Honoring the Godfather of Maine Craft Beer

photo/courtesy David Geary

David Geary did it his way

Had I been in Portland’s Old Port at $3 Deweys on Dec. 10, 1986, I could have sampled the first batch of commercially brewed Maine beer since the 19th century. Instead, I had to wait until March of the following year, at a Forest Avenue music venue and watering hole called Raoul’s Roadside Attraction, to taste that groundbreaking ale. Those were the earliest days of the microbrew revolution, and David Geary was in the vanguard.

It’s easy to underestimate David and his wife Karen Geary’s monumental achievement. In an era without the Internet, when banks categorically denied loans for breweries and no commercial brewer mentored any other brewer outside the company, they opened the first production craft brewery on the East Coast. In 1985, there were only 105 brewing companies in the U.S.A. Today there are almost 10,000. The inclusion of Geary’s Pale Ale on Food & Wine magazine’s list of “The 25 Most Important Craft Beers Ever Brewed” might puzzle younger guzzlers, but others would argue that #22 is far too low a spot for the iconic, lobster-labeled beer.  

Geary, like all the first-wave craft brewers, was a contrarian. He defied the conventional wisdom that the microbrew “fad” would be crushed by Budweiser, Miller and Coors. 

But Geary was a contrarian even among other craft brewers. Delivering the keynote address at the Great American Beer Festival in Colorado many years ago, he scolded his colleagues for bad-mouthing Jim Koch, founder of Boston Beer Company. In response to complaints that Sam Adams was contract brewed, Geary reminded those assembled that Koch had carved out an entire market for them. As the boos rained down, he doubled down and also told them to quit yapping about Budweiser. Anheuser-Busch makes exactly the same beer at 12 different breweries, he pointed out, “and many of you can’t make the same beer batch to batch.”

Geary was a one-man ambassador for Maine craft brewing in those early days, showing up at brewery showcases at the Great Lost Bear, joining Al Diamon on the radio for Fact Free Friday, and even serving as a featured guest on a Carnival Cruise. But there were changes coming to the industry that he didn’t foresee, and even once they became obvious, he refused to embrace them.

For example, Geary didn’t welcome visitors to his brewery’s production floor. Early interlopers spoke of that irascible brewer who bellowed something like, “Trying to work here!” or “The Old Port is five miles south!” When Allagash Brewing founder Rob Tod first stopped by, Geary was distinctly unimpressed by this “sandal-wearing Vermont hippie,” he once told Bollard editor Chris Busby, but the two great brewers got along well after that. And when Maine permitted on-site tasting rooms in 2012, triggering an explosion of craft breweries, Geary waited four more years to open one.

D.L., as he was known, didn’t want to dilute his ideal of a proper pint by catering to fickle consumers demanding fruited sours and pastry stouts. As sales of his beer fell and its distribution shrank, he concluded that craft drinkers have no brand loyalty. Beer geeks are so intensely loyal that many will tattoo their favorite brand’s logo on their body, but only if those breweries feed their insatiable demand for another style, another recipe, another label. Geary’s response to a pilot batch of hazy, New England-style IPA was that it needed to be run through the filter. When he poured me a pint of another pilot batch, a strawberry saison, he said he was being dragged, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century.

In 2015, I was preparing a book about Maine breweries. All the local brewers I spoke with said D.L. should have the first word in a volume about Maine beer, since he was the first modern Maine brewer, and Geary graciously agreed to write the introduction. Pioneer though he was, he made a point of acknowledging the breweries, large and small, that had preceded his. “Having been part of this millennia-old tradition has been exhilarating and not a little humbling,” he wrote. “We are, after all, stewards of God’s yeast.”

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