Editor’s note: This piece originally ran in September. We’re sharing it again to accompany today’s coverage of the New England Craft Brew Summit.
PORTLAND, Maine — From auto repair shops to barns to farms to warehouses to inns, breweries are multiplying in Maine.
“Like the restaurant scene in Portland, as one closes another opens,” John Golembiewski, a Shipyard employee and head brewer at the Inn on Peaks Island, said.
The former home brewer was hired a year ago to bring “grain to glass” brewing to tourists and islanders looking for small-batch ale to quench their thirsts. Shipyard, which owns the inn on the Casco Bay island, was fermenting beer here and serving its popular styles for years. Now five taps are dedicated to Golembiewski’s creations, such as Gateway Pilsner and Nor’easter IPA. These Shipyard varieties can only be sipped on island.
“This is a new level, what we are trying to do,” Andrew Hobin, assistant general manager at the inn, said. “We’ve gotten a lot of great feedback. I think it brings a whole different crowd to the inn.”
New crowds are trekking to hidden places across the state, such as Bigelow Hill in Skowhegan, where chocolate chili stout is paired with wood-fired pizza, and to Marsh Island Brewing Co., which is located in an Orono auto repair shop where wheels are aligned and Downrigger IPA is brewed and bottled under the same roof.
Breweries in Maine are revving up so fast and furiously that Sean Sullivan, executive director of the Maine Brewers’ Guild, is having a hard time keeping up with marketing material.
“I just printed the Maine Beer Trail, and new breweries have opened since,” said Sullivan, who was hired in 2013 as the guild’s first employee to help brewers navigate marketing and legislative issues. “We printed more beer trails [guides] this year than ever before, by a long margin.”
The data, since his appointment, tell the story.
“There were 43 breweries in Maine [in 2013] and 21 have come online since.” That’s 64 and counting, if you’re keeping track.
At Portland Beer Week in November, the state’s newest breweries will be showcased. Sullivan rattled off a list of nine in planning, from the just-opened Theory Brewing Co. in Wells to Sidereal Farm and Brewing Co. in Vassalboro. He predicts a large number will launch in the fourth quarter of 2015 and first quarter of 2016.
With Maine’s population holding steady, competition must be stiff, right?
Brewers, including Clay Randall at Marsh Island and Jeff Powers at Bigelow Brewing Co., say just the opposite is true. “It’s a good industry to be in now,” Randall, who splits his time between brewing and fixing cars at Swett’s Tire and Auto, said. “It’s totally different from a normal industry. Competition is friendly.”
Powers, who was inspired by Foundation Brewing Co. in Portland, was stunned by the egalitarian nature of fellow craft brewers.
“It’s a very collaborative and a very sharing community,” he said. “It’s probably the most collaborative industry that I’ve ever worked in,” Powers, whose career has been spent in the paper industry, said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Open for a year and a half, Bigelow, a mid-Maine destination in a former horse barn, is attracting other startups in the early stages seeking advice. And it’s no wonder why: On the weekends, droves of locals and tourists flock to his tasting room for crisp ales poured in a tack room.
To set themselves apart, new arrivals, such as Blank Canvas Brewery in Brewer, are going exotic, with coconut red, sidamo brown and rhubarb kolsch, which lend themselves to creative food pairings. Others, such as Marsh Island, are “not trying to break the mold and put weird spices in beers. We are sticking with tried and true,” Randall said. “Nothing too drastic.”
In southern Maine, tasting rooms at Banded Horn Brewing Co. in Biddeford and Barreled Souls in Saco capture 20-somethings with cucumber beer, cookouts and games such as ping-pong and corn hole. Barreled Souls has done so well in just over a year that it’s looking for a larger space.
“Two thousand and fifteen has been the year of brewery expansions,” Sullivan said. “Still, quite a few new breweries have opened up.”
The nano Blank Canvas is the second brewery to open in Brewer this year. Bangor-based Geaghan Bros. Brewing Co. opened a 3,600-square-foot expansion on the east side of the Penobscot River in May.
Other breweries expanding their operations to meet demand include Funky Bow Brewery and Beer Co. in Lyman and Austin Street Brewery in Portland, which have invested in bigger brewhouses in the past 12 months, Sullivan said. This month Bigelow Brewing Co. is in the midst of an expansion to enlarge its three-barrel brewing system to 15. They are attracting weddings and rehearsal dinners to their rustic setting, which includes a hop yard and wood-fired oven.
“Existing breweries are driving a lot of the growth of this industry and continue to innovate to keep up with consumer preferences and find new opportunities,” Sullivan said.
And in beer- and food-soaked Portland, a new brewer on Peaks Island is reason enough to hop the ferry.
“People want to get hands on with local brews like food,” Golembiewski said. “It’s the wave that’s taking over … a new drinking crowd has embraced us.”
Not only are diners in places such as the Inn on Peaks looking for local fare; they want it paired with local ale. If it’s made on the premises, all the better.
“They like to be able to come in and have the opportunity to get a local beer in the place they are having supper and try dishes that chefs are making with breweries in mind,” Golembiewski said. “We haven’t reached our peak yet. That won’t come for quite a while.”