PORTLAND, Maine — Rob Tod laughed as he recalled duct-taping a bathroom vent open, so air from the fan could cool electronic devices on the floor above.
The founder of Allagash Brewing Co. told 625 attendees at the New England Brew Summit on Friday that he fashioned many inexpensive solutions as he carefully grew his business. The Portland brewery will celebrate its 25th anniversary in July.
Not overextending, whether it be using old equipment rather than buying new or limiting geographical growth, can determine if a company stays in business. And Allagash had some hard knocks along the way.
“In 2005 we were growing quickly and we were spread too thin,” Tod said. “We decided to pull out of 12 states and to be in 17 states. Don’t be a mile wide and an inch deep.”
Allagash, a brewer that sells regionally, has seen business growth slow over the past five years, he said. Part of that is because of the large number of new competitors.
“I think times are going to get tough for everyone in this industry,” he said.
To survive the headwinds of competition, he recommended that brewers institute strong safety and quality programs, be thoughtful about where they grow, be careful about how they grow and get involved in their local communities so residents know they are invested there.
“You just never know what’s around the corner if you’re a brewer. In the spring of 2016 things came to a grinding halt. A lot of regional brewers got over their skis,” he said, and became overextended selling inside and outside their home states.
Tod offered his sage advice just as the craft beer industry is showing signs of maturing. The focus of the conference was on helping craft brewers sustain their business.
Experts have questioned how long the industry can keep growing in Maine and how many more breweries the state can sustain.
Craft beer is still growing and there’s room for more breweries, said Sean Sullivan, executive director of the Maine Brewers’ Guild in South Portland.
“But the question is, at whose expense? I think it’s the national brewers like Budweiser and Miller,” he said.
He said some regional brewers like Allagash have been affected by the consumer preference for local beer. While Allagash might have been considered local when the company first started, microbrewers have sprung up across the state, even in rural areas, to claim local market share, Sullivan said.
He said that because of the fast growth of breweries in Maine, many breweries are only 3-5 years old.
“Sixty-five percent of brewers in Maine have only ever known a booming craft beer industry,” he said. The summit’s focus on sustainability aimed to help them keep growing, he said.
“We don’t want the beer industry in Maine to be a flash in the pan,” Sullivan said.
He said breweries are more than just beer or places with taprooms to drink or socialize. Some breweries are revitalizing decrepit buildings and become part of a community’s fabric.
The number of breweries in the state has more than doubled from 66 when the summit started five years ago to 153 now. Two more breweries joined the guild recently, Sullivan said, one in West Bath and another in Rangeley.
Breweries and related activities by their suppliers and employees are a big part of the Maine economy. In 2017 they contributed a total of $260.4 million to the economy, up from $225 million in 2016, according to a report released in January 2019 by the Maine Brewers’ Guild and the University of Maine School of Economics. Sullivan said an updated report is due out in about six months.
That translates into $1.5 million in excise taxes, $168 million in beer sold and 2,560 jobs with a total of $54.8 million in wages. Most of that, roughly 1,910 workers, was direct employment, up from 1,600 in 2016. Another 650 jobs were attributed to the multiplier effect of expenditures by brewery suppliers and employees.
Gov. Janet Mills, who spoke just after Tod, recounted her own history of beer for the summit attendees. She honed in on the difference between now and Maine’s history during the Prohibition-era 1850s.
Neal Dow, Portland’s mayor who was widely known as the “Father of Prohibition,” pushed for the total ban on liquor in 1851. That “Maine Law” remained in effect until the repeal of national Prohibition in 1934.
But Dow had another side, Mills said. He had stashed about $1,600 worth of booze at City Hall, prompting the Portland Rum Riot in 1855, when citizens stormed City Hall hoping to see Dow get arrested.
“So pour one for Neil Dow [at happy hour today] to celebrate your success,” Mills told the crowd.
Watch: Here’s a look at Maine’s bustling craft beer scene