Strainrite owners buy Maine’s oldest brewery, talk turnaround plans

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AUBURN — Alan and Robin Lapoint aren’t wasting any time.

Less than a month after the owners of The Strainrite Companies, headquartered here, bought D.L. Geary Brewing Co., effectively saving Maine’s first licensed brewery, they have two new 60-barrel fermenters arriving Thursday and two new beers hitting kegs in May.

Their goal: to bring Geary’s back to a production heyday when it was selling at least twice as much beer and to woo 20- and 30-somethings who aren’t reaching for a Geary’s now.

It’s the fourth company the Freeport couple has bought to turn around, but the first outside their wheelhouse. Sitting in a Strainrite conference room this week, Alan Lapoint was enthusiastic, optimistic and still a little surprised that he and his wife said yes.

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“(Being asked to buy Geary’s) hit us for a reason,” Lapoint said. “Maybe someday the light will go off and it’ll have a reason why. My wife and I spent a lot of time thinking about it, and in the end, it felt like the right thing to do. Hopefully, it was.”

Geary’s was incorporated in Portland in 1983 by David and Karen Geary and holds brewery license No. 1 in a state that’s seen a recent craft beer explosion, with more than 90 brands.

In 2012, Geary’s brewed 393,769 gallons, according to state records, making it Maine’s third-largest brewery that year. 

In 2016, it produced 192,685 gallons and slipped to sixth-largest.

Strainrite, founded by Alan Lapoint’s father in 1978, specializes in making filters that are sold all over the world. Alan Lapoint first met Geary’s management 18 months ago when Strainrite sold filters to the company to help extend the beer’s shelf life.

“Through the year, I was getting the sense that they were starting to feel the pinch of all the craft brewers that are out there,” Lapoint said.

He reached out to the Gearys’ daughter and operations director Kelly Lucas with a friendly, “How is everything?”

“She gave me one of those looks,” he said. “I said, ‘If there’s anything I can do to help.’ I don’t know the beer industry, but I know business in general. So we talked a little bit for a month last year, probably the month of March.

“Then I got a call from her in mid-October saying, ‘Can you come in? We’re at a turning point in our organization; we’ve got to make some difficult decisions,'” he said.

‘Constantly reinvent yourself’

In 2000, the Lapoints bought a filter-making competitor in Michigan that Alan Lapoint said shared a lot of similarities with Geary’s: “Again, it was an aging owner, really didn’t have the drive and the desire to continue battling the way you have to battle when it’s a competitive world. Worked really hard for a long time, just wanted to enjoy the fruits of (his) labor.”

That Michigan company now has 18 employees and is a division of Strainrite.

In 2006, the couple bought a small distribution company in Atlanta, grew it to five people and partnered with a larger distribution company. In 2009, they bought “a failing textile business” in Connecticut, according to Lapoint, that has since grown from six employees to 25 and sends 10 percent of its production to Maine for Strainrite filters.

“This will be the fourth one I’m attempting to try to turn around from basically something that was going to be insolvent,” Lapoint said. “They’re not easy. They’re very emotionally challenging.

“My wife and I slept on it for at least a month or two,” he said. “There was a lot to consider. They were in big trouble, financially. It’s a very competitive market out there, craft brewing. I think competition brings out the best in people. I think you have to have a lot of energy, though, and you’ve got to constantly reinvent yourself and you’ve got to invest in your business.”

He said that’s been important at Strainrite, which has 85 employees.

“We have some product lines that are growing 30, 35 percent, we have other products that are flat or down,” Lapoint said. “Our newer products are representing a higher percentage of our sales these days — it’s the importance of new product development.”

That was the thinking behind immediately adding two pilot lines at Geary’s to experiment with new recipes, installing the new 60-barrel fermenters and making plans to debut two American-style brews, Riverside IPA and O.G. (Original Geary’s) Lager, both of which, when they hit store shelves, will only be in cans, for that younger-market appeal.

Ninety-five percent of Geary’s sales are within Maine. He’s also talking to distributors about expanding its reach.

The Geary family is clearly passionate about the company, Lapoint said, as are their employees, which is what helped clinch the sale, along with a great beer.

“I’ve never met people who care more about the product and have such pride in the history and the legacy of the name and what it meant for craft brewing back in 1983,” he said. “That’s probably the best sign, and they’re willing to roll up their sleeves, do whatever they can.”

The brewery employs between 13 and 15 in a mix of part-time and full-time positions, depending on bottling schedules. Two longtime employees were laid off after the sale was announced in March, which Lapoint said was difficult but necessary.

“They never adjusted their size for the reduction of sales, so they had a lot of excessive overhead for a company that size,” Lapoint said.

Lucas couldn’t be reached for comment but said in a news release last month that the transition would bring “bumps in the road,” but the family felt they had found a good buyer in the Lapoints.

“My father’s — and our family’s — legacy is inextricably linked to this brand and the beer that shares our name,” she said in the release. “There certainly were times over the past couple of years when we feared we would lose the Geary’s brand altogether. Now our board of directors, our family and I all have the utmost confidence that Alan is the right person to build a strong future for our employees, our brand, and most importantly, our beer.”

Sean Sullivan, executive director of the Maine Brewers’ Guild, said if there’s new energy to reinvigorate Geary’s, he feels good about it finding a market to grow into.

“Today, Geary’s is still a well-respected brand and their heritage has a legitimate place in American craft beer history,” Sullivan said.

When the company began brewing in 1986, there were only 13 micro-breweries in the entire country, according to Lucas, the bulk of them in California.

For the past month, Lapoint has started each morning at the brewery before heading to Strainrite. The sale is expected to be final later this year once he and Robin are approved for federal owner/operator licenses to brew beer.

The couple is considering bringing in two minority investors, but for now it’s just the two of them.

“After a lot of consideration, we both felt, one, it’s a great legacy, a very rich tradition in Maine. We believe in Maine, that’s why we manufacture here in Maine,” he said. “It’s just going to take some time, and it’s not a slam-dunk.”

kskelton@sunjournal.com

Alan Lapoint went from selling sterile filters to D.L. Geary Brewing a year and a half ago to owning the oldest craft brewery in Maine. He plans to offer an American India pale ale and a lager in May. 

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