50 new breweries in 6 years, with a dozen more on tap

LISBON FALLS — Half a mile off Route 196, tucked in the Lisbon Industrial Park — not that you’ll find it on the sign — is the largest craft floor malting operation in North America.

Capable of annually processing just under 900,000 pounds of grain such as wheat and barley, Blue Ox Malthouse was founded in 2013 but built here last year. It took nearly $1 million to start up.

When production’s in full swing, there’s a 6-inch-deep sea of grain inside a temperature-controlled warehouse. The grain is turned by hand every few hours using a rake that looks like it’s out of the 19th century.

Blue Ox President Joel Alex found this empty, ideal 7,500-square-foot industrial park site on Craigslist after searching through a real estate broker for more than a year.

Officially, Alex, 30, lives in North Freeport just up the road.

“The real answer is I live here,” he said.

Brewers want his malt for their beer and he’s making it as fast as he can.

Blue Ox is at one-quarter production capacity now. It’ll be at half capacity within six months.

Alex doesn’t want to jinx himself by saying when Blue Ox will be running at full tilt.

But … soon.

It’s just one example of Maine’s burgeoning beer scene.

“There’s a lot of opportunity here, not only for us to grow, but for grain growers,” Alex said.

Last year, nine breweries opened in Maine, according to the state Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages & Lottery Operations.

So far nine more have opened in 2016 and still 10 to 12 more have licenses pending with the state.

Maine already had the fifth-most breweries per capita before this recent spurt.

“By the time this interview’s done, I think there will be two new breweries in the state of Maine,” Baxter Brewing founder Luke Livingston joked last week.

In five years, he’s grown his Lewiston start-up to the third-largest brewery in Maine.

Livingston expects to sell 20,000 to 22,000 barrels of beer this year, which would give Baxter as much as 20 percent growth over 2015, and has no plans to stop there.

He’s eyeing the overseas market, where American-brewed craft beer has cachet.

“If there’s also a Maine (cachet), I don’t know,” Livingston said. “Only one way to find out.”

Contributing to the growth of the beer scene here: Ample land to grow grain. A strong buy-local food movement that’s trickled over to drink. Tourists lining up for brewery tours and asking for their new favorite malt when they get back home.

“We are in the new golden age of beer here in America and Maine is certainly punching above its fighting weight,” said Sean Sullivan, head of the Maine Brewers’ Guild.

Facts, figures, beer

Maine currently has 79 active licensed breweries, according to the Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages & Lottery Operations. Some big guys — think Shipyard, Gritty’s — have several locations.

Five years ago, the state had 33.

The father of the industry here with license No. 1: D.L. Geary’s, which in 1986 was the first brewery to open after prohibition east of the Mississippi, Sullivan said.

The newest two, receiving licenses on May 27: One Eye Open in Portland, founded by three college friends in a storage shed-turned-brewery and tasting room, and Simplicity Brewing Co. & Supplies in Warren.

Steven DePesa opened Simplicity after home-brewing for 25 years.

“I think people took their love for craft beer and wanting to be independent, and have taken off and run with it,” DePesa said.

In April, Charlie Melhus opened Norway Brewing Co., a restaurant and brewery, on Main Street in Norway with a 30-seat taproom and a 75-seat outdoor beer garden.

“The town was starved for places to go and eat,” Melhus said.

The former chef and brewer spent six years in Norway (the country), where he’s originally from, before he and his wife decided the time was right to come back to open a business here.

“You can reach out and get X types of hops that you need in trade, or (look) for this kind of equipment or advice,” Melhus said. “It’s a really supportive atmosphere. Brewers in general are very collegial; everybody wants to help everybody out. It’s especially true in Maine.”

According to the national Brewers Association, craft beers (by definition, made by independently controlled breweries producing fewer than 6 million barrels a year) account for 12.2 percent of the beer-drinking market. That market share was up 12.8 percent in 2015 over 2014.

Overall, beer sales nationally were down slightly, so it’s not more people drinking; it’s more people drinking craft beer instead.

The association estimates the industry’s annual economic impact in Maine at $432 million and the number of barrels brewed here at 287,257. Sullivan estimates 1,650 people are directly employed in some facet of craft beer making.

The Maine Office of Tourism has embraced craft beer as a tourist draw in its marketing efforts, creating a website and passing out Maine Beer Trail guides at trade shows.

The Maine Brewers’ Guild last year counted 9,912 brewery visits around the state, up from 2,706 in 2011. More than 600 people visited 10 or more breweries, turning in their Maine Beer Trail guides to the guild for free T-shirts or hats.

Next Saturday, Baxter Brewing will host the third annual Great Falls Brewfest in Lewiston, expected to draw 39 Maine-made beers and up to 1,500 people.

“Certainly, a lot of what’s behind it is just changing consumer demand,” Livingston said. “By and large, people who turn 21 today aren’t drinking Budweiser.”

Jim Breece, a University of Maine associate professor of economics who authored an economic impact study for the Maine Brewers’ Guild two years ago with a UMaine colleague, sees room left for “substantial growth.”

“I don’t think there’s any county in Maine that isn’t touched by the craft beer industry — they’re growing the inputs or they’re producing it or both,” Breece said. “These small businesses, they need professional services, like accounting and marketing, HR services, office supplies. When they build new factories, they’re going to hire Maine workers. It’s just mushrooming, and the more activity there is, the more mushrooming there will be.”

‘We have to be smart’

The guild and U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree are working to pull together what they’ve called a roundtable in the Portland area next month, bringing together people in agriculture, manufacturing and technology to see what resources they need to get in on craft beer’s upswing.

“I think her motivation in wanting to help organize this roundtable is it’s a bright spot in the economy now in Maine, and as it grows, there’s a feeling from the brewers, from Congresswoman Pingree, from others, that it can grow to benefit more than just the companies that are making beer,” said Pingree spokesman Willy Ritch.

Maine farmers who grow feed-grade barley now as a rotation crop opposite potatoes may want to explore planting other varieties and selling at a premium for beer, Sullivan said. But there’s a learning curve to that and other aspects of the industry.

“I’m not exaggerating when I’m saying every single week I’m getting emails from people, many of our brewers and farmers and processors, saying, ‘Hey, I just inherited this piece of land and we want to start a hop-growing farm,'” Sullivan said. Or, they want to turn a defunct factory into a malt house. “Yet, they don’t know who the experts are locally, they don’t have any connections to the beer community to understand the market a little bit better.”

Sullivan believes the roundtable will provide that needed boost.

Livingston, who has 35 employees at Baxter Brewing, is concerned about a tipping point in the Maine market at some point. Right now about half of his beer stays in-state.

“Most restaurants aren’t adding 60 tap lines and Hannaford hasn’t added 60 cooler doors; shelf space is going to be an issue soon,” he said.

That’s some of the draw to look overseas.

“It’s increasingly very difficult to differentiate yourself and stand out, and so the next frontier is definitely, I think, the global market,” Livingston said. “There’s very high demand all over the world for American beer now. There’s a ton of opportunity and there are not a lot of breweries in the U.S. who are exporting yet.”

Melhus, who opened Norway Brewing Co. with his wife and parents, said he’s happy so far with sales, but he plans to expand cautiously.

“Rather than, ‘Oh great, we’re selling all the beer we make, let’s buy two new tanks and stretch our cash flow,’ we have to be smart,” he said. “We’re not going to have the in-house crowds in the winter. If we’re smart, we can pull some skiers off of (Route) 26, keep the locals coming for a quiz night, session night, folk music, that kind of thing. It’s making the most out of what we do in the summertime, then looking forward — we do have European connections, still.”

Melhus plans to take their beer to the What’s Brewing festival in the country of Norway later this year.

“What I see in the future is definitely trying to get our beer into more pubs and bars around Maine, but also maybe starting to bottle farmhouse ales that travel well and start exporting those,” he said.

The power of producing it in Maine

Alex, the founder at Blue Ox Malthouse, said a conversation with a brewer three years ago served as his entrepreneurial inspiration.

Beer, at its most basic, is made from water, malted grain, yeast and hops.

A 2013 feasibility study found an estimated 75 million pounds of malted grain — $35 million worth — were being imported to the state to make beer every year. Maine grain was being sent to Canada to be malted and imported back because the state didn’t have the facilities to do it here.

Why not grab some of that?

He left his job and apartment in Farmington, enrolled in a Canadian malting school and started writing a business plan. He picked the company name as a nod to Paul Bunyan.

The company received start-up help from groups such as the Maine Technology Institute, Coastal Enterprises and the Libra Future Fund.

Malting takes 7½ to 8 days from raw grain to finished malt, a laborious process of soaking it in water, letting it begin to sprout and then slowly drying it out, in 10,000-pound batches.

A seed of raw grain is hard, tight. A seed of malted grain is crunchy, sweet.

“If I was to have you do this with raw barley, you’d break your teeth,” Alex said after a recent malt house tour, encouraging a taste.

He’s now regularly supplying malt to about 12 breweries. Allagash Brewing Co. is one of his largest customers.

Between six and seven people are in the malt house on a weekly basis, depending upon what stage production is in. Officially, one other person works there full time. He’s looking to add more employees in the next few weeks.

It’s such an intensive process, and Alex jokes that he gets out so rarely, that he started a Malt House Concert Series to bring a little fun, and more people, into the malt house. The next concert is Thursday with singer Caroline Cotter.

Alex has a five-year lease in Lisbon Falls and room to expand.

“One of my hopes is to eventually move into co-marketing with some of our customers, really get the story out about the value of (collaborating) to the Maine economy,” he said. “I think it’s a really powerful economic message.”

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Maine’s growing list of breweries

Brewery Hometown Year opened
ALLAGASH BREWING CO. INC. Portland 1995
ANDREW’S BREWING CO. LLC Lincolnville 1992
ATLANTIC BREWING COMPANY Bar Harbor 1999
ATLANTIC BREWING COMPANY Bar Harbor 2005
AUSTIN STREET BREWERY Portland 2014
BAG AND KETTLE Carrabassett Valley 2015
BANDED HORN BREWING COMPANY Biddeford 2013
BARRELED SOULS BREWING CO. Saco 2015
BAXTER BREWING CO. Lewiston 2011
BEAR BONES BEER Lewiston 2015
BELFAST BAY BREWING CO. INC. Belfast 1997
BIGELOW BREWING COMPANY Skowhegan 2014
BISSELL BROTHERS BREWING CO. Portland 2013
BLACK BEAR BREWERY Orono 2008
BLANK CANVAS BREWERY Brewer 2015
BOOTHBAY CRAFT BREWERY Boothbay 2012
BRAY’S BREWING COMPANY INC. Naples 1996
BUNKER BREWING CO. Portland 2012
D. L. GEARY BREWING COMPANY, INC. Portland 1986
DEEP WATER BREWING CO. Blue Hill 2011
FORE RIVER BREWING COMPANY South Portland 2015
FOULMOUTHED BREWERY South Portland 2016
FOUNDATION BREWING COMPANY Portland 2014
FREEPORT BREWING COMPANY South Portland 2014
FRIARS’ BREWHOUSE Bangor 2013
FUNKY BOW BREWERY & BEER COMPANY Lyman 2013
GEAGHAN BROTHERS BREWING CO. Bangor 2011
GEAGHAN BROTHERS BREWING CO. Brewer 2015
GNEISS BREWING COMPANY Limerick 2013
GRITTY MCDUFF’S BREWING CO. Portland 1988
GRITTY MCDUFF’S BREWING CO. Freeport 1995
GRITTY MCDUFF’S BREWING COMPANY OF AUBURN Auburn 2005
HIDDEN COVE BREWING CO. Wells 2013
ISLAND MANAGEMENT INC. Peak’s Island 2004
KENNEBEC RIVER BREWERY West Forks 1997
KENNEBUNKPORT BREWING COMPANY Kennebunk 1993
LIBERAL CUP PUBLIC HOUSE & BREWERY Hallowell 2001
LIBERTY CRAFT BREWING CO. Liberty 2014
LIQUID RIOT BOTTLING COMPANY Portland 2013
LIVELY BREWING CO. Brunswick 2014
LOBSTER POUND RESTAURANT INC. Lincolnville 2014
LONE PINE BREWING COMPANY Portland 2016
LUBEC BREWING COMPANY LLC Lubec 2015
MAINE BEER COMPANY, LLC Freeport 2009
MAINE COAST BREWING COMPANY Bar Harbor 1997
MARSH ISLAND BREWING Orono 2015
MARSHALL WHARF BREWING COMPANY Belfast 2008
MASONS BREWING COMPANY Brewer 2016
MAST LANDING BREWING COMPANY Westbrook 2016
MONHEGAN BREWING COMPANY Monhegan 2013
NORWAY BREWING COMPANY Norway 2016
OAK POND BREWERY, OAK POND BREWING CO. Skowhegan 2004
ONE EYE OPEN BREWING COMPANY LLC Portland 2016
ORONO BREWING COMPANY Orono 2014
OXBOW BREWING COMPANY LLC Newcastle 2011
OXBOW BREWING COMPANY LLC Portland 2014
PEAK ORGANIC BREWING Portland 2014
PENNESSEEWASSEE BREWING COMPANY Harrison 2012
PENOBSCOT BAY BREWERY Winterport 2008
RISING TIDE BREWING COMPANY LLC Portland 2012
ROCK HARBOR BREWING COMPANY Rockland 2013
RUN OF THE MILL PUBLIC HOUSE & BREWERY Saco 2008
SEA DOG BREW PUB South Portland 2009
SEA DOG BREWING CO. Bangor 2003
SEBAGO BREWING COMPANY Gorham 2001
SHEEPSCOT VALLEY BREWING CO. Whitefield 1995
SHIPYARD BREW PUB Eliot 2005
SHIPYARD BREWHAUS Carrabassett Valley 2004
SHIPYARD BREWHAUS Newry 2005
SHIPYARD BREWING COMPANY Portland 1994
SIMPLICITY BREWING COMPANY Warren 2016
SOME BREWING COMPANY York 2013
SQUARE TAIL BREWING COMPANY Amherst 2014
STRONG BREWING COMPANY Sedgwick 2013
SUNDAY RIVER BREWING COMPANY Bethel 2015
THRESHERS BREWING CO. Searsmont 2016
TOM GOBBLER BREWING Fryeburg 2016
TRIBUTARY BREWING CO. Kittery 2014
TUMBLEDOWN BREWING Farmington 2014
Source: Maine Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages & Lottery Operations

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