Inaugural Portland Brew Festival on tap this weekend

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PORTLAND — For most people, Labor Day is the unofficial end to the summer. A time when kids go back to school and parents swap their shorts and T-shirts for pants and sweaters.

But for beer lovers, Labor Day marks the beginning of fall beer season. A time when citrus-infused microbrews give way to darker concoctions – nutty brown ales, smoky porters and smooth stouts.

For the last 18 years, beer drinkers have had to wait until November to sample what Maine breweries have to offer in one place. But this year, beer lovers will be able placate their pallets not at one, but two, local beer festivals.

The Portland Brew Festival, a two-day event that organizers hope will become an annual Labor Day tradition in the Old Port, makes its debut this weekend at the Portland Co., 58 Fore St. There will be two sessions on Saturday, from noon to 3:30 p.m. and 5-8:30 p.m., and a Sunday session from noon to 3:30 p.m.

Mak Sprague, whose parents own the Portland Co., said he has helped organize flower and boat shows in the 25,000-square-foot, waterfront facility.

“These buildings are empty in the summer, because all the boats are moved out,” Sprague said. “So, we’re going to move in a beer festival in the summer.”

Sprague said there will be around two dozen breweries and more than 75 beers to sample.

The Portland Brew Festival will come two months before the Maine Brewers Festival, which has been held for the last 18 years at The Portland Expo.

Jay Riley, who owns Brewfest LLC, which has organized the event for the last three years, said he is glad that breweries have another opportunity to showcase their skills.

Riley said he does not think the new event will reduce attendance at his festival, which is scheduled for Nov. 4-5.

“I don’t look at this community and think it has been saturated with too many events that help expose the beauties and wonders of craft beers,” he said. “I don’t think it’s competition that is going to hurt us.”

Both organizers noted differences that will distinguish the events.

At Riley’s event, tickets cost $32, which includes 12 tickets for four-ounce samples.

Ticket’s for Sprague’s event cost $30 (though coupons can be found in the Old Port, online and in print), but attendees get 24 tickets for two-ounce samples.

Sprague said he is offering a greater number of smaller samples because the event will be more diverse than a typical brew festival. 

While Riley’s event focuses solely on Maine brewers, Sprague’s event will include regional breweries. And rather than only featuring beers, Sprague said beer will only account for half of the liquid libations – the rest will be ciders and meads.

“Hopefully, folks will be a little more adventurous and try out some of the brands and brews they haven’t tried before,” he said.

But the biggest difference between the two events, Sprague said, will be the live brewing demonstrations.

“I’m into festivals up and down the east coast, but I’ve never been to a beer festival before where they’re actually brewing beer live at the event,” he said.

Maine Brewing Supply will be brewing beer using electricity inside the event, and if weather permits on Saturday, a group called Portland Mash Maniacs will demonstrate propane-brewing technique outdoors, he said.

Also, Sprague said his sister is planning on demonstrating a tractor-powered cider press that he built with his father, Phin Sprague.

“This thing is pretty ridiculous looking,” he said. “And it goes through apples faster than you can shake them out of a tree.”

While the Maine Brewers Festival in November features live music from local and national acts, Sprague said his festival will have WBLM radio broadcasting live. The lower volume should allow more interaction and discussion with brewers, he said.

Sprague said he is starting small this year, but has plenty of room to expand. Upwards of 150 booths can be accommodated in five available buildings, he said.

“I’ve been brewing beer and cider now for a while,” Sprague said. “So I really wanted this to be about all the amateurs like me, who like doing this stuff in the kitchen.”

Randy Billinsg can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or Follow him on Twitter: @randybillings