Heady times for Maine’s craft brewers

  • Mail this page!
  • Delicious
  • 1

PORTLAND — Maine’s craft-beer industry is growing nearly twice as fast as the national rate, and added more than $150 million to the state economy, according to a new report from the Maine Brewer’s Guild.

The report, by economists at the University of Southern Maine, provides objective data to “demonstrate that beer is having an impact on Maine’s economy,” according to Sean Sullivan of the Maine Brewer’s Guild.

Maine added 16 craft breweries last year, bringing the total to 82. They produced nearly 300,000 barrels of beer and employed more than 1,600 people in every county but one, the report states.

For Maine brewers – especially in Cumberland County, which boasts 27 craft breweries, the most per county by a sizable margin – the numbers validate a widely held industry philosophy that local and artisanal focus “matters to its success.”

“It’s a community of people who are really helpful and cooperative rather than competitive,” said Craig Dilger, who co-founded South Portland’s first brewpub, Foulmouthed Brewing, last summer.

Not that this is news to fans of craft beer, either.

Craft beer tourism – dedicated to artisanal integrity and accelerated by the rapid proliferation of brewery tasting rooms – is driving the industry’s success and popularity, brewers said.

“I think the viability of a straight production model without the tasting room as evidenced in the report is a lot more difficult to maintain,” Dilger said.

Or, in Sullivan’s words, “People are willing to pay for the experience.”

Serving experience

While an interest in craft beer is picking up nationally, Maine brewers said they noticed the local industry bloom after 2011, when a change in the law allowed brewery tasting rooms to charge for beer.

“If the laws hadn’t changed to allow breweries to charge for samples, we wouldn’t see breweries opening up (at this rate) in the last two to four years,” Dilger said.

Prior to 2011, the Maine breweries were prohibited from selling their product for on-site or off-site consumption, Sullivan said, and were limited to giving away free samples in conjunction with a tour.

The law prevented breweries from increasing their sources of revenue, and Sullivan added that many such breweries were small and couldn’t afford to give away their product.

With the change in the law, locals and tourists flocked to tasting rooms as they would bars, a trend that turned breweries into tourist destinations as well as production facilities.

By the numbers, 66 of the state’s 82 breweries drew 41 percent of revenues from average tasting room sales, which includes beer sold for consumption on and off premises, and merchandise, according to the report.

The report categorizes those 66 breweries as “small breweries” – which brew fewer than 50,000 gallons of beer annually – indicating that a massive portion of Maine’s breweries are buoyed by visits from local consumers and tourists.

Over time, tasting rooms compounded their own success by providing venues for social and cultural engagement.

When Peter and Noah Bissell started Portland’s Bissell Brothers brewery in 2013, Peter said he had no idea their beer – their flagship Substance India pale ale – would take off so quickly.

“Really, the only thing that we had a plan for was to cater to the local community first. With so many breweries popping up, we feel that it needs to start there,” he said.

But the popularity of the Substance and the counter-cultural vibe of their tasting room on the outskirts of Portland quickly drew long lines for beer releases.

“It became this thing where certain days were just mayhem,” Bissell recalled.

While he expected that kind of popularity, he attributed some of the brewery’s success to the pair’s branded tasting room experience.

“We had a strong sense of hospitality and cultivating this environment as an experience for the guest,” he said, explaining that he and Noah were interested in “creating an environment that reflected our personalities.”

That idea – that the breweries could be a kind of venue, as well as a production – inspired Nate Wildes, co-founder of Brunswick’s newest brewery, Flight Deck Brewing.

Wildes and brewer Jared Entwistle quietly launched Flight Deck last month, but their “soft opening” drew so many people they nearly ran out of beer before their official launch March 16.

“Greater Brunswick is still missing a critical mass of casual, social opportunities,” Wildes said in an interview last month, explaining how he hoped Flight Deck would cultivate a local social scene as much as a market for beer.

“In Portland, nobody thinks twice about going out to a brewery by themselves,” he continued, arguing that tasting rooms court a diverse range of social experiences by “lowering the barrier for interaction” among diverse groups of people.

At Fight Deck’s release party, Wildes’ theory played itself out, according to Sullivan.

“You look at the mix of people that were there,” he said, recalling old Navy veterans, beer geeks, friends and family. “And you get the sense that this isn’t for a single demographic.”

Jeff Pillett-Shore, marketing director at Portland’s Allagash, agreed, even likened tasting rooms to the “third spaces” – a term coined by Starbucks executives after they successfully branded their coffee shops not just as fuel stations, but destinations.

‘People need to eat, too’

And all those people having a drink?

“Those people need to eat, too,” Sullivan said, noting that craft beer “fits really cleanly” into Maine’s existing tourist economy.

To his point, the report also tallies the economic impact of the craft beer’s industry when taking into account the multiplier effect – in other words, when its direct impact is coupled with the amount to which breweries have boosted the economic growth of related industries – to reach over $225 million.

Emily Wallace, Allagash’s assistant tasting room manager, said when she checks visitor IDs, she sees a wide array of different states; when she serves them a tasting flight, she isn’t just asked about the beer, but also, “I have two days here: what lighthouse do I go see?”

The appeal extends further than beer, Sullivan pointed out: visitors to Maine want to experience culture that feels local, and craft beer epitomizes the idea.

“Local this, local that,” Bissell joked. “It’s has become almost a sound bite, a marketing tactic.”

But the commitment to staying local is a defining feature of the industry.

Bissell said his brewery intentionally schedules releases of rare cans on Wednesdays – as well as Saturdays, when tourists visit – in the effort to keep a portion of beer available to locals.

Foulmouthed, which serves 95 percent of its beer on site, is intentionally designed to excite and attract the local community with a constantly rotating tap list, Dilger said.

He and his wife wanted Foulmouthed to be a brewpub, not a production brewery, specifically to allow Dilger the creative freedom to continually experiment with recipes.

“If we were trying to create a brewery with the same three beers all at the same time, people would get bored of it,” he said, noting those customers are also the ones who frequent his Knightville location.

Craft beer bubble?

Local concentration might be what guides the growth of the industry going forward, even as it grows – which the report indicates will be 39 percent by 2018.

The industry’s apparent growth begs the question Sullivan is asked frequently: will there be a craft beer bubble?

“It’s easy to look for things per capita and get scared,” Sullivan said.

“Until craft beer is 45 percent of the (total beer) market or more, I think that’s room to grow.”

Especially, brewers said, when the scale is concentrated on satisfying hyper-local markets and measured by the creative ambitions of the brewers themselves.

For example, Mast Landing’s Ian Dorsey, who co-founded Westbrook’s first production brewery with two college friends in 2015, said community support has already allowed the brewery to expand.

“The expansion will allow us to produce up to 3,000 barrels of beer this year, which is up from the 250 barrels we produced in 2016,” he wrote in an email last week.

That said, some will likely need to adapt to a tighter market, and the best example might be the state’s oldest craft brewery, D.L. Geary Brewing Co.

Founded in 1983, Geary’s flagship English-style pale ale is a mainstay of New England tap houses, but sales have declined in recent years as the brand has failed to appeal to a hipper scene with a preference for hoppier brews.

Last month, Freeport businessman Alan Lapoint announced he bought Geary’s with the hope of reviving the “iconic” brand, with plans to roll-out American-style IPAs and lager in the next six months.

“It’s a competitive market, but it’s great to have competition because it forces people to be excellent at what they do,” he said Tuesday.

“What we need to do is preserve the core of what we do,” he explained, but “stimulate progress” with new styles and new packaging (as a nod toward an industry can, Geary’s new offerings will appear in cans beginning next year).

In that sense, Lapoint is in agreement with Bissell, who indicated that specializing on perfecting a style might be the key to surviving in a market that is growing increasingly saturated, and where simply being “craft” is no longer a novelty.

Even as the brewery heads into its fourth year – in a new, larger location at Thompson’s Point, where it relocated last July – Bissell noted the brothers have a relatively small portfolio of beers, at 12.

But to his point, their quality has spurred the pair to open a second brewery in their hometown of Milo, in what will be Piscataquis County’s first brewery.

“Just imagine the number of people they will attract to visit Milo, Maine,” Sullivan exclaimed over the phone, drawing an emphasis on the small rural town.

“That’s how this economic development is being created,” he said – simultaneously, through the expansion of breweries, and through the widening of their definitions.

“As we see the growth of this industry, there are going be a lot of questions about … the role of the brewery,” Sullivan said. “I just hope we don’t use old models to define what this new model will be.”

Callie Ferguson can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100, or cferguson@theforecaster.net. Follow Callie on Twitter: @calliecferguson.

Edited 3/28 to clarify gallons of beer brewed by “small” breweries.

Allagash’s Andrew Coronado pours a tasting flight at the brewery on Industrial Way in Portland.

Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, raises a glass at Flight Deck Brewing’s March 16 launch party. The brewery, located on Brunswick Landing, is the town’s first production brewery.

Westbrook’s first brewery, Mast Landing, has already undergone an expansion to increase its beer output based on a welcoming reception from the community.

Freeport businessman Alan Lapoint purchased D.L. Geary Brewing Co. this winter with hopes of reviving the Portland brand to appeal to today’s newer craft beer audience.

Owners Julia and Craig Dilger in front of Foulmouthed Brewing at 15 Ocean St. in the Knightville neighborhood of South Portland.

1
Reporting on municipal, school, and community news in Brunswick and Harpswell. Bowdoin graduate, Wild Oats sandwich-eater. Callie can be reached at 207-781-3661 ext. 100, or cferguson@theforecaster.net.