BREWER, Maine — Scott Magnan keeps a careful eye on the mash tun, an enormous vessel in his workspace at Mason’s Brewing Co. His gaze shifts between it and the brew kettle on his other side, continuously monitoring their progress. In the mash tun, water runs through a grain bed to extract wort, which runs off into the brew kettle, where hops have been added. The mixture eventually will come to a boil and then be cooled, a yeast strain will be added to the fermenter and then the waiting begins.
After a span of between 16 and 30 days in the fermentation vessels, the result is conditioned and finally becomes a drink that has been around in one way or another for thousands of years.
On this particular Thursday, Magnan and Forrest Brown, both brewery operators at the company, will put in about nine hours to prepare a hefeweizen. They work methodically, Magnan said, and perhaps a bit slower than others, but they want to make sure they do it right.
“You want to get the grain bill, the hop amount and the yeast to come together into one big, happy unit to make a well-rounded beer,” Magnan explained.
Both Magnan and Brown wear safety goggles and heavy-duty work clothes. They look like they’re undertaking a grand-scale science experiment — and in reality, that’s what brewing beer is: scientific.
Magnan started home brewing in 2005, which isn’t quite as long as his brother-in-law Chris Morley, who is also the company’s owner.
“This is a glorified version of my basement. I built a building that I would want to sit and hang out in. I drink beer that I would want to drink more than one of, and I eat what I would want to eat when I go out,” Morley said as he sat at one of the picnic tables in Mason’s Brewing’s outdoor seating area.
What once was unoccupied waterfront territory in Brewer now houses the company, and though the building was erected in just over seven months in the middle of this past winter, Mason’s Brewing has been in the works for about five years.
“I was a home brewer for about 14 years, and my wife and I, Barbara, who is also a co-owner, traveled extensively in pursuit of craft beer,” Morley said. “In my hometown, just outside of Cooperstown, [New York], Ommegang Brewery is like this big, mythical creature. I watched it go from a very small farm in the middle of no place and become this craft beer destination. After a series of travels, I came to the conclusion that I wanted to bring something like that to this community, or to Maine in general, so I started looking at locations up and down the Penobscot.”
Three years ago he began planning with the city of Brewer, which helped him settle on a property at 15 Hardy St. that was cleared by the city in 2004 and was previously the site of the old public works garage.
“After I engaged the city, I started working on coming up with a plan of what I wanted to roll out. It started with just basic beer recipes. I kind of had an idea of where I thought the craft beer movement might trend towards, so we approached our recipes with a lower ABV, not as hoppy, more sessionable beers,” Morley said.
Various factors led the project to start and stall a number of times, including getting financing and a delay in the federal licensing required to open the brewery. Morley said U.S. Sen. Susan Collins played an important role in expediting the process to open the brewery. Collins even joined Brewer city officials and Morley for a ribbon-cutting ceremony in May, and Brother Don, a member of the Franciscan Brothers of St. Elizabeth of Hungary and familiar face at Friar’s Bakehouse in downtown Bangor, also blessed the brewery in April.
Once Morley had recipes put together, Mason’s Brewing secured a distribution deal with Maine Craft in Westbrook.
“We were the first nonproduction brewery in the state of Maine to have a distribution contract at that time,” Morley said. “That was my golden ticket to go to the bank and request financing. And I got humble and thought that would be a no-brainer. That was the toughest part of getting this off the ground, was seeking financing.”
Because of that distribution deal, Mason’s already has more than 50 rotating accounts and has been in places including Nosh Kitchen Bar in Portland, Bar Harbor Beer Works and The Family Dog in Orono, among others. There are also plans for the beer to be sold in cans beginning in late summer.
Though beer was Morley’s primary focus, he knew he needed something else to go with it.
“[Manager] Jake [Bridges] and I started talking and it was fortunate that the timing was about right. He was looking for a change and I was ready to bring someone on. The brewery part I had locked down — that was easy for me — not easy, but I know that. The restaurant part, which is more of what I call a pub, is a necessary evil. I didn’t really want to do a restaurant. I really didn’t at all. But it made sense with this concept — to pair the food with the beers we were rolling out,” Morley said.
Morley’s menu concept started with pizza — something he missed as a native New Yorker. He wanted a unique selection of pies as well as burgers and a generous helping of pork.
“It was a West Coast gastropub meets East Coast,” Morley said of his original idea.
It was manager Jake Bridges and head chef Randy Hutchinson who brought the menu to life.
“We cranked out the finalized menu in the end and took the concept Chris came up with and gave it a soul,” Bridges said. Bridges added that a focus has been on using local products such as their pizza dough, which is made by Dabesta Pizza in Bangor and infused with Mason’s beer, and their burgers, which they get from Maine Family Farms in Dover-Foxcroft.
From dishes like their Dirty Fries, which are tossed in garlic, cilantro, bacon and dirty house seasoning and served with hop sauce, to Pork Belly Panzanella — a salad of seared pork belly, roasted red bell peppers, cherry tomato, onion, parsley and tarragon-dijon dressing — and of course pizzas like the Penobscot, which is topped with smoked pork belly, figs, bleu cheese, arugula, egg and a balsamic reduction over what the menu calls the company’s “signature sauce,” there are plenty of options for a hearty pairing with any of the company’s beers.
The beer menu includes Roggen Bier, Mocha Stout, Farmhouse Saison — which Forrest Brown says has been the most popular — American Pale Ale, Belgian Wit, American IPA, West Coast Pilz and more.
“We don’t serve domestic because we’re a brewery. Somebody will be like, ‘Oh, you don’t have Miller Lite or Bud Light,’ and I’ll give them a taste of our rye pale and they’ll love it. I’ll go, ‘You’re drinking craft beer.’ That’s what’s neat — getting non-craft beer drinkers to drink craft beer,” Bridges said.
Morley is hoping to ramp up his brewery’s focus on sustainability in the future, and they’ve already gotten a solid start.
“We give our spent grain to a farmer who feeds his pigs with it. It doesn’t go to waste. We don’t charge him for it. It helps him out and it helps us because we don’t have to throw it away,” Morley said.
Throughout the project’s process, Morley leaned on many of Maine’s more than 70 craft breweries when he had questions or needed advice.
“The craft beer community as a whole has been extremely supportive,” Morley said. “I think there’s 76 of us now, and I think like anything some will grow, some will stay small, some will go away, but no one tracks in the same path.”
Morley said he’s excited that his business has started to change the city of Brewer and hopes to see more growth in the future.
“It’s my goal to grow this brewery here and grow the waterfront. There’s tremendous growth potential here,” he said. “My hope is that with this insurgence in this region with craft beer that we become the next Portland. I think we have a huge opportunity to do so,” Morley said, adding that the Bangor-Brewer area is the gateway to popular tourist destinations such as Acadia National Park.
For now, he plans to enjoy the new space he has brought to Brewer.
“There’s nothing like this in the state of Maine. You have an outdoor experience. It’s 180 degrees of water. That’s what this is all about,” Morley said. “I’m a visual person. No matter where you are in this building, you can see something cool. You’re seeing someone brew something or you’re looking at the bar that I had family members make that has Allagash barrels built into it. You’ve got an industrial building with wood attributes, so it’s like old meets new, which is kind of ironic because this was an old shipping yard where they transported lumber, and you have the stage right across the river.”