ELLSWORTH, Maine — The British have arrived in the city’s downtown.
Gary and Sharon Cresswell may live and brew beer in the northern Hancock County town of Amherst, but the style of brews they are serving at their newly built pub on Main Street are decidedly of British origin.
And, blimey, do they ever have an Old World space to pour them in.
On the corner of Main and Hancock streets, with the name Airline Brewing Company painted in gold letters high above the door, is one of the most English-looking pubs to be seen this side of Boston.
Flower boxes are mounted high on the brick upper facade above new black-painted exterior woodwork lined with gold trim. Inside, small tables and low sturdy stools are dotted along the cushioned bench seating that encircles the cozy space, and more than 30 Vanity Fair illustrations are mounted in rows on the walls.
While it does have a light food menu, one of the more telling examples of the type of establishment the Cresswells are operating is what it doesn’t have: a television.
Ray Edgar, who the Cresswells hired as their head brewer in December 2015, said the purpose of the new pub is twofold: it is meant to showcase Airline’s British styles of beer but also is intended to be a gathering spot where people come to have a pint and interact with each other.
“No telly, no celly,” Edgar quipped, adding cellphones to the list of devices the Cresswells don’t want distracting their customers.
The new tavern, where only beers by Airline and guest brewers will be available, is not the first along Main Street to evoke European pub culture. Finn’s, a popular Irish-themed pub across the street, recently had its facade redone and painted bright red, but it wasn’t originally built to look the part. It opened in a former diner in 2009.
The Airline Brewing space, the prior occupants of which have included a bakery and various retail shops, was reduced to an empty brick shell this past spring when its prior interior was torn out. Everything put in place since then over the brick walls, both inside and out, has been meticulously selected and installed to bring the Cresswells’ faithful vision of an English pub to life.
And with that vision, they are bringing to Ellsworth their experience of having run the former Square Tail Brewing in Amherst over the past two years.
Gary Cresswell, who grew up in England in Huddersfield, Yorkshire, and Sharon Cresswell, who hails from east Texas, got into the brewery business in 2014, when they retired from the Houston-area oil and gas industry and moved to Amherst.
Late last year, Gary Cresswell said, they decided to take the business to the next level. They hired Edgar after their part-time head brewer, the Cresswell’s son Wes Ellington, decided to keep his regular full-time job working in the Brewer office of a national energy firm, Gary Cresswell said.
At the same time, they decided to rename the company Airline Brewing, to open the Ellsworth pub, and to more than double the brewery’s production capacity from two barrels to five barrels at a time, or from about 60 gallons to 150 gallons.
The brewery’s new logo — a full yellow pint glass imposed over the black shape of a circular saw blade — is an homage to the former furniture mill in Amherst where Square Tail has brewed for the past two years, he said.
Airline will continue to make all its beer at the same facility.
Opening the English-style pub, something he said he and his wife always wanted to do, is more than an homage to his home country, Gary Cresswell said. There’s a practical aspect to it as well.
In the United Kingdom, breweries own the pubs where their products are served, which enables the brewery to control the handling of its own product from the moment of its inception until it is delivered to customers in a pint glass, according to Gary Cresswell. Airline is a relatively small operation, brewing about 500 barrels of beer each year, and so it has no need for a separate distribution company to get its product to the market, he said.
The brewery’s specialty, British-style cask-conditioned ales, are stored and handled differently than more common styles of beers, Gary Cresswell said, and by showcasing such ales in their own pub, the brewery can ensure its product is handled, stored and served properly.
Cask-conditioned ales aren’t suitable for being bottled or canned, he said, and if Airline sold their casks to another entity that did not properly handle them, the quality of the beer could suffer.
Airline makes 10 varieties of beer, ranging from pale ale to stout — some of which are made with the same recipes as its cask-conditioned ales — which it serves in the more typical fashion: from gas-injected pressurized kegs stored at temperatures about 40 degrees.
Its four cask-conditioned varieties are stored separately in the pub’s cellar in the low-to-mid 50 degree range and are fed through temperature-controlled lines to taps that have to be manually pumped back and forth in order to make the beer flow.
In addition to not being as cold, cask-conditioned ales have less fizz because, while they are naturally carbonated through fermentation, they are not artificially injected with carbon or nitrogen.
Unlike gas-injected beers, cask-conditioned ales are allowed to continue actively fermenting when they are tapped and consumed. For Gary Cresswell, the differences at the end of the brewing process for cask ales and then how they are stored and served make for a better flavor.
“This is fresher beer,” he said. “You’ve just that extra taste, that extra feel, that extra aroma that comes from a cask ale.”
Gary Cresswell said other craft breweries in Maine make cask-conditioned ales but do not place as heavy an emphasis on them in their overall lineup as Airline does. But since cask-conditioned ales are far less prevalent in the market and keg-style beers are what most people are used to, Airline also makes kegged brews, he said.
Nonetheless, Gary Cresswell said he wants cask-conditioned ales to be what his brewery is known for.
“Our focus is on hand-pulled, traditional ales,” he said. “The only way you can do this is in your own facility. It’s a lot of work.”
The Cresswells’ beer has drawn the attention of other players in Maine’s vibrant and growing craft beer community. While the couple was being interviewed about their business, brewers with Mason’s Brewing, 2 Feet Brewing and Sean Sullivan, head of the Maine Brewers’ Guild, showed up at the pub to sample Airline’s ales.
Sullivan, sitting at one of the tables, said that because there is such a wide range of beer styles, Maine’s craft beer industry lends itself to diversification and fosters a collegial atmosphere among its mostly small-scale brewers. Craft beer enthusiasts typically drink a wide variety of beers, not just one brand over and over again, so there is a lot of room in the industry, he said.
In Maine, the industry has grown significantly in recent years and is expected to continue to do so, Sullivan added. When he started his job at the guild in 2013, there were about 40 craft breweries in Maine, and now there are more than 80. Most of that growth has been in Maine’s more densely populated areas in and around Portland, Lewiston and Bangor, he said, but new breweries also have opened recently in Caribou and Lubec.
In that same three year period, the annual sales of craft beer brewed in Maine has grown from about $92 million in 2013 to currently between $125 million and $150 million per year, he added.
That economic impact also is expected to continue growing.
“The way the market is moving, just like what [the Cresswells have] created here, every town and every community is going to have a brewery,” Sullivan said. “It’s cool that Ellsworth now has that.”
Sharon Cresswell said that, if the expansion of her and her husband’s brewery goes well, it may consider opening another other pub elsewhere in Maine. At the moment, however, Airline’s pint glass is overflowing.
“It’s kind of like having another baby,” she said. “Right now I would say, ‘No way,’ but ask me again two years from now.”