the breweries down the street? (And will they still pour the product of those breweries-turned-competitors?) This friction is already causing rumblings.

Of course, bars have the advantage of being able to offer more variety. At Little Tap House, for example, there are regularly beers on tap by Maine breweries like Baxter (Lewiston), Gneiss (Limerick) and Atlantic (Bar Harbor). Many Maine-craft fans prefer that breadth of choices to a deep exploration of one brewery’s portfolio.

This summer could be the tipping point for tasting rooms — anticipation for the ever-increasing number of beer-curious tourists is palpable. Fundamentally, we all want the same thing: to help locals and visitors appreciate the depth and the breadth of what Maine beer has to offer. So consider these changes carefully before you answer the simple question, “So, where can I get a local beer around here?”

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