Country Brewing: Craft beer industry expands into rural Maine

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MONMOUTH — Grateful Grain Brewing Co. sits on a street corner in the Kennebec County town of Monmouth.

There is not much to it. A blinking yellow caution light is draped over Route 126 out front and there is a four-pump gas station across the street.

“We are in the middle of nowhere,” Grateful Grain co-founder Tom Langlois said.

But out in the middle of nowhere is where the growth is happening in Maine’s beer industry.

The natural progression of the market has led it far from the cobblestone streets of the Old Port in Portland, where competition has started to affect some venerated veterans as the total number of Maine breweries tops 110.

According to state data, more than 20 new brewhouses came on line in 2017 as breweries opened in places like Fort Kent, Bridgton and Ellsworth. The new breweries are unlikely to challenge Allagash and Shipyard – the largest breweries in the state – anytime soon. But the microbrewing trend is the hottest niche in Maine’s beer world.

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At Grateful Grain, the four co-owners all have day jobs. Trevor Knell was brewing a batch of their popular The Experience, an IPA, on a recent Saturday afternoon. He stood next to his 31-gallon brew kettle with a garden hose. He was ready to knock down the boil if the liquid threatened to go over the top and spill onto the floor.

It’s a humble way to make beer at a brewery with modest goals. The brewery opened in late 2017 with a 31-gallon brewhouse and three 31-gallon fermenters. They were a smash hit, by Monmouth standards.

“We were thinking we’d make a couple of barrels of beer a month, and the first weekend we sold all three barrels we made and we ordered three more fermenters. We were closed for a week,” Langlois said.

If things go well, Langlois and Knell hope one of the brewery’s four owners can work full time at the brewery. Maybe they’ll get a three-barrel brewhouse and larger fermenters.

“I’d like to just grow organically,” Knell said. “I hope we can stay relevant.”

EXPANDING GEOGRAPHY

Portland has been a craft beer leader since Geary’s brewing was founded in 1983. It was the first craft brewery in New England, a few months ahead of Sam Adams.

Eight of the state’s 10 largest breweries have roots in Portland. The city of about 70,000 people has 17 breweries and brewpubs, putting it among the highest per capita in the country.

Tobias Parkhurst, one of four founders of Augusta’s Cushnoc Brewing, cites Maine Beer Co. and Bissell Brothers when he talks about brewers that got him into craft beer. Since opening in downtown Augusta last year, Parkhurst says, Cushnoc is focused on doing its own thing. And it’s paying off.

“Let’s just say I’m seeing less of my friends having to drive to Portland every weekend for a beer run. And that is sort of the story of the moment for craft beer,” Parkhurst said.

Augusta is far from alone in enjoying the fermented fruits of a local’s labor. Waterville and Bath got new breweries in 2017. Two more opened in Brunswick. The town of Liberty, population 913, got a new brewery.

Fogtown Brewing opened in the Down East city of Ellsworth in December. Winter is often a very slow time in that area, but owner Jon Stein says his brewery became a hub for a robust (and hearty) winter community.

“People don’t realize, even in the winter up here, there’s a thriving community … and Ellsworth is sort of the hub for groceries and necessities,” Stein said. “If it’s date night for a couple that lives in the middle of the woods, they’re going to come into Ellsworth. So they come see us.”

In Monmouth, Tracy Allen and her husband, Troy, like to stop by Grateful Grain once a week. The couple spend time checking out new breweries in the region and they have been regulars at a few restaurants in the area that carry good local beers, but now they just have to go a few minutes down the road from their house.

“What we were looking for was a small place we could go and they would know who we were, like the TV show ‘Cheers,’ ” Tracy Allen said.

Grateful Grain is certainly cozy. The ceiling in the tasting room is low, the walls are wood-paneled. There are seats for a couple of dozen patrons. Customers at the bar chat with the bartender about how bad this past winter was.

It feels like visiting a friend’s fancy basement tasting room, Tracy Allen said.

“It’s a small town and there’s not a whole lot going on in Monmouth, so it’s great that there’s a place to go with good beer,” she said.

BEER TOURISM

While it’s a hit with locals, Grateful Grain is bracing for a sales boom when tourists and cabin owners return, Langlois says.

Breweries across the state ramp up their production during the summer. No brewery feels the summer production pinch more than Shipyard. According to state data, Shipyard made 163,555 gallons of beer in January 2017. Then, as production of Pumpkinhead ramped up, Shipyard made 481,298 gallons in August.

Just three breweries in the state made less beer in August than they made in January. Everybody else made the same amount or more.

Langlois said his little brewery is already busy on the weekends with people from out of town. He shook his head when asked about trying to keep up with demand in summer.

“It’s going to be crazy,” he said.

It’s crazy busy because of the summer influx of tourists, and those visitors want to see what the locals are brewing.

Stein, the brewer and owner at Fogtown, said beer drinking culture has changed. Craft drinkers don’t buy a 30-pack and drink the same beer over and over.

Instead, he likened the culture to a big game of Pokemon, the children’s game and TV show where players “gotta catch ’em all.”

“People who are crazy about beer, which is more and more people every day, they’re not necessarily brand-loyal,” Stein said. “They’ve got their favorite breweries … but they are sort of on a crusade to try all the new breweries. It’s a gotta-catch-’em-all kind of thing.”

NATIONAL STRUGGLES

With their small brewing systems, Maine’s newest brewers say they are agile. They don’t have to make the same beers over and over again. If drinkers show a preference for kettle sour or kolsch beers, they can brew more of those styles to bring visitors back for more or attract new fans.

The scope of the operations is still just a drop in the brewing bucket relative to what Shipyard and Allagash are doing. While owners like Cushnoc’s Parkhurst say they want to be successful, they’re thinking relatively small.

“I mean, good luck if you’re taking aim at Allagash and Shipyard,” Parkhurst said. “The riskiest place you can be in the industry right now is a regional brewery, because as you go further from your front door, your story gets watered down. The way I think about it is you have a circle of influence around you, and if you own that circle, and you do a good job with it, you might be able to make it a little bit bigger, but at some point your circle starts overlapping other circles.”

In that scenario, it’s the country’s largest breweries that are losing out in Maine. State data show Anheuser-Busch sold 520,845 fewer gallons of beer in Maine in 2017 than in 2016, a drop of 3.3 percent. MillerCoors sales dropped by 453,930 gallons, a loss of 8.8 percent. Production from in-state breweries dropped 2.1 percent, all of which can be attributed to Shipyard shifting some brewing out of state.

ON THE SCALE

As Grateful Grain’s Knell stood watch with a garden hose over a recent batch, Langlois pointed out a canning device sitting on a shelf. He hopes the brewery eventually cans some of its beers, one at a time, in the contraption that looks like it’s already been well used.

Langlois has no illusions of grandeur. He’s just hoping the brewery is self-sufficient.

“We know we can only move so much beer out of that tasting room,” Langlois said.

Bart Watson, an economist from the Brewers Association, a national trade group, says Maine is following a pattern seen in more mature craft beer markets like Colorado and Oregon. There’s plenty of room in the state’s market for new breweries – as long as they don’t mind brewing small batches.

“The hyper-local brewery that’s selling the vast majority of their beers directly on site is almost a different market than a brewery like Allagash, which is focusing on wider distribution,” Watson said. “They’re very different business models. While they’re both in the beer space, they’re almost noncompetitors.”

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