PORTLAND, Maine — During the ripe days of midsummer, crates of fresh-picked blueberries, strawberries and raspberries aren’t just heading to the fruit stand or the freezer. These days, they’re also headed for the fermenter.
From Rising Tide to Allagash Brewing Co. to Barreled Souls Brewing Co., Maine’s artisan brewers are taking a cue from cider makers and reaching for local fruit. Farms like Doles Orchard in Limington and Goss Berry Farm in Mechanics Falls are happy to contribute to the growing intersection of the buy-local economy.
“We started working with local fruit in 2007. It adds different flavor components and aromas to our beers,” Jason Perkins, brewmaster for Allagash in Portland, said. “If we decided to use frozen or extract flavors, we could make it any time of year and in large amounts. When working with local fresh fruit, you have to do it when fruit is picked.”
When a large order comes in from Allagash, the Bunting family, owners of Doles Orchards, are ready. Beyond pies and jam they make with their berry bounty, Allagash’s annual commitment is a boon.
“Allagash was looking for local cherries. Someone at [the University of] Maine Cooperative Extension recommended us, and the rest is history,” said Emily Bunting, who helps her father Earl Bunting run the pick-your-own orchard.
Allagash works with a handful of fruit growers across the state to create anniversary ales such as Coolship Red, made with raspberries; Little Sal, featuring blueberries from Windham; and the sour cherry ale, Nancy, named after Nancy Bunting, Earl’s wife.
“We only make it once a year — only use fresh fruit,” said Perkins, who admits sometimes Mother Nature stands in the way.
This year, because of a cherry crop failure from winterkill, Allagash only received 200 pounds of cherries, not the 4,000 it needs. The salvaged few will be used in their multiberry ruby red Pick Your Own beer. Nancy is on hiatus. “Sometimes there are downsides,” the brewmaster said. “We think it would be better if we could sell it.”
In early August the excitement at Rising Tide is the release of Coulis and Cordial, two beers made with locally procured fruit.
For Coulis, hundreds of raspberries from Limington fermented for eight weeks in barrels of Belgian yeast, malt and wheat. It’s the first fruit beer the East Bayside company has created in years.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to extend our brand and keep the level of excitement of what we do high,” Nathan Sanborn, Rising Tide’s co-owner, said. The brewery is delving into local grains and striking partnerships with Maine coffee roasters such as Tandem for collaborations, but local fruit is a new move in their playbook.
“This is one of our first opportunities to work with fruit,” said Sanborn, who hired Doles Orchards to make wooden flight boxes for their tasting room. Sanborn soon discovered their Edenic fruit. The gears turned.
“The quality of their raspberries is very high. The flavor profile is incredible. The extraction happened much faster — both the cherries and raspberries had a bold and wonderful fresh fruit flavor,” said Sanborn, who has also experimented with local potatoes for an IPA.
For fruit growers like the Buntings at Doles, interest from brewers comes at a good time.
“The whole trend toward local has been a wonderful thing,” Emily Bunting said. The farm moved from vegetable production to fruit years ago, partly because brewers came calling. “They are paying us a good price,” she said. “It’s been a nice extra outlet.”
And even better, “the breweries use the product to make another product,” she added. “They don’t have to double the price … unlike retailers.” So the Buntings make more profit in the exchange.
But beyond financials, the farmers quicken when they see beer made with their fruit on tap. “There is a sense of pride. It’s exciting,” said Emily Bunting, who recently tried Liquid Riot Bottling Co.’s strawberry cream ale and was delighted to discover the special essence was because of her berries. “It makes you feel like a bigger part of the community.”
As the craft beer scene in Maine expands, demand for inventive ingredients is driving agricultural choices.
“We are growing and they are planting more and more cherry trees,” said Perkins, who is pleased with the partnership.
Even startups such as Eighteen twenty wines, a soon-to-open Portland winery, are basing their business on local crops. Co-owner Amanda O’Brien is working with Doles Orchard and Spiller Farm in Wells to supply them with enough rhubarb to launch this fall.
“Rhubarb isn’t as difficult a crop as cherries or grapes. It’s sturdy. And once it matures, it grows like a weed,” O’Brien said. “We are working now with farms for year three and four, so we know it will be mature and available.”