8 Maine Breweries Changing the Game
Beer. Everyone’s talking about it.
If you’re a beer drinker in our fair state, chances are you have a local favorite (or two). With 86 licensed Maine breweries and counting, there’s a lot of choice. From traditional styles to wild sours to beer brewed with oysters, there’s probably one being brewed right in your hometown (or near it).
But it’s only part of the story of a larger national trend. It’s The Golden Age of Beer, and Maine’s not only feeding it, it’s becoming a bona fide beer nexus. (Travelocity recently featured both Portland/Biddeford and Bangor in its “Top American Beer Destinations” index.)
According to Sean Sullivan, Executive Director of the Maine Brewers’ Guild, 2016 has been the busiest in Maine’s history—as of this writing, a dozen breweries have been licensed this year. The reason might have something to do with our rep.
“Maine’s brand is built on quality products built by real people,” said Sullivan, “and our craft beer industry really leverages that in an authentic way.”
Ultimately, said Sullivan, beer drinkers are looking for a connection built on that authenticity.
“A lot of new people are getting exposed to craft beer,” he said. “They may have seen it as something that was ‘male dominated’ or focused on younger people, and now they’re realizing there’s a place in the craft beer community for them. People who’ve never thought about drinking craft beer are seeing their neighbors opening breweries in remote areas of the state—so they stop, check it out, and make a connection with the product.”
Can this boom last forever? The future, said Sullivan, is at the local level. As more breweries dominate the landscape, they become local partners, resources, and gathering places. “The way to succeed,” he said, “is to maintain quality and consistency, and establish a strong relationship with your community.”
We talked to a group of Maine craft beer bar owners and experts to get their thoughts on the breweries shaping Maine’s present and future. With 86 breweries in Maine, it would be impossible to highlight them all. It’s possible we missed your favorite—feel free to email us and tell us about it.
Here, then, are eight Maine breweries changing the game.
Orono Brewing Company | Founded 2014 | Orono
For Abe Furth, OBC’s co-owner, the secret to great beer is no secret: “It’s all about the talent.”
The “talent” he refers to is Asa Marsh-Sachs, a brewmaster Furth speaks of in reverent terms. In Furth’s eyes, without Marsh-Sachs, there’d be no OBC.
“We always had the idea for [a business like OBC],” said Furth, who also co-owns Verve Burritos and Woodman’s Bar and Grill with his wife, Heather, and partner Mark Horton. “When we met Asa, we knew his product was incredible. After talking, we realized our goals were aligned.”
Marsh-Sachs displays an almost obsessive attention to quality and science. He meticulously tracks each detail to the letter because, as he explained, “We don’t do pilot batches, just big batches—I want to deliver the same product every time.”
OBC features two tasting rooms (in Orono and Bangor), each with regularly rotating taps. While favorites remain in mostly regular rotation (e.g. Ozone and Chlorophyll), more experimental brews like Mexican Blackbird Stout, featuring vanilla beans, coffee and an habanero pepper finish, are given fair space.
“Either a brewery does stuff, or it doesn’t,” said Marsh-Sachs. Added Furth: “We have a lot of fun, but we put a lot of pressure on ourselves—this is our lives.”
Where to get it: Tasting rooms in Orono and Bangor; in cans at Bier Cellar in Portland; on select taps around New England.
Signature: Ozone IPA (ABV: 6.3% IBUs: 79), an American IPA with a citrusy flavor and aroma and a dry finish. Winner of Best Brew Award at the 2015 Bangor Bangor Festival.
Geaghan Brothers Brewing | Founded 2011 | Bangor
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably seen Geaghan Bros. beers a lot more frequently of late. From your local convenience store to WalMart, Geaghan Bros. displays a distribution savvy that’s rare in a craft brewery from the region.
“We really started focusing on distribution in mid-2015,” said Andy Geaghan, Geaghan Bros.’ owner and head brewer (a title he shares with Ryan Powers). “We wanted to make our beer readily available to the area we love, and we wanted to do it at a great price point.”
Geaghan attributes the rapid proliferation to an appreciation of their market—long before the brewery existed, Geaghan’s grandfather opened the eponymously-named Pub in 1975, still a popular destination today.
“When we first opened the brewery, we wanted to serve beer that we knew our restaurant customers would love,” said Geaghan. “We try to honor our roots. The core of what we do is traditional, old-school American style ales—we’re like a ‘neo-traditionalist’ brewery.”
Still, Geaghan says, they’ve brewed over 67 varieties over the past five years, mostly small batch stuff for “beer explorers.”
“We definitely experiment,” he said, “but we have that solid, core lineup. We have a beer for every beer drinker—we stay current, we do what we do, and we do it well.”
Where to get it: At Geaghan’s Pub in Bangor, their tasting room in Brewer, on select taps and in retail locations statewide.
Signature: Smiling Irish Bastard (ABV: 6% IBUs: 45.6), an American-style pale ale featuring moderate maltiness and a grapefruit hop character that lingers on your palette.
Bissell Brothers | Founded 2013 | Portland
Peter Bissell, Bissell Brothers’ co-founder, chuckles a little when brewing vets suggest that people “might not get” his company’s logo.
“That’s fine,” he said. “People that need to know what it is, know what it is. We’re not worried.”
Since opening their original space on Industrial Way, Bissell and his co-founder brother, Noah, have been cultivating a dedicated community around their beer and its hip, modern brand.
“I want people to feel really good about drinking our beer,” said Bissell. “I want them to associate it with their own values, to be the dream brand for them. Part of that means not appealing to everyone—there’s a [defined] segment of the market, and we’re everything to them.”
Bissell Brothers focuses almost exclusively on hops-forward products featuring a distinct hazy appearance, which Bissell attributes to the specific type of yeast they use in the brewing process.
“I feel like we’re just touching the surface of the possibilities,” said Bissell. “For instance, today we canned our I-Lucky ginger IPA brewed with sorachi ace hops and lemon drop. It’s inspired by Japanese cuisine.”
Beer drinkers seem to be noticing. Demand for Bissell Brothers beer sometimes oustrips supply, and it’s not uncommon to find lines in their tasting room. Bissell says it’s not engineered scarcity.
“That would be bad business,” he said. “We make the beer because we want people to have it. It comes down to brewing capacity and hops availability. We’re never not making beer when we can. We’re always trying to make more.”
“We’re in a constant state of self-auditing,” he continued. “‘How can we do this better? How can we create a super-memorable experience?’”
Where to get it: Tasting room at Thompson’s Point in Portland; in cans at their tasting room and limited locations statewide; on select taps statewide.
Signature: The Substance Ale (ABV: 6.6% OG: 1.060), Bissell’s flagship brew, is an American IPA featuring an array of hops with hints of citrus and pine and a light malt backbone.
Allagash Brewing Company | Founded 1995 | Portland
It may seem strange to see Allagash in an article about game-changers—after all, they’ve been brewing in Maine since 1995. Better to call them “forefathers,” you might think, than “game-changers.”
You might be wrong. Since their modest beginnings two years ago, Allagash has continued to be an innovator. Founder Rob Tod started the brewery with one cloudy, spiced wheat beer (“At the time, very few people [around here] had tried something like it,” he said. “It was a struggle to explain it”). Now the company sports more than 30 unique Belgian-style brews.
“We foster a spirit of innovation here,” said Tod. “We have 115 employees, and every one of them works towards it.“
He means it literally. Allagash boasts an onsite lab available in part to Allagash employees: “If anyone in the company has an idea, they can work with the brewmaster and brew it on a ten-gallon system,” he said. “A lot of those beers have turned into full-scale production beers.”
Allagash’s innovative creations include the Coolship series, crafted using a traditional Belgian method utilizing a large shallow pan known as a “coolship.” A fermentation and aging period of one to three years follows in French oak wine barrels. Then there’s Farm to Face, brewed as a pale ale with “a whole lot” of peaches from Applecrest Farm in New Hampshire.
“We’ve never followed trends,” said Tod when asked about craft brewing’s hops-forward obsession. “If we did, we wouldn’t have started the brewery with a Belgian-style wheat beer. I just want to give people a unique experience with beer, and that’s what’s always driven us.”
Where to get it: A tasting room and retail sales at Allagash’s Portland headquarters; widely available at retailers and on taps statewide and beyond.
Signature: Allagash White (ABV: 5.1%), an interpretation of Belgian-style wheat beer, is spiced with a blend of coriander and Curaçao orange peel and brewed with unmalted raw wheat for a hazy “white” appearance.
Marshall Wharf Brewing Company | Founded 2007 | Belfast
Marshall Wharf has come a long way since their 2003 beginnings as a non-smoking martini bar. Since moving into their waterfront facility in 2007, they’ve made a name for themselves around bold, well-balanced beers.
“No matter which beer we’re talking about, it’s all about balance,” said David Carlson, owner of Marshall Wharf and Three Tides in Belfast. “We’re known for building bigger beers, stronger beers. If we create a big enough malt backbone, we can build around that. We can hit it with a pretty big load of hops, or maybe oysters or seaweed.
Oysters and seaweed—no discussion of Marshall Wharf would be complete without mentioning their well-documented excursions into experimental brews. Sea Belt, a collaboration with Maine Fresh Sea Farms and the Sea Grant Institute of Maine, is a scotch ale brewed with dried Maine sugar kelp. Pemaquid Oyster Stout features ten dozen live oysters involved in the brewing process. Others feature ingredients such as agave.
In any one year, Marshall Wharf brews over 40 different beers and cans 15 to 16 of them. The majority of them are showcased at Three Tides or the brewery store.
“In 2014 we stopped taking on new accounts,” said Carlson. “We had to realize we’re a seven-barrel brewhouse. The important thing for us is to grow smart, maintain inventory for our tasting room customers, and grow our brand.”
Where to get it: Tasting room and retail sales at the brewery; on taps statewide; cans at select retailers.
Signature: Cant Dog Imperial IPA (ABV: 10%), described as having a huge malt backbone matched with huge amounts of hops. “We can’t can enough of it,” said Carlson.
Banded Horn Brewing Company | Founded 2013 | Biddeford
Founder Ian McConnell’s a native of Etna, but he gained a heap of experience elsewhere: for five years, he was the brewer at Sixpoint Brewery in Brooklyn, New York.
Fortunately for Maine beer lovers, he came back.
“The main thing I noticed [when I moved back] was the lack of well-made lagers, in particular pilsner styles,” said McConnell. “I love all beers, but pilsners have a special place in my heart. I learned a lot about them traveling around Germany a couple times. I felt like Maine’s lager game needed some improvement—it was something I could achieve.”
McConnell set out to combine the presence of spicy, earthy German hops with a beer that was eminently crisp and drinkable—one that went down really well, but still had a ton of flavor.
“I think [we’re] basically the perfect beer for any occasion,” said McConnell. “It goes with any food, it’s easy to drink, [it hovers around] 4-6% abv.”
Banded Horn doesn’t necessarily focus on one type of beer, however. “We try to experiment a lot. We do a spruce ale in the spring. We’re experimenting with sour ales and barrel aging. There are endless flavors and combinations you can seek out. We do a lot of different styles really well.”
Where to get it: In their tasting room; on select taps and at select retailers statewide.
Signature: Pepperell Pilsener (abv: 4.6%), an unfiltered German pilsener or keller pils. Dry, crisp and hoppy; malt is fresh and bready, and hops are sharp, noble and spicy, with a deep herbal touch.
Oxbow Brewing Company | Founded 2011 | Newcastle
In the past five years, Oxbow has demonstrated a unique approach to Belgian-inspired farmhouse beers.
“When we started, we wanted to make our own types of beer, to do things a little differently,” said Tim Adams, Oxbow’s co-owner and head brewer. “There really wasn’t anyone in Maine taking a farmhouse brewery approach.”
Prior to founding Oxbow, Adams was a beer sales rep in Wash., D.C., where he was able to draw inspiration from many different sources. As a homebrewer, his specialty was hoppy Belgian-style beers with forays into sours. These influences are evident in Oxbow’s Belgian-inspired ales.
“We’re not beholden to one rigid set of traditions,” said Adams. Indeed, Oxbow draws inspiration from a myriad of sources to inform its recipes and philosophies while staying predominantly in the farmhouse format. For instance, one beer in production features spontaneous fermentation using an outdoor coolship completely exposed to elements, inoculated with wild yeast from around the brewery and the surrounding fruit orchard. On the other end of the spectrum, “Luppolo” is a non-farmhouse style dry-hopped pilsner brewed in an Italian style.
“We make some pretty esoteric beer styles, some boutique stuff,” said Adams. “We make unique beer with a unique focus.”
Where to get it: At their farmhouse brewery and tasting room in Newcastle; a tasting room at Portland Blending & Bottling in Portland; on select taps and at select retailers around New England.
Signature: Farmhouse Pale Ale (abv: 6%), a fresh saison featuring European malts, saison yeast, and a twist—American hops.
Foundation Brewing Company | Founded 2014 | Portland
For the founders of Foundation Brewing Co., two heads are better than one. Partners Joel Mahaffey and John Bonney met via Bangor’s Central Street Farmhouse, an area provider of home brewing supplies. Over dinner in Orono one night, they realized they were meant to brew together.
“For both of us, home brewing has been a longstanding hobby,” said Bonney. “It quickly became apparent that we have a similar philosophy and approach. When we’d see each other at [home brew gatherings], we’d always try each other’s stuff. Eventually, we started brewing specifically for each other’s feedback.”
For Bonney, drinkability is king: “We’re very much beer drinkers,” he said. “We want something that’s tasty and refreshing. Something that’s effortless, that when you look down at the glass you think, ‘Wow, it’s gone!’”
Foundation trades in a wide range of beer. While some breweries prefer to stick to one or two comfortable styles, Foundation creates a range of flavors. They opened with saisons, expanded into traditional American styles, and are looking at releasing brews from their barrel program soon. Two of their most prominent beers are a DIPA and an English ale. For Bonney, though, what’s most important is delivering a Foundation experience.
“I hear it over and over again: ‘It tastes like a Foundation beer,” he said. “I think what that means is that you can really tell what the beer’s intention is. They tend to be drier, not too heavy. The commonality is in their drinkability, how the flavors are clean and bright and right where they should be.”
Where to get it: In their tasting room; on select taps and at select retailers statewide.
Signature: The Epiphany DIPA (ABV: 8% IBUs: 85) features warm, bright aromas of fruit and pine; well-balanced and smooth despite the large amount of hops it displays.