SEDGWICK, Maine — Al and Mia Strong moved to Maine 13 years ago with a plan to fulfill their dream of opening a small brewery. Unfortunately, life got in the way.
“You’ve gotta make a living while you chase your dream,” Al Strong, the resident brewer, said Wednesday.
Now, the husband-and-wife team are turning to a tried-and-true agricultural model to gather the startup costs necessary to get their nanobrewery off the ground. You’ve heard of community-supported agriculture? This is a community-supported brewery.
“We’ve been CSA members with a local farm, King’s Hill Farm in Penobscot, for years and it’s a great model,” Mia Strong said. “That inspired us.”
In community-supported agriculture, members give a farmer a lump sum of money once a year. When the harvest comes, members receive a bountiful selection of fresh product without ever giving the farmer money past the yearly membership fee.
The idea is that community members get to have a one-on-one relationship with their farmers. CSA also helps local producers by eliminating some of the uncertainty associated with farming. The membership fee acts as a buffer against a year of poor crop yield and provides seed capital each growing season.
The Strongs took the model and applied it to their brewery. They host “tastings” at their Sedgwick home every few weeks. There, for free, guests try out Al Strong’s homebrewed beer, dispensed from a kegerator on the lawn.
Then, the couple makes a pitch:
“We’re selling shares, which means you can help us fund the brewery and expand and get our licensing by buying a share,” Mia Strong said. Shareholders are given a free growler — a 32- or 64-ounce glass jug. “Once we receive licensing, you start coming once a week and filling those growlers that you purchased.”
The shares are the only product offered by Strong Brewing Co. The couple can’t sell beer until they’re licensed and they can’t get licensed until they raise enough money through the CSB.
A full shareholder gets 48 fills for the cost of their membership — $340 per share for a 64-ounce growler or $171 for a 32-ounce. A half shareholder pays less up front and gets 24 fills — $172 for the big growler, $87 for the small one. For those working out the math, the largest full shareholders will get 192 pints of beer.
Community-supported brewery members also will get first tastes of new seasonal brews and access to Strong Brewing Co. events, Al Strong said. But that’s all later. First, the couple needs to get the business going.
They’ve already purchased the three 55-gallon barrels necessary to produce their target 40-gallon batches. But they still need a few things for a commercial brewery to operate.
“I still have to buy the chillers, fermenters, and all the pumps and things I need to complete the operation, but it’s a start,” Al Strong said.
The Strongs came to Maine the first time in the ’90s for vacation. Al Strong said he was struck by the beer culture in the Great White North.
“There was no such thing as a microbrewery in Jersey,” Al Strong said. “There were no brew pubs, there was nothing like it. We saw these small breweries here in Maine and it really inspired us. I bought ‘The Complete Joy of Homebrewing’ by Charles Papazian and read it cover to cover.”
But the cost of opening up a brewery in The Garden State proved prohibitive. Here in Maine, the couple figures they’ll open a nanobrewery in their garage — 40-gallon batches three or four times a month — for about $15,000. That includes capital expenses, equipment, marketing and state and federal licensing fees.
In New Jersey, Mia Strong said it would have cost them many times that amount.
To hit their goal, the couple would need about 44 full shareholders. Right now, they’ve got a dozen, but Al Strong said the tastings are adding shareholders every time.
“We get 20 or 30 people here and they have a great time,” he said. “They sample our flagship products, and I get to prove that I’m not full of it, that I make good beer.”
Al Strong has a handful of different brews ready to go. The most popular at tastings is Maineiac — “That’s my take on the Vermonster” by Rock Art Brewery, he jokes. Maineiac is a double IPA made with Maine barley and Maine hops. It’s 10 percent alcohol by volume and carries a hefty 100 international bitterness unit rating. That’s pretty hoppy.
Other brews include Localmotive, a California common style, and Soul Patch Porter.
Al Strong said that once his brewery is open, he expects to continue having to work part time as a finisher at Brooklin Boat Yard. But he believes in his beer. He figures Strong Brewing Co. will grow quickly.
“I look at other breweries that started this size, and they’ve all expanded within a year,” he said.
But even if the company grows by leaps and bounds, the Strongs say they’ll continue to offer the CSB program. After all, they said, it’s as much a part of the local-food philosophy as a funding model. (Mia Strong is president of the Blue Hill Co-Op board of trustees and has been active in the local food movement for years).
“It’s about building community. At one point, every community had their own little brewery,” she said. “You get a face-to-face relationship with your customers. They get excited about your products.”
The next tasting, during which folks from the Blue Hill peninsula and beyond can sample Al Strong’s brews and sign up for the CSB, will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 17, at the Strong’s home at 7 Rope Ferry Road.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.