In an effort to promote the craft beer industry in Maine and give the public a closer look at how their favorite brews are being crafted, the Maine Brewers’ Guild is starting its first semester of Beer School, a series of events that will take participants to craft breweries across the state to enhance the brewer-consumer experience.
“I think we all live in Maine for a good reason, and one of the things is that [industries are] super accessible … and the craft beer community is a lot like that,” Sean Sullivan, executive director of the guild, said. “[Beer School] gives people a reason and incentive to visit these breweries and learn a little bit more about what makes these breweries special.”
Beer School is not a degree-granting program, but each of its sessions seeks to educate participants through behind-the-scene events at breweries. Beer School’s spring semester begins in the new year, with its first of 13 events held on Jan. 8 at Maine Beer Company in Freeport. Enrollment is event specific, and prices for attendance range from $25 to $45 per event.
All participating breweries are members of the Maine Brewers’ Guild. With each brewery pouring out a unique line of beers onto a growing market, the guild is hopeful this intimate beer experience will allow each to highlight what makes their brews distinctive by providing beer enthusiasts with an experience they won’t forget.
“This encourages breweries to think critically about what makes their brewery unique and what is the brand that they want to convey, because a lot of people are making really great beer, so we just want to give brewers an opportunity to think critically about what expertise they want to share,” Sullivan said.
Craft breweries, which center their businesses around the small-production style of beer making, are popping up all over Maine’s vast geographic area. From The County to the coast to the mountains of western Maine, brewers are embodying their beers with the essence of the communities they come from.
Portland has hosted several of the state’s signature craft beer events, including its Beer Week in the fall and Brewfest to close out the summer season in September. With so much beer activity focused around the state’s largest population center, onlookers of Maine’s craft beer industry might see Portland as the epicenter of all things sudsy, hoppy and handcrafted. Beer School is looking to change that perception by taking its enrolled participants to breweries at every corner of the state, from Etna to Lyman to Bar Harbor.
“Breweries are psyched because we’ve got breweries all over the state now,” Sullivan said. “Just because Portland is a big population center, a lot of our events have tended to be down here. But we are really changing that.”
Not only are the breweries benefiting from this peaked interest in craft beer, the state as a whole is, too. An economic impact study commissioned by the Maine Brewers’ Guild and conducted by economists at the University of Maine in 2013 found that the state’s craft beer industry is poised to grow by 200 percent in the next four years.
According to the study, craft beer is giving some of the state’s iconic products a run for its money, in terms of statewide economic impact. In 2013, Maine’s breweries sold an estimated $92.6 million worth of beer, with an additional $35.5 million worth of revenue generated through sales of local brews in pubs, restaurants and retail shops, all while employing an estimated 1,500 Mainers.
Altogether, the craft beer industry amassed a statewide economic impact of $189 million, according to the UMaine study. Maine’s blueberry harvest in 2013 had an economic impact of $69 million, and the state’s lobster catch was worth $340 million. Neither of these industries, however, are poised for the kind of growth economists are expecting for the craft beer industry within the state.
“Maine has a longstanding tradition of quality, authentic products and experiences … and with craft beer fitting really well into that … it’s another Maine-made product that is not only great to be consumed here in Maine but is also something that we can export and that is viewed with a sense of the state,” Sullivan said.
With this state-engrained tradition of commitment to quality and community, it is no wonder that, according to the national Brewers Association, Maine has the fifth highest number of breweries per capita in the U.S., with 4.7 brewers per 100,000 people ages 21 and older.
The growth of Maine’s craft beer industry is part of a larger national trend. The Brewers Association reported craft beer production saw an 18 percent growth in volume in 2013 while overall beer production, including companies such as Anheuser Busch and MillerCoors, was down 2 percent.
“In a kind of increasingly globalized world, where 90 percent of the products in front of you are probably from a different country … people are increasingly seeking a connection, a personal connection, to the companies that they want to buy from, to the organization they want to support, and craft beer really offers that,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan contributes the rise in consumer demand for craft beer to the industry’s ability to appeal to a variety of different tastes. In the past, beer drinkers have preferred one type of beer over another. But Sullivan says beer drinkers now are looking to try a variety of beers without committing to a single style or brand.
“A larger variety of styles are being brewed, and people are finding a style that suits them really well, whether that is a belgian white beer like Allagash is producing or a super hoppy IPA like Maine Beer Company is producing or a kind of sour funky beer like the guys at Hidden Cove are producing or anywhere in between — there is a beer that really fits them,” Sullivan said.
With more and more craft breweries opening their doors each year, skeptics are wondering when the craft beer bubble will burst. But Sullivan is confident the evolving habits of beer drinkers will allow for more room on the craft beer market.
“Every brewery is getting different customers at different times, depending on what they are brewing at that point, so that is something that is a little different economically speaking,” Sullivan said. “In Maine, I think we get a little extra room because there is such an influx of visitors over the summer. So it is not just what beers Mainers can drink; it is what Mainers and everybody else who comes to Maine can drink.”
Enrollment in the first session of Beer School has sold out, but interested enthusiasts or anyone who wants to delve further into Maine’s craft beer industry can check the Maine Brewers’ Guild website for information on enrolling in upcoming sessions.