May 27, 2018
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If chemistry can make better beer, Maine brewers are all in

By Darren Fishell, BDN Staff

PORTLAND, Maine — Throwing out 217 gallons of beer is something Penobscot Bay Brewing owner Mike Anderson doesn’t want to do again.

He dumped a batch that wasn’t up to snuff last year for the first time since opening the brewery in 2009, an expansion of the Winterport winery.

“And then we took 10 days and we cleaned everything — and you have no idea what cleaning in a brewery is,” said Anderson.

The craft beer industry has gobbled up about 21 percent of the beer market nationally and in Maine has doubled the number of breweries in the last three years, to about 70. Put another way, sales of beer last year approached total lobster landings, with around $500 million in sales, according to the Maine Brewers’ Guild.

“All of us suffer from the same thing,” Anderson said. “We’ve been a part of this massive explosion and sometimes you need to stop and get caught back up with what’s going on.”

Friday in Portland, brewers from around the region met to do just that during the first New England Craft Brew Summit, where national and state craft brewing industry groups preached that an assist from science will help sustain a more local art of brewing in the long-run.

“The industry is growing so quickly that it’s hard for a lot of our brewers to press the pause button and think critically about how to sustain the growth,” said Sean Sullivan, executive director of the Maine Brewers’ Guild.

Industry veterans urged Friday that tight quality control is a concern brewers should have across the industry, which despite growing competition still shares a common brand.

“It’s easy for a customer to have a bad beer and decide that craft beer is overrated,” said Dick Cantwell, a founder of the Seattle-based Elysian Brewing and the quality ambassador for the national Brewers Association.

In brewing, quality control in brewing largely boils down to one word: chemistry. For an individual business, that translates roughly to: super-expensive.

But with a grant of about $500,000 from a state university system research and development fund — the Maine Economic Improvement Fund — solving that problem is getting a little cheaper for Maine breweries this year, with a new lab at the University of Southern Maine.

Upstairs Friday, equipment was still rolling into the lab that can now offer a variety of testing for everything from unwanted bacteria to official alcohol by volume measurements or checks for color consistency.

Ryan Michaud, a senior chemistry student and lab research assistant, demonstrated a color consistency test on a sample of beer from a Vermont brewery Friday, which involved inserting the sample into a machine the size of a cash register, pressing a button on a tablet screen and reporting the test was done.

“We can do all the tests you need in about four hours,” Michaud told a tour group of brewers.

Lucille Benedict, an associate professor of chemistry who leads the lab, said the new project serves both the purpose of lowering the cost of quality control testing for Maine breweries and also showing students one clear way chemistry is applicable in industry.

“And as you grow, that job force will be needed,” Benedict said.

Larger breweries like Allagash in Portland support quality control in-house and it’s top of mind for breweries in other parts of the state.

Anderson, with Penobscot Bay Brewing, said fellow brewers in the Bangor area, like Geaghan Bros. and Square Tail Brewing, have discussed going in together on a lab space that they could use for testing.

Sullivan, with the Maine Brewers’ Guild, said the keynote address from Cantwell Friday and panels throughout the day focused on quality control aim to secure the longer-term future of brewing in the state.

“In this era of unbridled enthusiasm for what we’re doing, it’s like your father saying that we need to sit down and have a talk,” Sullivan said.


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