This Brew's For You: Craft Brewing in the Pine Tree State
There was a time, not too long ago, 1970s maybe, when you could walk into any bar in America, order a “beer,” and be almost guaranteed it would be a lager, probably a light-colored, crisp pilsner. There were regional breweries all over the country that basically all made the same brew.
Flash-forward to 2018, and the profusion of beer styles and number of breweries, both big and tiny and everything in between. Beer culture—its language, pioneers and luminaries; its earnest brewers; and the whole sense of fellowship (I read recently that one very dedicated beer fan got the Bissell Brothers logo tattooed on the palm of his hand)—is, I have to say it, awesome.
According to a 2017 US News & World report, Mainers drink more than three times as much beer as wine (and that’s not fake news). The Maine Brewers Guild, the craft beer industry’s advocacy group in Maine, puts the number of active, licensed breweries in sparsely populated Maine at 93, and says that 23 of them are in the City of Portland alone.
As a value-added agricultural product, beer, like wine, begins on the farm. It is made by combining hot water with barley (mostly malted barley but sometimes other grains, too), hops, and yeast. The amount added of each component varies with the recipe, and with the flavor profile the brewer is seeking. The big guys like Anheuser-Busch, Miller, or Heineken control their own international supply chains of hops, grain farms and malt houses (facilities that turn raw barley into malted barley, a craft in and of itself).
Although Maine’s microbreweries mostly source their grains and hops in 50-pound bags from western states, like Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, many of Maine’s craft brewers are increasingly committed to buying, at least in part, locally.
There are few options, but “locally” means buying malted barley from the Blue Ox Malthouse in Lisbon Falls, or from the fourth-generation Buck Farms in Aroostook County. Blue Ox malts barley it buys from Maine farmers. Buck Farms grows its own on former potato-growing acres, and has recently started its own malting business, The Maine Malt House.
As an industry, growing and malting barley is an underachiever with enormous potential for farmers, breweries, and the state itself. But alas, for the Maine microbrewery at the moment, Maine malted barley is prohibitively expensive compared to malt from away. Still, no farms, no beer.
Out on Monhegan Island, craft brewer Mary Weber manages a unique set of challenges in running a brewery 10 miles out at sea. Hardest are “the logistics of it all,” she says, “making sure we get enough raw materials and on time; making plans far enough ahead of time so that if the boat doesn’t run or they send the wrong thing, we can deal with it because we can’t just run down the road to get what we need.”
Weber is the brewer and part owner of Monhegan Brewing Company, which opened in 2013. She shares ownership with her husband, Matt, and with her father, long-time brewer and craft beer pioneer, Dan McGovern, who taught his daughter how to brew. Beer making has always been part of Weber’s family life.
“I was definitely into beer before my husband,” she says.
In the 1990s, Weber’s father started Lake St. George Brewing Co. in Liberty, at a time when few knew what a craft brew was. He went on to brew at Belfast Bay Brewing Co. and Marshall Wharf Brewing Co..
“On Monhegan,” Weber says, “we brew to capacity [which is 140 barrels a year], and we still struggle to keep up with demand.” (FYI: Sam Adams brews three to four million barrels a year). The brewery’s tasting room is open from May to October.
“Nobody’s coming out here in the winter. There are fewer than 100 year-round residents,” on Monhegan, she says.
The brewery uses primarily malted barley in its beers.
“A lot of our malts are German malts, but we do strive to include some local when possible.”
Monhegan buys product from both Blue Ox and Buck Farms. Weber says, “It’s tough to get all of your needs met locally. Their malts are 10 times as expensive. But we still support it and use it as much as we can.”
Beer is composed of 90 to 95% water (which is why my brother-in-law insists he never needs to drink water). At Tributary Brewing in Kittery, water for its brew filters down from Mount Agamenticus through glacial rock and sweet fern forests. But Tributary’s beer isn’t only marked by its winding journey down to ground level.
Tod Mott, heavily bearded, intensely focused owner and brewer at Tributary, has made his own mark on every aspect of the 900-barrel-per-year brewing operation. Mott and Galen, his wife of 35 years, own the brewery and the tasting room. Tod serves as Head Brewer and Galen as everything else.
“I do everything on this side of the glass,” she says, meaning the glass that separates the brewery from the family-and-dog-friendly tasting room.
The couple met in college as art students. Tod got a master’s degree in ceramics, and also started making beer at home. Galen says that “his passion for making beer overtook his passion for working with clay.” His beer career traces the rise (and a little of the fall) of craft brewing in New England. Starting with an apprenticeship at the now-shuttered Catamount Brewing in White River Junction, Vermont, (pioneers in New England’s small-batch brewing industry), Tod went on to become head brewer at Harpoon Brewery in Boston where he developed the original recipe for the popular and enduring Harpoon IPA. Four years ago, the Motts started Tributary.
With two adult children, one with an interest in brewing, Galen is hopeful Tributary will develop into a family business, one where the kids will eventually take over. That will free her up, she says, to help out with (hopefully) future grandchildren.
“We’re old school,” she says. “We are growing…as demand dictates.” They hope to begin canning their beers soon to make them more transportable.
Tributary supports local suppliers as much as possible. “Washington State and Oregon grow beautiful hops,” Galen says, and most of Tributary’s hops come to them from the Yakima Valley in Washington. They do buy some hops from The Hop Yard, Maine’s largest hop grower with fields in Gorham and Fort Fairfield, and some malted barley from both Blue Ox and Maine Malt House. At harvest time, Tributary brews an IPA named Hops Harvest, using fresh, whole hops from The Hop Yard.
Being lead brewer at Tributary is a full-time job says Ian Brown—one day a week he brews, and all the other days of the week he’s cleaning, or repairing, or flushing tanks, and hauling bags and hoses.
“A lot of people think all we do is drink beer,” Todd says.
Another beer-brewing luminary-in-the-making is Rising Tide’s co-owner and director of business operations Heather Sanborn, a current member of the Maine House of Representatives, attorney with expertise in securities litigation, former president of the Maine Brewers Guild, and a Maine native. Sanborn co-owns Rising Tide with her husband Nathan, who was a philosophy major in college, a former graphic designer, and is now an accomplished cook with a passion for brewing beer.
Rising Tide uses water from Portland Water District in its brews, an ingredient that Sanborn refers to as the most important.
“We are huge fans of this water from Sebago Lake,” she says. “Our beer would taste different if we got the water from anywhere else. We actually do sensory on our water before we brew. It’s absolutely critical. Every day we check our water.”
Although not a beer drinker herself, Sanborn began formulating a business plan in 2009 for a small brewery that she and her husband would run. It helped that they had friends in high places. Dan Kleban, the community-minded founder of Maine Beer Company, was a colleague of Sanborn’s and generous with his advice. Sanborn says she “embarked on an epic quest to learn about beer. I drank everything, sampled everything and built my own understanding of beer and the beer industry.”
In 2010, with a plan to brew one barrel at a time (last year Rising Tide brewed 5,000 barrels), and a name that embodied their cooperative spirit (as in “a rising tide floats all boats”), the Sanborns opened Rising Tide in the industrial park near the then-new Maine Beer Company.
In 2012, Rising Tide moved to Fox Street in the East Bayside neighborhood of Portland where they found a neighborhood of “businesses that make things, Maine things.” There was also an inventory of under-utilized warehouses, spaces for parking, buildings with floor drains, and huge potential for an expanding brewery. The couple had found their ideal location. Sanborn left the practice of law and they’ve been in East Bayside ever since.
Rising Tide is committed to building the capacity of local beer suppliers, like the malt houses, barley growers, and hop farms.
“We put local grain in every batch we brew to give our local suppliers a predictable customer order,” says Sanborn.
They buy some specialty grains like oats from Maine Grains, and some hops from The Hop Yard. But, says Sanborn, “if we were to commit to using only Maine hops we would use up all the hops in one or two weeks.”
Geoff Keating, a farmer at The Hop Yard says, “current demand [for locally grown hops] leaves us sold out of hops before the next year’s harvest.” There are several months a year when The Hop Yard has no product to sell.
“The obvious solution to this challenge,” says Keating, “is to plant more hops, which is something we are excited to do in the coming years.”
Sanborn is to thank, in part, for helping to craft the legislation that led to the explosion of tasting rooms in Maine. Before 2012, breweries could have tasting rooms but could only give away samples of its beers as part of a free tour of the brewery. Not many small breweries could afford to staff a tour and tasting room, and give away free samples. Enabling the industry to charge for samples gave emerging breweries entry into the retail market, provided opportunities for food truck and bus tour businesses, and generally helped expand beer tourism in Maine.
The landscape of Maine craft breweries is layered with passion, intelligence, and the thirst for a good beer. No matter where you go in Maine, you’re likely to find a bubbling kettle and a committed brewer concocting his or her signature brew for you.