From a long chrome tap that looked more as if it should be used to fill balloons than a pint, the black-brown liquid began to cascade into the glass, with milky white bubbles creating a swirling, opaque waterfall as they rose to the top. I watched the show, mesmerized, as the beer slowed and a […]
By Gina Vercesi
Oct 04 2017
From a long chrome tap that looked more as if it should be used to fill balloons than a pint, the black-brown liquid began to cascade into the glass, with milky white bubbles creating a swirling, opaque waterfall as they rose to the top. I watched the show, mesmerized, as the beer slowed and a thick, creamy foam rose and settled.
“That’s nitro,” Patrick Rowan said reverently. The head brewer at Woodland Farms in Kittery, Maine, he had just served me a sample of Secret Stout, a wheat-based brew they push through a mix of nitrogen and carbon dioxide. “Check that out,” said Rowan. “See? You get the full waterfall and that great nitrogen head.”
I brought my nose to the glass, inhaled deeply the aroma of chocolatey roasted malt, and sipped. Woodland Farms was my first stop on the Maine Beer Trail, a self-guided brewery tour devised by the Maine Brewers’ Guild in 2009 that launched beer tourism in the state. If Woodland’s Secret Stout offered any indication of the days to come, I was in for a treat.
People visit Maine for many reasons: to eat lobster rolls, for instance, or Damariscotta River oysters; to hike deep into the Carrabassett Valley or sail on a windjammer in Penobscot Bay. I’ve done these and thoroughly enjoyed them all, but this trip to Vacationland would be different. This trip would be about drinking beer and chatting with the innovative folks who make it, from the old guard to the newest arrivals.
There are around 100 breweries in the state, each with a distinct personality, and I accepted the impossibility of hitting them all. My plan was to hug the coast, driving north from Kittery up to Rockland, and then work my way down the Route 1 corridor with a quick jog inland to Newcastle. Armed with my handy Maine Beer Trail passport and a hefty roster of spots to visit over three days, my task was a bit daunting. But, as I reminded my husband, whom I was leaving in charge of our three daughters and the dog, it was all in the name of research.
Leaving Woodland Farms, I headed north. The timing of my trip meant I had to forgo a stop at the Maine Beer Company in Freeport, where releases of coveted brews like Dinner draw a crowd, and aficionados enter a lottery to score a case of their coveted dry-hopped double IPA. Instead, I continued on to Brunswick, where I was due to meet Jared Entwistle and Nate Wildes, co-owners of Flight Deck Brewing. Just outside town, in Brunswick Landing, the brewery has become an area social hub since its spring 2017 opening, filling the craft beer void that existed between Freeport and Rockland.
Entwistle understands that beer tourists want variety. “Craft beer drinkers are very disloyal. And this isn’t a bad thing—they just like a new experience,” he said, throwing a big bouncy bone for his dog, Stella. “We understand that someone tasting our beer today is probably going to go over to Maine Beer tomorrow. And that’s fine. We send people there, they send people here. But every [brewery] has its locals.”
Flight Deck gets its name from the Brunswick Naval Air Station, where it has set up shop in the retired facility’s former small-arms range (bullet holes in the tasting-room walls mark itsauthenticity). The huge, airy space offsets its industrial feel with wood-topped tables and a gleaming knotty-wood bar; at the latter, Wildes, the team’s garrulous frontman, pulled me a paddle of approachable beers, all with fun, aero-inspired names like Wright Stuff and Subhunter, brewed in a 100 percent renewable system that sources electricity from a combination of anaerobic biodigestion and solar. Though the rose-pink T-56 Hibiscus Tea beer was especially delicious, I apologized for leaving behind mostly full pours—I had another stop to make.
Winding country roads led me to Newcastle, where Oxbow Brewing Company, known for its Belgian-style farmhouse beers and passion for the environment, is nestled among 18 woodland acres in the picturesque Damariscotta region. Here, beerhouse meets bunkhouse as Oxbow rents out its rustic but chic three-bedroom farmhouse that’s steps from the tasting room—the perfect getaway for beer and nature enthusiasts.
In the brewery’s wood-shingled barn, I caught up with head brewer Mike Fava as he worked a batch of Luppolo, an Italian-style pilsner. Fava gave me a crash course in brewing: He showed me samples of barley in various stages of roast, offered me a taste of sweet malt, and let me pour in a measure of heady, floral luppoli (Italian for hops). But the real star at Oxbow, besides the beer, is water. “Our well water is pulled from a 420-foot well that taps into a natural spring-fed aquifer,” he said. “It has an ideal pH and mineral content perfect for beer making. Ninety to 95 percent of beer is water, and ours gives us terroir. There’s no other brewery in the world using our water.”
My introduction to Maine beer’s old guard happened the next day, just outside Portland, at Sebago Brewing Company, another spot where the water flows deep into brewery ideology. I spent the morning with cofounder Kai Adams, whose long connection to Sebago Lake inspired the company’s creation and culture. Adams, who also serves as the Maine Brewers’ Guild’s vice president, schooled me in the state’s craft brew backstory and shared the ways Sebago has grown since 1998—from an extensive rebranding to breaking ground on a new destination brewery on a 260-acre farm with trails for hiking, biking, and skiing set to open early in 2018.
Adams’s enthusiasm for both his company and his craft can’t be quelled. “My passion is getting to know brewers and helping them with their businesses,” he said. “I know what it’s like to stand in the shadows of giants, and it’s intimidating. Now it’s more important than ever to support the small brewers.” As he spoke, he grabbed a freshly filled Frye’s Leap from the canning line and popped it open for me. I’m not a fan of the IPA craze, but the brew—crisp and bright with a fresh, not overly hoppy finish—converted me.
Portland shines as the state’s beer mecca, with 22 breweries—the most per capita in the U.S.—spread throughout a collection of distinctive neighborhoods. Industrial Way is the epicenter, and Allagash Brewing Company glitters at the end of that street like Emerald City. Through the years, the Industrial Park has served as a nursery of sorts for the city’s fledgling breweries. Regional stars Maine Beer, Rising Tide, and Bissell Brothers spread their wings there, with Foundation Brewing Company, Austin Street, and the latest arrival, Battery Steele, all continuing the tradition. When Bissell Brothers opened its new space in Portland’s burgeoning Thompson Point neighborhood, Foundation took over its bays to expand its own tasting room and brewing capacity.
On the weekends, the entire block, known simply as “the Park,” takes on a street-fair vibe. Food trucks sell everything from wood-fired pizza to gourmet hot dogs and bowls of ramen, while kids run around and play patio games and parents chat at picnic tables over freshly poured flights.
It was Allagash I was most excited to visit. In the tasting room I found folks partaking in free, four-sample flights and browsing 750-milliliter brews like Sixteen Counties, which uses only Maine-grown ingredients. During the brewery tour I felt a palpable enthusiasm for what happens here, knowing the energy trickled down from the top. Owner Rob Tod, who started the brewery as a one-man show using jury-rigged dairy equipment inherited from Vermont ice cream legends Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, has a deep passion for Allagash’s supportive and innovative culture—from the brewery’s pilot program to its family-focused work environment and passion for giving back to the community.
It’s a passion that impacts Tod’s neighbors, too. At Foundation Brewing Company, cofounder John Bonney offered a look into what it’s been like to grow up on Industrial Way. “Allagash really goes out of its way help people with stuff,” he said. “I think when your lead dogs are that way, everyone else benefits. I still feel like such a newbie, but now I’m like, wow, I’m solidly in the middle of the pack. It feels really good to pay it forward.”
Bonney certainly pays it forward with the beers he crafts with longtime home-brewing partner Joel Mahaffey. The two self-proclaimed “curious beer geeks” focus on beers they consider classic, foundational styles. “They all speak to a time and place in history,” Bonney said, bringing me a taste of Riverton Flyer, a pilsner named after one of Maine’s first roller coasters. As a pilsner lover, I found the crisp, clean beer refreshingly drinkable.
Heading over the Casco Bay Bridge to the South Portland enclave of Knightville, I made my way to Foulmouthed Brewing, named for both Portland’s 17th-century moniker, Falmouth, and the colorful conversations shared by the salty dogs on the waterfront. The nascent brewpub rose from the city’s sea of suds in June 2016 when owners Julia and Craig Dilger teamed up with Craig’s longtime home-brew partner, Bill Boguski, and hung their shingle on a repurposed auto garage on Ocean Street.
The three have set Foulmouthed apart from the craft beer fray by brewing around 50 different recipes since they opened, none of which is considered a flagship. Instead, they have opted to follow what Craig likes to call a “consistently inconsistent” brewing schedule. Each beer has a unique label, the artwork for which does double-duty by decorating the brewery walls. In addition to rotating taps, Foulmouthed, now Knightville’s favorite neighborhood hang (yoga and a growler, anyone?), offers an eclectic cocktail menu and inspired pub fare.
In Portland, one is easily drawn into the great brewery funnel, and I spent the rest of the day spiraling from Liquid Riot in the Old Port to Rising Tide and Oxbow Blending & Bottling in East Bayside (often called “Yeast Bayside” as a nod to the proliferation of breweries), to Bissell Brothers at Thompson Point. Still, other breweries and craft beer bars that I would have loved to visit fell by the wayside, victims of the old “too much beer, too little time” conundrum. I did end the evening at Gritty’s, an Old Port institution, which made me feel as though I’d managed to sample a good amount of the city’s beer scene.
The next morning, feeling a bit as though I may have, well, over sampled the city’s beer scene, I drove south to Banded Horn and Dirigo, newer breweries perched on the Saco River in the historic mill town of Biddeford. In Maine, water is always nearby, so it was fitting to end my journey at Tributary Brewing Company in Kittery, where the flow of Maine’s brooks, streams, and rivers serves as a metaphor for the brewing process.
Opened by legendary brew guru Tod Mott of Harpoon fame and his wife, Galen, Tributary’s diverse beer portfolio draws inspiration from the natural landscape. Beyond that? “The most important thing is that we work to make craft beer better,” Mott told me over a cold, fresh Kölsch—one of my favorite styles. “Every recipe I do, I’ve done before. Having brewed at a brewpub for eight years, I was able to just bang out recipes. Here, the sky’s the limit. There’s no one telling us, ‘You can’t do that.’”
Despite having had a great beer adventure, I was sad to spot the “last exit in Maine” sign on the turnpike. Over the past few days, I’d been welcomed into the craft brew fray in a state I’d long loved, giving me yet another reason to love it. But my family was ready for my return, and I was excited to return with some good stories and a trunkful of Maine beer to drink with my husband—his prize for holding down the fort. The next time, I’ll make sure he has a passport of his own.
250 Main, Rockland: Rest your head at this boutique “art hotel,” where the works of Maine artists fill airy, gallery-type spaces throughout a chic building with views of Rockland Harbor. 250mainhotel.com
Inn by the Sea, Cape Elizabeth: Eco-friendliness meets luxury at this relaxed oceanfront hotel on lovely Crescent Beach. A spa treatment or an inspired meal at Sea Glass, which serves a bevy of local brews, makes for a plush addition to a beer-centric itinerary. innbythesea.com
The Press Hotel, Portland: The perfect digs for anyone with a passion for the written word (old-fashioned typewriters in the lobby, vintage-style desks in the guest rooms), the Press Hotel makes its home in the former Portland Press Herald building, a short walk from the Old Port. thepresshotel.com
Primo, Rockland: Delve into cod-stuffed zucchini blossoms, fried Pemaquid oysters, and pancetta-wrapped figs at chef Melissa Kelly’s award-winning farm-to-table eatery. If you can’t get a reservation, grab a spot in the upstairs bar and lounge—the menu is the same. primorestaurant.com
Liquid Riot Bottling Company, Portland: This brewery/distillery/gastropub on Portland’s waterfront features about a dozen beers on tap, along with craft cocktails made from Liquid Riot’s own spirits (including the delicious Fernet Michaud, which works miracles on one’s digestion). liquidriot.com
Eventide Oyster Co., Portland: One of a trio of eateries by James Beard Award–winning chefs Andrew Taylor and Mike Wiley, Eventide boasts a must-try lobster roll, which washes down nicely with any of the Maine brews on draft.eventideoysterco.com
Duckfat, Portland: Call it the ultimate post-beer-trail brunch spot: Diners can indulge in hand-cut Belgian fries, classic poutine, meatloaf sandwiches, and thick milkshakes at this upscale greasy spoon on Portland’s Middle Street. duckfat.com
More than 80 Maine breweries welcome visitors. You can download your Maine Beer Trail passport from the Maine Brewers’ Guild website. Brewery visits earn you cool Maine beer swag.