The New England Craft Brew Summit positions local brewers as leaders of the pack.
By 1998, the first wave of craft breweries (defined by the Brewers Association as an independently owned operation producing less than six million barrels annually) in the city had grown to include two of Maine’s best- known beer brands: Shipyard and Allagash. Maine Beer Company, which opened in 2009 on Industrial Way and has since moved to Freeport, was on the leading edge of a new wave of breweries that continues to roll into Portland. Today, the city proper is home to 15 craft beer producers, with at least two more on the horizon for 2017, a growth rate that has earned Portland the distinction of having the most breweries per capita of all cities in the country. Statewide, the numbers are just as impressive. In early 2013, Maine had 35 breweries; there are 97 today, according to the Maine Brewers’ Guild.
“Growth” was the theme of the second-annual New England Craft Brew Summit, held at the University of Southern Maine on March 31, 2017. Conceived by Broadreach Public Relations, who brought the idea to the Maine Brewers’ Guild, the industry conference and trade show was created as a way for brewers to connect outside of open-to-the-public beer festivals, and to learn from each other and from supporting industries. “We had an accounting firm, a law firm, an IT company, and others, who all wanted to break into or do more work in the craft brew segment, but the beer festivals that existed weren’t really an appropriate place to put our clients in front of the brewers,” says Broadreach owner Linda Varrell. The title of the conference was chosen so that “Maine brewers could put their stake in the ground” as leaders in the industry, she says. “There was a level of validation that this isn’t just a hobby. Folks in professional services and banking could see that we need to pay attention to this sector and to help it thrive.”
While the conference provides a means for professional service providers and other vendors to connect with brewers, its focus is less marketing than education, Varrell explains. One of this year’s panels, led by Matthew Pore from the Portland accounting firm Baker Newman Noyes, addressed research and development tax credits, available to breweries that are trying to increase efficiency or improve quality. “If a brewery employee is working on one of those two areas, labor is a significant component of the credit,” says Pore, who represents four Portland breweries, including Allagash. “The beer industry is collaborative, and whether or not someone wants to use Baker Newman Noyes for services, they should have the information.”
“Our brewery continues to grow at a breakneck pace, which along with everything else requires careful attention,” says Joel Mahaffey, a partner in Portland’s Foundation Brewing Company, which opened in 2013. Last year, when the conference theme was “quality,” Mahaffey participated on a panel that focused on yeast management. “We ended up talking about all different aspects of fermentation—it was a really organic conversation,” he says. “As we grow and are producing more beer we need to make sure that we’re growing our quality program at the same rate that we grow our production.”
“Growth” means different things to different breweries, says Sean Sullivan, executive director of the Maine Brewers’ Guild, which has 65 member breweries. “For some, growing means straight scale: making more beer, selling more beer, expanding your reach. For others, growth is about staying small and more deeply engaging with local communities—whether it’s hosting a yoga class, offering an open mic night, or opening up their space for nonprofits to meet.”
Sullivan gets animated talking about the possibilities for beer as an economic driver in the state—engaging farmers to grow barley and hops, for example, and retraining Mainers whose manufacturing jobs have disappeared to work in beer-related industries. For now, however, brewing’s biggest economic impact has been tourism. “I think beer is creating a new narrative for Maine to share with the Boston, New York, and Chicago audiences about why you should visit,” he says. This is especially true for Portland, where the breweries complement the celebrated food scene, even though most do not share the same neighborhoods. One that does is Shipyard, which opened in 1994 in an abandoned factory on Newbury Street, now a Portland icon with a popular tasting room. “That area was in rough shape, and the city worked with us to revitalize it,” says Shipyard co-founder and president Fred Forsley. “It’s been an economic engine and expanded the Old Port.” Founded in 1992 at Federal Jack’s Brewpub in Kennebunk, Shipyard now brews just over 100,000 barrels of beer annually, more than 200 times what Forsley and brewmaster Alan Pugsley produced that first year. As the company nears its twenty-fifth anniversary in June, it is adapting some of its recipes to match changing consumer tastes, including its flagship, Shipyard Export. “It’s a subtle change, but it’s a good one,” says Forsley.
Five miles from downtown in Portland’s Riverton neighborhood, Industrial Way has served as an “incubator” for several Portland breweries and now is a major destination for beer fans. “If you sat down with tourism people and said, ‘Let’s build a bunch of breweries and try to get tourists to drive miles out of town to go visit an industrial park,’ they would say, ‘OK, what other ideas do you have?’” says Sullivan. When Allagash Brewing Company opened on Industrial Way nearly 22 years ago, visitors were rare. “It used to be that one or two days a week the door would open and someone would walk in,” says Jason Perkins, Allagash’s brewmaster for 18 years. Now the brewery’s tasting room, which offers free sample pours of four beers, is one of the industrial park’s biggest draws. “Even in those years when nobody was coming, tours were a big focus for us,” says Perkins. “The public just wasn’t used to our Belgian-style beer; it required face-to-face education.”
Visitors to Portland breweries today are much more knowledgeable, especially when it comes to the super popular, hop-forward styles of beer, says Will Fisher, who owns Austin Street Brewery on Industrial Way with Jake Austin. The “wild beers” Austin Street brews with different strains of yeast often require an introduction, but “people still buy them because I believe they trust us,” he says. Using their own savings, Fisher and Austin opened their brewery in 2014, brewing one barrel at a time by themselves. In 2016, they financed new equipment, increased production to 10 barrels batches, and hired two full-time and two part-time employees. Being across the street from Allagash has given him valuable opportunities to connect with Perkins and owner Rob Tod, says Fisher. “They are always willing to share anything they know.”
In addition to establishing Industrial Way as a beer destination, breweries have helped raise the status of once-blighted East Bayside, a development Sullivan compares to the organic growth around urban artist communities. Rising Tide and Bunker (which recently moved to Libbytown) were the first to convert the neighborhood’s grungy warehouses into hip breweries. Now jokingly called Y’East Bayside, the area is also home to Lone Pine and One Eye Open breweries, Urban Farm Fermentory, makers of cider, kombucha, and an ancient style of beer called gruit, coffee roasters, maker spaces, and other creative industries. “A brewery opens up, then people realize, ‘Well geez, I could open a coffee shop
there because my whole market is walking by,’ or ‘Saturdays and Sundays there’s 100 people standing out front—they don’t have anything to eat, so I’ll bring my food truck over there,’” Sullivan says.
The summit introduced and reinforced ways for brewers and other businesses to collaborate. “A lot of us are the same age and are growing at the same rate,” says Fisher. “I want everyone to grow, because if all of us in Maine are making great beer, we’re all going to be better off.”