Welcome to Maine beer
A version of this article was originally published on The Duckpin in July 2020.
You may not be aware of it if you’ve never visited, but the state of Maine - best known for its lobster (get a real whole one, not a roll, at least once for the experience), LL Bean (they make way more than boots), and its beautiful rugged coast that is notably absent of large stretches of sand - is also famous worldwide for its craft beer scene. Maine has the second-most breweries per capita in the country after Vermont, and it has some of the nation’s best-known and longest-running small craft brewers. If you’re a casual craft beer aficionado, you’re probably familiar with a few of our largest and oldest breweries, like Shipyard Brewing in Portland, which is distributed up and down the East Coast as well as nationally. You may have also heard of Geary’s and Gritty McDuff’s. They all fit neatly into the ‘brewpub’ category, which means they offer full menus at their different locations, and the beer may not necessarily be brewed onsite. It’s also very easy to find their beers all over the state bottled and canned in grocery stores and convenience stores, so they’re a convenient option if you’re headed up to camp or to your AirBNB and you want a better, more local option than, say, Sam Adams or Magic Hat.
Side by Each Brewing, Auburn, ME
A different kind of brewpub brewery is like those mentioned above in that it’s based around a full restaurant, but only has one or two locations, rather than being a true chain. There are plenty more of these dotted around the landscape, like Geaghan Brothers in Bangor, the Liberal Cup in Hallowell, Liquid Riot Bottling and Distilling in Portland, and Nonesuch River Brewing Company in Scarborough. We’ll call these micro-brewpubs for our purposes, but if you’re not a craft beer fan you might just call them restaurants that serve their own beer. Some of them started purely as restaurants; others sprang to life fully as a combination brewery-restaurant from the get-go. Often, these kind of operations tend to have one big financial backer behind them, since it’s not cheap to start either a full restaurant or a brewery, much less a combination of the two. Sometimes, with these brewpubs, the food is superb and the beer is less than stellar; other times it’s the exact opposite. Sometimes the service is lacking; sometimes the biggest highlight is the location; other times there’s just one or two beers or one or two dishes that make it worth the visit.
Then there’s just the pure brewery: they brew onsite, and they just serve beer there. If they ever have food, it’s just in the form of food trucks, a few snacks at the counter, or if they’re really lucky a neighboring eatery of some sort. These places make up the vast bulk of Maine breweries, and that’s probably a function of cost: although starting a brewery is hardly cheap, it’s still less expensive than also starting a restaurant at the same time. Not surprisingly, pure breweries can vary widely on the spectrum in all sorts of ways, from scale of operation, to number of locations, to quality. Some of these places distribute out-of-state and nationally; others only sell on site. These days, a lot of them - even the smallest ones - are canning, as Maine breweries, just like the rest of the industry nationally, has transitioned towards that form of to-go service. If you’re a true craft beer aficionado, you may have heard of a few of the more well-known ones, like Rising Tide Brewery in Portland, Allagash Brewing in Portland, and Oxbow Brewing in Newcastle (they have two other locations, but that’s my favorite).
Pure breweries can be broken down into other categories, of course, and they can change along the way. Bissell Brothers, for instance, is no longer a pure brewery, since they now operate a full-time kitchen that they manage directly. Since they don’t have wait staff, it will never be mistaken for a restaurant, however, even though the food is excellent. This model has begun to take off as of late: Mast Landing’s new location in Freeport has an attached kitchen, but no wait staff, as well, and other breweries are either taking that approach or having one food truck that’s more or less always there. That’s likely a simple facet of the times in which we live, given the staffing shortage that is prevalent all over the country but especially acute in Maine.
Maine beer isn’t just good to drink, it’s an economic powerhouse for the state. According to one study, the industry generated over $260 million for the state’s economy in 2017. That’s a lot of money, especially in a small, rural state like Maine. It also contributed to the state’s tourism profile, as visitors are increasingly finding craft beer a reason to visit Maine, never mind its rocky beaches or lobster. As I discover new and old breweries in my travels across Maine, I’ll highlight breweries that I particularly enjoy all over the state. I won’t quite call them reviews for a couple of reasons: For one, I’m not a trained reviewer, just a writer who happens to live in a great beer state. Also, because I’m not a trained reviewer by any stretch of the imagination, if I really don’t like a brewery I’m not going to write about it - especially these days. Life in the service industry is tough enough, and I don’t need to be giving you reasons not to go out. So I’ll only write up places that I like and think you should visit, if you ever happen to make it to Vacationland.
Grateful Grain Brewing Co, Monmouth, ME