Canned beer. Seems like only yesterday when those two words evoked images of Old Milwaukee or a six pack of Schlitz. The days when Miller High Life was considered “the champagne of beers” and commercially brewed, traditional-tasting lagers were a pub crawlers’ only option.

Enter Luke Livingston.

A well-practiced home brewer with a taste for craft beer, Livingston had traveled the conventional route to a safe but uninspired day job working for a college in Maine when a family tragedy prompted a personal re-evaluation. As a result, the world of canned beer is a richer, more vibrant place and the people of Maine are better off for it.

Livingston is the president and founder of Baxter Brewing Co., headquartered on Mill Street in Lewiston’s Bates Mill Complex. His business associates slyly refer to him as “The Real King of Beers,” an acknowledgment of how, in four years, Livingston has quickly distinguished himself as an innovative force in the brew universe.

From the enormous fermenters — which tower over the brewery and help produce over a million gallons of beer annually — to the beer-can tab earrings for sale in Baxter’s gift shop, everything in Livingston’s orbit is somehow connected to his all-consuming interest in suds.

“From the minute I pressed ‘print’ on the business plan, I knew that we were going to open a brewery and that it was going to be successful,” says Livingston. “The municipality of Lewiston has really bent over backward to ensure our success. We’re a young company and, at least in my opinion, we’re doing some pretty cool things in the downtown area. We’re not only bringing investment dollars and jobs to downtown, but we’re also turning a spotlight on this part of town, which I think is very important to the community. There are a dozen production breweries in the city of Portland, but we are the only one in Lewiston. As a result, I think we benefit greatly from the ‘big fish in a small pond’ mentality.”

The pond keeps getting bigger for Baxter, and Livingston’s fine with that. He now distributes his line of canned craft beers, including Baxter’s best-selling Stowaway India Pale Ale, to businesses throughout Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Vermont. As stores across the country have expressed interest in stocking Baxter’s Summer Swelter and Pamola Xtra Pale Ale, it’s only a matter of time before Pamola — the name of the winged moose featured in Baxter’s logo — will be recognized nationwide.

“I certainly foresee that within three years of East Coast distribution and hopefully national distribution beyond that, that we’ll continue to grow and be as big as we can,” Livingston says. “I want us to expand as long as we continue to make quality, well-crafted beer while staying true to our core values and the people of Maine. If we can maintain those three pillars of Baxter, I hope that we’ll continue to grow.”

Livingston’s remarkable business success was borne of a period of personal despair.

“I lost my mom, Barbara, to breast cancer on January 20th of 2009. Inauguration Day,” Livingston recalls. “My mom had battled breast cancer off and on for more than four years. She had been given a clean bill of health on two separate occasions, though the doctors said that there was a 1 percent chance of it coming back. Sure enough, it came back twice. I suddenly found myself experiencing one of those cliche ‘life is too short’ moments. When you lose a parent, it can hit you so hard that it can be emotionally devastating. Thankfully and much to my amazement, I was able to harness the energy from the emotional impact rather than allowing it to break me down.”

After his mother’s death, Livingston decided it was time to walk away from his day job as an admissions counselor at St. Joseph’s College in Standish. “When I quit my job, I had no idea what else I was going to do,” Livingston says. “So, I tried to make a go at blogging and Internet marketing, and a couple of nervous breakdowns later — for lack of a better term — my father said, ‘Stop pussyfooting around what you clearly want to do, and that is clearly beer. Let’s figure out how to do that.'”

In the spring of 2009 and in the midst of the economic downturn, Livingston and his father, who had worked as a strategic planner and business consultant, began to formulate a plan for an environmentally conscious brewery.

“I do believe as a business person, it’s my responsibility to take care of the environment,” says Livingston. “That’s not an option or a question in my mind. If we don’t take care of the world around us, there’s no world around us to continue to make beer in.”

When it came time to name his company, Livingston decided on Baxter, which he says was “an homage to Baxter State Park and the great outdoors. . . . I wanted a name that really screamed ‘Maine!'”

Once his business plan and mission statement were polished, Livingston says he then reached out for community support: “We took our plan to AVCOG (Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments) and they helped us fill in the financial components.”

Gregory Gould, the former director of the Maine Small Business Development Center at AVCOG, was impressed with Livingston’s determination to forge ahead at a time when most start-ups were going under.

“Luke had a strong vision all mapped out in his head,” recalls Gould. “When asked about starting a business in a difficult economy, where disposable income is the first thing consumers cut, Luke spurted out statistics about the phenomenal growth of the craft beer industry. Even so, Luke was not blind to the risks of entrepreneurship. He understood that some, but not all of the risks, could be mitigated. He was ready to do his research as well as put together a thoughtful business plan and take a leap of faith.”

Livingston was not, however, originally planning to locate his brewery in Lewiston.

“I live in South Portland, and when I wrote my business plan I was going to put Baxter Brewing somewhere in Portland because I’m lazy and I didn’t want a long drive back and forth from work every day,” Livingston says.

“Then on the 4th of July back in 2009, my dad was having dinner with some old business friends from the community in Lewiston-Auburn and they were kibitzing. . . . . My dad told them about my business plan and one of his friends said, ‘What a great idea! Would Luke consider putting the brewery here in Lewiston-Auburn instead? We need something like this here.’”

Setting up shop in Lewiston-Auburn was something of a homecoming for Livingston. “My parents both grew up in the (Washington) D.C. metro area and we lived there until I was 8, but we had a summer home in Pemaquid,” says Livingston. “Eventually my parents got tired of being in the city and they wanted to raise me in Maine, surrounded by all of that Maine mystique. They wanted a better place for me to grow up in, so we packed everything up and moved to Auburn.”

Before his brewing operations got underway, Livingston decided that his craft beer would be poured into cans and not the usual long-necked bottles. “Cans are infinitely recyclable and ours are made of up to 70 percent post-consumer recyclable material,” Livingston says. “Americans are twice as likely to recycle aluminum as they are glass. Seventy-five percent of beer bottles end up in landfills. Even our six-pack rings are made of 100 percent recyclable polyurethane material. . . . We tried to think all of this through as much as possible.”

Baxter Brewing began shipping beer in 2011, the same year that Livingston was selected for Forbes Magazine’s list of “The Most Influential Entrepreneurs Under 30.” As Livingston recalls, “They wanted a three-paragraph bio, a head shot and photocopy of my driver’s license to verify my age. It was pretty rigorous stuff and the deadline was about three hours after I received their e-mail. I remember thinking, ‘Well, it’s Forbes. I suppose I should stop what I’m doing and get them everything that they need.'”

Alongside Taylor Swift and LeBron James, Livingston was hailed as a pioneer who would be “shaping American consumption for decades to come.” In 2012, Livingston attended the Forbes celebration party and, ever the shrewd businessman, brought plenty of Baxter beer along with him. “It was fun. It was glamorous. And it was absolutely validating,” Livingston says of the honor.

Later that year, Livingston announced plans to quadruple production and hire additional staff as part of a $2 million expansion effort. “People are begging for beer,” Livingston was quoted as saying at the time. It wasn’t mere ballyhoo.

Baxter’s beleaguered crew couldn’t keep up with the overwhelming demand for product, and many out-of-state vendors, eager to stock their shelves with India Pale Ale, had to be turned away. Not anymore. Baxter now has 26 staffers on board. Production facilities have been upgraded. Orders are more quickly filled. “We have very good distribution now, so that you can get our beer pretty much wherever beer is sold,” says Livingston.

Where does an overachieving 29-year-old entrepreneur go from here?

Livingston has already launched a burgeoning sideline business called Baxter Outdoors, which hosts adventure races and outdoor excursions throughout New England. It’s managed by Livingston’s high school classmate Adam Platz. “We want people who are enjoying our beer to also be active and explore the outdoors,” Livingston says. “Baxter Outdoors is certainly still in its infancy, but we envision it as a sort of upper-level, high-end athletic competition. At the same time, we’ll also be offering entry-level trail runs and guided hikes. We’re hoping that all of this will appeal to the outdoor masses while promoting Baxter as a lifestyle brand.”

There’s also the inaugural Great Falls Brewfest (greatfallsbrewfest.com), announced earlier this year and scheduled for June 21 at Simard-Payne Memorial Park in Lewiston. Livingston describes this as a kind of malted grain Magic Kingdom.

“We’re going to have over 31 breweries there offering over 100 different beers,” Livingston enthuses. “We’re going to have bands. A craft fair. A corn hole tournament. A climbing wall. Six different food trucks. We’re also partnering with the Androscoggin Land Trust to do a water-based river cleanup prior to the festival. We’re actually bringing in whitewater rafts. . . . It’s going to be a hell of a good time.”

Until then, Livingston has plenty to keep him busy. Livingston and Baxter’s director of operations, Ben Low, have plans to follow up last year’s popular L-A College course on the history, science and business of beer with another installment for the 2014-2015 semester. And while helping to care for his eight-month-old baby, Livingston continues to manage day-to-day operations at Baxter, which seems on the verge of expanding yet again.

As beer bloggers predict that Livingston’s company will “go national” in the near future, the founder is taking it all in stride. “I just hope that I’m a staple in somebody’s fridge,” he says.

Mark Griffin is a Maine-based freelance writer and the author of “A Hundred or More Hidden Things: The Life and Films of Vincente Minnelli.”


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