Gritty McDuff's celebrates 30 years of beer brewing

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PORTLAND — It was an idea that was brewed half a world away from the Old Port.

Yet as Gritty McDuff’s celebrates its 30th anniversary this week, its place in Maine brewing lore is firmly tapped.

“I was living in Hawaii and ready to come back to Maine. I met a fellow from Australia and told him I wanted to open a pub. He suggested a brew pub, and I asked ‘what’s that?'” Gritty’s co-owner Richard Pfeffer recalled July 12.

Pfeffer and his partner, Ed Stebbins, have kept the concept simple and enduring at 396 Fore St. and at breweries in Freeport and Auburn, serving beers brewed in the basement and English pub-style food through three waves of craft-brew booms.

“We believe in 30 yards grain to glass,” Stebbins said. “It’s beer, don’t overthink it.”

Having grown up in England during what he called the “real ale explosion” about 40 years ago, Stebbins said he knew what a brew pub was, and he was ready to brew better beer.

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“The impetus was for me, all the good beer was imported and stale when it got to Maine,” Stebbins said.

So in 1988, Pfeffer and Stebbins opened what is considered the first brew pub in Maine since the Prohibition era, which had ended 55 years earlier.

Stebbins brews his ales and stouts in the English manner as “session beers” with an alcohol content of around 5 percent or lower.

“I call it social lubricant,” he said.

The social lubricants will be flowing Saturday, July 21, when Gritty’s throws a birthday party that will extend into Wharf Street from noon to the 1 a.m. closing time with live music, hot dogs and hamburgers while supplies last, and at least eight beers to sample.

The beers to be tapped will celebrate Gritty’s history and the heady city beer scene: three will be brewed in collaboration with Allagash, Run of the Mill and Liquid Riot.

Pfeffer, Stebbins and David Geary led the first wave of craft brewing in Maine with Gritty’s and Geary’s.

“The beers that were different were the ones coming out of England at the time,” Stebbins said. “It wasn’t easy (to start), but there were hardcore, dedicated real ale fans.”

Both credited the original Three Dollar Deweys for opening the palates of beer drinkers, and Pfeffer said location and atmosphere gave them a boost.

“We basically had more fun than anybody else, so people came in,” Pfeffer said. “… Over time, they got used to the taste of our beer.”

More than 5,100, 200-gallon batches later, Stebbins said quality is still the key approach.

“You have to serve a decent product these days because everyone knows the difference between good and bad beers,” he said.

Stebbins and Pfeffer may have fermented a brave new brewing world 30 years ago, but the end result can still surprise them.

“I think the biggest surprise is what has happened in the last five years, the dynamic growth of this industry,” Pfeffer said. “There is a fundamental change of how beer is going from breweries to customers, everything is becoming local, local, local.”

Stebbins said the success of craft brewing has also changed Maine agriculture for the better.

“The barley and hops grown in Maine are really world-class,” he said.

While Gritty’s remains faithful to English-style beers, the range of what drinkers enjoy also surprises Stebbins.

“The definition of beer used to be barley, hops, water and yeast. Now it can be anything,” he said. “With everyone experimenting and the explosion of tastes, what people consider beer has changed incredibly.”

Ed Stebbins and Richard Pfeffer helped bring craft beer to Maine 30 years ago with Gritty McDuff’s. Inspired by English beer and pubs, they have kept a simple approach: “It’s beer, don’t overthink it,” Stebbins said. (David Harry/The Forecaster)

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