PORTLAND, Maine — Alan Lapoint, the new owner of D.L. Geary Brewing Co., said Maine’s oldest craft brewery was days away from shutting down before he swooped in to acquire the flagging Portland business this week.
“They didn’t have enough for payroll,” he said on a tour of his new brewery Friday. “They were taking money out of their own pockets to pay employees.”
To stay solvent and turn around this struggling brewery focused on English style ales, the Freeport businessman laid off two employees Thursday — longtime brewer Larry Hudson and a bottle supervisor. “It was heartbreaking to have to do that. It was the worst part of the first week,” said Lapoint, 50 of Freeport. “It tears at your heart.”
But as news of the layoffs filtered through Portland’s beer community, some pub owners made the decision to boycott Geary’s.
Doug Fuss, the owner of popular Old Port pub Bull Feeney’s, has had Geary’s on tap for 15 years. He said when his current keg of Hampshire Special Ale kicks, he’s dropping the brand for good.
“We opened 15 years ago with Geary’s and have had a long standing relationship,” said Fuss, adding that a tearful Hudson came to his pub Thursday night, smarting from abruptly losing his job after more than two decades at the brewery.
“It’s shocking,” Fuss said. “No question about it. You just don’t treat people like that.”
Around the corner at Crooners and Cocktails on Exchange Street, chef/co-owner Chris Harris is also yanking Geary’s from his menu.
“This is a close-knit community and people don’t tolerate that kind of behavior,” said Harris. “After 23 years he [Hudson] was thrown out in a very rude manner. He is a very well respected man in this community. He goes out and puts back in the community. He has a good relationship with all of us. We will not stand for it or carry it [Geary’s] ever again.”
Hudson did not return a call seeking comment.
“Rightsizing,” as Lapoint called it, had to be done to protect the brand’s integrity and keep the rest of the staff employed. Lapoint, whose wife Robin is a co-owner, noted that fermentation tanks are sitting empty and production has slipped from 17,000 barrels in Geary’s 2006-2007 heyday to 8,000 to 9,000 now.
With the explosion of craft beer in the last five years, tastes have shifted to lighter and hoppier IPAs. Hurt by the swing away from the strong, malty-style ales Geary’s built its brand on to the trend of American IPAs and more inventive beers with atypical ingredients such as coffee and peanut butter, Geary’s needed new energy to survive.
Lapoint, who runs The Strainrite Companies, an Auburn filtration company started by his father, does not have direct beer industry experience, but has worked with breweries on filtration issues. Geary’s has been a longtime client.
He believes in family businesses and over the years took a shine to Geary’s employees.
“I want to preserve the core and strong customer base,” said Lapoint, while diversifying into more popular styles of beers.
The Connecticut native plans to add IPAs and new beers into the mix and will invest in equipment as needed. “We need to turn this thing around and flourish,” said Lapoint.
Founder Dave Geary, collecting old photographs and keepsakes at the brewery on Friday afternoon, seemed ready to put his 30-plus years in brewing behind him.
“I am delighted,” said Geary, 72. “I’m old and tired.”
The ownership transition will be complete by the end of 2017.
Geary, who would not disclose the amount he sold his brewery for, is excited for the chance to step away from the increasingly competitive business and try his hand at creative writing.
“The opportunity arose and I’m proud of all I’ve done,” Geary said.
Geary’s head brewer Pete Heggeman applauded the new ownership.
“It’s what needs to happen. With the change we can do almost anything stylistically,” Heggeman said. “This gives us a lot of options.”
With Lapoint’s businesses acumen — he is also a partner in The Edge Academy, a Portland elite sports training school — Geary’s can grow with Maine’s fast moving craft beer scene, the brewer said.
“We can move forward and really branch out,” said Heggeman. “That’s what people want, more options.”