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Driving us to drink: Local beers power the Maine Brew Bus

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Driving us to drink: Local beers power the Maine Brew Bus

PORTLAND — From beneath the bill of his hat, Don Littlefield eyed his students in the large rear-view mirror of the bright green bus he was driving last week. They're mostly quiet; maybe a little unsure.

"Welcome class," he said, introducing himself through an intercom system, mimicking the distinctive mechanical voice of an air airline pilot. "I'm your tour guide and guidance counselor today. And this is Lenny."

Lenny is the Maine Brew Bus. Reinstated after a decade in the Kennebunk schools, Lenny is "now on to more noble adventures," Littlefield said, given new life as a tour bus for Maine's rapidly growing craft brewery scene.

After gently nudging a telephone pole while maneuvering out of a parking spot outside the back entrance to the Thirsty Pig on Market Street, the bus was off on the Dirigo Trail Tour. Littlefield steered the bus down Franklin Street and over to Forest Avenue.

The tour visits three of Maine's leading breweries: Allagash Brewing Co. off Riverside Street, where the visit begins with a tour and ends with a tasting; then to Maine Beer Co. in Freeport for a beer sampler and snack, and finally to Rising Tide Brewing Co. in East Bayside, for a final tasting.

Littlefield, who also works an overnight supervisor shift at UPS, starts the trip with an icebreaker.

He asks everyone, starting with the back of the bus and moving forward, to share their name, what they do and their favorite beer style. Accuracy on the first two questions is not required.

On this trip, their names ranged from Taco and Adam to Valerie and Carmanjello. It was also a diverse group that included a New York City chef, a fantasy football commissioner, a veterinarian and a "professional couch surfer."

Most were Mainers, including a small group from the Saco area and a couple from Hallowell. Another couple was from New Jersey. All appeared to be in their mid 20s to late 30s.

And while Littlefield led the tour alone, he is usually joined by the founder of the Brew Bus, Zach Poole, a 32-year-old, part-time physical education teacher in the Saco School Department.

Poole started the company – which celebrated its first anniversary Labor Day weekend and hosts five different Maine beer tours in Cumberland and York counties on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays – after taking notice of the "craft beer boom," not only in Maine, but across the country.

"There's all these breweries popping up and I wanted to show people to them, teach them about the beer and learn myself," Poole said.

Maine has about 40 breweries, with another 18 planned in the next year and half, he said.

That explosion is driving people's interest in craft beer and "beer tourism." Another beer tour bus called Maine Beer Tours also opened in 2012 and offers tours on Friday and Saturday.

In addition to the the scheduled tours, the Brew Bus also hosts private tours, and when cruise ships are in town, it meets passengers as they step off the ships. Prices for the tours range from about $40 to $75.

And while there is drinking involved in the tour, Poole said it's not about getting drunk.

"I'm very happy with the little amount of intoxication we've had. I'm proud of it," he said. "This is not a party bus, it's educational. And while I want people to have a good time, I also want to feel good about where I'm dropping them off."

Into the Allagash

At the first stop,  Mike Guarracino of Allagash leads a tour of the brewery, which expanded this year. He takes the crowd through the brewery and out back to an adjacent building that hosts the barrel room, where the brewers age dozens of experimental beers.

The tour ended in a sampling of four of the Belgian-style brewery's beer.

Afterward, the group piled back into the bus and headed north on Interstate 295 to Freeport and Maine Beer Co.

On the way, Littlefield spit out nuggets of brewing history and statistics, including that Maine breweries have increased production 90 percent since 2009, ballooning from 4.1 million barrels to 7.9 million.

He then launches into a trivia game that tests the student's knowledge of beer.

The bus is split into two teams, left side versus right side. A score is kept, although at the end of the tour it's not entirely clear who wins. Probably the right side.

Trivia draws from five subjects: science, math, history, geography and art, Littlefield said, and includes questions like, "What is the science of brewing called?" (zymurgy) and "What is an alabeorphilist?" (bottle collector). Later, he admitted, there are no art questions.

At Maine Beer's new brewery on U.S. Route 1 in Freeport, which opened earlier this year, the group tries four more five-ounce beers. They include three of the brewery's established beers and one pilot beer, an intensely hopped red India Pale Ale.

When the beer tasting was finished, Littlefield shepherded his students back on board the bus for the final stop: Rising Tide.

Heading south on I-295, Littlefield continued the trivia questions.

Testing their math skills, and possibly their soberness, he asked the group to calculate the beer score of a $6 pint of Allagash White, the brewery's 5 percent alcohol by volume flagship Belgian wheat beer.

The formula is beer size, multiplied by ABV, divided by price. Littlefield's question was followed by a long silence, as the students pulled out the calculators on their smart phones.

Finally, a woman in the back called out, "13.33333 ... ." 

"Correct," Littlefield said.

Soon after, the bus exits the freeway.

Welcome to 'Yeast Bayside'

"Now, we descend into the depths of 'Yeast Bayside,'" Littlefield said, referring to the Portland neighborhood known for its concentration of fermented-beverage makers.

Rising Tide's tasting room Manager, Stasia Brewczynski, greeted the group and poured everyone four more beers, including the newly released Calcutta Cutter, a double IPA.

Poole, who met the bus at Rising Tide after a day of teaching, said working with slightly intoxicated people is not unlike working with kids.

"Kindergartners and drunk people are kind of the same, but that's says more about drunk people than kindergartners," he said. "I have a good balance working with kids and people who are drinking. It's a good mix."

After everyone finished off their 60th ounce of beer, they climbed back onto the bus.

Littlefield then drove his students back to the Thirsty Pig and left them with a few parting words.

"It's been my pleasure to drive you to drink local," he said.

Will Graff can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or wgraff@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @W_C_Graff.

Photo: Will Graff / The Forecaster

David Geary, founder of D.L. Geary Brewing Co., on Monday, at his office off Riverside Street in Portland.

It's all about the bottles for David Geary, the father of New England craft beer

PORTLAND — The craft-brewing scene in Maine has grown rapidly in recent years, with more than 40 breweries  and another 20 planned in the next year and half.

It's all exciting, unless you're David Geary, the father of New England craft beer.

Tucked away in a nondescript industrial park warehouse office off Riverside Street, the owner of D.L. Geary Brewing Co. on Monday said he is not encouraged by the explosion of craft beer. 

"Beer is a zero-sum game," he said. "There's only a finite number of taps and shelf-space capacity."

According to the Brewer's Association, the United States is home to about 2,500 breweries, a dramatic increase since the 1980s, when there were only about 90.

Today, there is the equivalent of one brewery opening every day.

Geary, who lives in Cape Elizabeth, said the brewing scene has changed dramatically in the years since he began building his brewery in 1984.

"There we no real road maps, how-to guides," he said. "All of our equipment is custom made. These days you can buy it off the shelf, turn-key operation, if you've got enough money.

"Everything we did, we did by the seat of our pants and it was sometimes very difficult."

When Geary tried to buy 300 empty kegs – an extremely small order for the time – suppliers laughed at him, he said.

Geary trained in the 1980s at a Scottish brewery housed in a Traquair House, which is the oldest inhabited house in Scotland. The 350-year-old brewery had all wooden vessels and cobblestone floors, he said.

With no home-brewing experience or any particular long-time interest in beer, Geary set out to build New England's first independent brewery.

"It just seemed like a crazy, exciting, wonderful thing to do," he said, adding that looking back, it has actually turned out to be "crazy and exciting."

He sold his first beer in December 1986.

Since then, Geary has expanded the brewery six times, and has helped start two other large breweries in Maine: Shipyard Brewing Co. and Portland's first brewpub, Gritty McDuff's.

Then, in 1995, another brewery arrived: Allagash Brewing Co.

Allagash founder Rob Todd came to Geary to tell him he was opening a brewery just down the street.

"He came over and said, 'Hey man,' with his ponytail, peace sign bumper sticker, driving a Volvo, forest green, with Vermont plates," he said.

Imitating Todd's voice, Geary continued, "'I'm gonna open up a brewery and I thought I'd check out your operation.' I said, 'excuse me, but what?"

"We still laugh about that," he said.

And now, even more brewers have moved into his neighborhood, including three planning to open at what has become the incubator for Portland breweries.

In the shadow of Allagash, the 1 Industrial Way building has been home to Rising Tide, Maine Beer Co. and the now-defunct Bull Jagger Brewing Co.

"The business is nowhere near what it was four or five years ago," Geary said. "Everybody's a brewer now."

And while the market may be somewhat saturated, Geary said his brewery has survived because most of the new brewery sales are at the tap, not in retail stores, where he sells most of his beer in bottles.

Still, he doesn't like sharing any words of wisdom.

"Why would I give them advice?" Geary said.

Will Graff