Maine’s mighty microbreweries

After sailing Maine’s sparkling seas, kayaking and canoeing its pristine lakes, hiking its lofty mountains or schussing down its snow-covered slopes, what could be better than an icy-cold beer—especially a hand-crafted ale or lager from a local microbrewery or brewpub?

Maine now ranks fifth in the nation for the number of breweries per capita. Even more amazing, Portland, its largest city, has the second highest number of breweries per capita after Portland, Oregon, where, most agree, America’s microbrewery trend began.  The Maine craft beer revolution, steadily brewing for nearly 30 years, shows no signs of slowing down. In 2013, Maine had 35 breweries and brewpubs.  Today, less than a year later, there are nearly 55. According to the Maine Brewers’ Guild, established in 1986, production will increase by 200% by 2018.

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Beer lovers, especially those in the East, who are familiar with offerings from top Maine microbreweries like Geary’s and Shipyard, no longer have to head to the West Coast to tour breweries making hand-crafted ales, stouts and other brews.  Nor do curious vacationers who might know little about hand-crafted beer but probably have heard that its taste, aroma and complexity rival that of fine wines.  From Kittery, at Maine’s southern tip, clear up to Bar Harbor, you can visit microbreweries and sample one of  a kind brews, or hunker down at friendly brewpubs to enjoy hand-crafted beers with fried clams or steamed lobster.

The Maine Beer Trail, an informative map and guide to the state’s breweries, was designed by the Maine Brewers’ Guild to facilitate vacationers’ beer tasting adventures.  Though sampling these fine hand-crafted brews is reward enough, the Maine Beer Trail Pass, downloaded free from the guild’s website, offers gifts to the intrepid.  Visit 10 breweries, and get a trucker hat.  Stop at 20, and you’ll get a T-shirt.  Visit all 50-odd breweries and brewpubs, and receive a special Prize Pack.

Several breweries are off the beaten track, but most are along the coast in prime tourist territory like Kittery, Ogunquit and Kennebunk in the south; the City of Portland; Sebago and Naples in the Lakes Region northwest of Portland; Freeport, where thousands flock year-round to the famous outdoor gear emporium, L.L. Bean; and Mid-Coast Maine, home to Acadia National Park, seaside towns like Boothbay Harbor, Belfast, and Monhegan Island, site of a centuries-old artist’s colony.

What’s more, in addition to sampling one of a kind beers, visitors get an up-close look at the brewer’s art and, in many cases, a chance to talk with brewers who all share a passion for creating ales and lagers reflecting centuries-old home brewing traditions.

For families, a visit to one of Maine’s microbreweries offers young people the opportunity to learn about an industry that’s a model of old-fashioned Americana, helmed by husbands and wives, fathers and sons, and sometimes entire families.

Many microbreweries are in interesting locales.  South of Portland, in the town of Lyman, just inland from Ogunquit—where Rocky Coast Brewing serves unfiltered English ales in a cozy brewpub—Funky Bow Brewery & Beer Company gives tours and offers tastings on an organic farm.

In Newcastle, in the Boothbay Harbor area, the Oxbow Brewing Co., with a distinctive logo of an owl bearing a keg in its talons, is a small farmhouse style brewery where you can taste seasonal ales as well as its experimental Freestyle Series, and buy limited release barrel-aged bottles and big jugs called growlers.

In Bar Harbor, at the Atlantic Brewing Company—whose quirky logo depicts a fishing boat with a banner proclaiming, “Save the Ales!”—taste award winning Bar Harbor Blueberry Ale and deep, dark Coal Porter on a 10 acre farm surrounded by hops fields and pine woods.  While in town, also stop at Bar Harbor Brewing Company, home of nationally known beers like Thunder Hole Ale and Cadillac Mountain Stout, and Bar Harbor’s first microbrewery, established in 1990.

Not actually a farm, Bray’s Brewpub & Eatery, in a turn of the century Victorian farmhouse in the popular Lakes Region town of Naples, serves up Brandy Pond Blonde, Quaker Ridge Oatmeal Stout and other brews, as well as burgers and light fare. Also in the Lakes Region, stop in Harrison at the recently opened Pennesseewassee Brewing Company, or in Gorham at the brewery of Sebago Brewing Company, which opened in 1998, and has brewpubs in Kennebunk, Scarborough, Portland and Gorham.

There are even a couple of resorts where you can immerse yourself in the brewery experience.  One is the Boothbay Resort & Craft Brewery, a mile from downtown Boothbay Harbor.  Watch brewers work while dining indoors, or head to the outdoor biergarten, and quaff in-house offerings as well as those by local “brethren brewers.”  Along with tours, the resort has a bocce court, pool table and a game room to keep the little ones engaged. And, if you don’t have time for a tour or meal, take your beer to go in a growler.  Another resort brewery, northwest of Skowhegan and a little bit off the beaten path, is the Kennebec River Pub & Brewery at Northern Outdoors resort.  Rent a lakeside cabin or pitch a tent along the Kennebec River, and enjoy white water rafting, fishing, hiking, ATVing and snowmobiling, along with hand-crafted brews.

Sooner or later, Maine vacationers find their way to charming, seaside Portland, the state’s largest city, the site of a dozen microbreweries and the place where the Maine craft beer revolution began with the opening of the D.L. Geary Brewing Company in 1986, the same year the Maine Brewers’ Guild was established. Geary’s is still owned by husband and wife team David and Karen Geary and, despite its logo of a big Maine lobster, its beers have a decidedly English flair.  Not surprisingly, David Geary got his training while visiting the breweries of England and Scotland under the tutelage of Scottish nobleman and brewer Peter Maxwell Stuart.

The brewery gives half-hour tours Monday through Friday, with tastings of signature beers like Geary’s Pale Ale, Hampshire Special Ale, Geary’s IPA and London Porter, seasonal brews like the refreshingly light Summer Ale, and limited edition beers like Oatmeal Stout and Oakie Doakie Scotch Ale. Gluten intolerant visitors can try IXNAY, the first gluten free beer made in Maine.  For non-tipplers, as well as children, the brewery makes root beer.

Another well-known Portland microbrewery that also makes its own root beer is Sea Dog Brewing Co.  Established in 1993, Sea Dog has two brewpubs, one in South Portland and one in Topsham, northeast of Freeport and home to L.L. Bean.  At Sea Dog’s two brewpubs, enjoy innovative fare while tasting year-round and seasonal brews, including Blueberry Wheat Ale, made with Maine’s signature crop.  For a tour of Sea Dog’s brewing facilities, you’ll have to go to Bangor.  There you can visit the city’s second brewery, recently opened Geaghan Brothers Brewing Company, and just north in Amherst, another newcomer – the Square Tail Brewing Company.

Also in Portland, nationally known Shipyard Brewing Company, which opened in 1994, runs a year-round brewpub in Eliot, and seasonal brewpubs at the Sunday River and Sugarloaf ski resorts.  At the Portland brewery, video tours are given daily, and full 1 ½-hour brewery tours (which must be reserved) are given Tuesday nights and, in June, July and August on Thursday nights.  Along with familiar beers you might have tried at eateries throughout the country or bought at your local supermarket, you’ll find rarities like the Shipyard Bourbon Barrel Aged Series, including Imperial Stout, Double Scottish Ale, Smashed Pumpkin Ale and Barley Wine.  The brewery also makes Capt’n Eli’s Soda, a line of soft drinks.

Allagash Brewing Company, established in Portland a year after Shipyard, bills itself as New England’s original maker of Belgian style wheat beers.  Its range of brews includes Allagash White, flavored with curaçao liqueur, orange peel and spices, and Allagash Double Ale, made with seven different malts and in the style of Belgium’s Trappist Monks, whose beers are among the world’s most coveted.

Allagash has yet another distinction.  It’s on Industrial Way, a short block of warehouses considered Maine’s craft beer crucible.  Here, some of Maine’s top microbreweries got their start.  Today, a new crop of microbreweries, run by recent college grads, has moved into the same quarters and is making their own brand of history.  Given Maine’s growing prominence in the microbrewery industry, it’s no exaggeration to say that these fairly nondescript warehouses might one day be National Historic Landmarks.

Among the brightest newcomers is The Bissell Brothers Brewing Company at 1 Industrial Way, the same building where two prominent Maine breweries were born.  One is Rising Tide Brewery, a family owned concern that makes international style artisanal ales and is now the largest brewery in Portland’s booming East Bayside neighborhood, known as  “East Bayside” for its concentration of breweries.  The other is Freeport-based Maine Beer Company, founded in 2009, and known not only for its fine beers but for its commitment to good causes, expressed in the company motto, “Do The Right Thing.”

As for Bissell Brothers Brewing, the microbrewery is co-owned by Noah Bissell, in his early 20’s, perhaps the country’s youngest brewery owner, and 30-something older brother, Peter.  In a relatively short time BBB has garnered a stack of laurels.  In March 2014, a headline in the Boston Globe crowed: “Why Bissell Brothers is the New Must-Have of New England Craft Beer Fanatics.”  Interestingly enough, BBB’s fame is based largely on a single beer, The Substance, an IPA so remarkable that it regularly flies off the shelves.  Another BBB offering is Heartstrings Red Ale, originally made for a top Portland beer bar, Novare Res Bier Café, whose Latin name, appropriately enough, means “to start a revolution.”

Also on Industrial Way is newcomer Foundation Brewing Company, co-owned by 30’s-ish Joel Mahaffey and partner John Bonney,  who both cite a “passion for brewing,” making farmhouse style ales, including spicy, fruity Belgian-style pale ales known as saisons. Some of their top brews are Blaze, an IPA; Undertow, a dark saison with raisin, plum and caramelized sugar flavors; and Wanderlust #1, with aromas of tropical fruits, peach and Maine pine and flavors of peach and mango.

In #1 Industrial Way’s Suite 8 is Austin Street Brewery, whose young co-owner Jake Austin began brewing beer at home on Austin Street in Westbrook, a Portland suburb.  In the tasting room, open Friday and Saturday, sample brews by Austin and partner Will Fisher, like Patina Pale, an American-style pale ale with flavors of citrus and pine; Kon-Tiki, made with New Zealand and Australian hops, and redolent of tropical fruit; Oliver, an American brown ale fermented with coffee; and the lovely and very drinkable Catherine, a double IPA.

Portland is a relatively small city, but if you don’t have a car, take heart. A young Maine couple, Zach and Allison Poole , have established a Portland based brewery tour business.  Tours on the lime green Maine Brew Bus cost $45-$65 per person, and are given virtually every day, and several times on Saturday and Sunday.  You’ll visit “old-timers” like Allagash and Rising Tide, and newcomers like In’finiti Fermentation & Distillation on the Old Port’s waterfront and Bunker Brewing Company in East Bayside.  (In some cases, you’ll also get a chance to taste homemade sausages, hot dogs and brews at The Thirsty Pig, another top Portland beer bar.) On the “York County Bounty” tour, visit Banded Horn Brewing Company in Biddeford, as well as Gneiss Brewing in Limerick and Funky Bow Brewery in Lyman.  A “Northern Exposure” tour takes in the Maine Beer Company in Freeport, Baxter Brewing Co. in Lewiston and a couple of brewpubs, including Ebenezer’s in Brunswick.

For years, vacationers have headed to Maine to eat lobster and fresh seafood, often ending a meal with blueberry cake or pie.  Along with great sailing, canoeing, hiking and skiing, generations of Americans have discovered that there’s good eating in Maine.   But who knew you could also drink so well in Maine?

This article first appeared on Travel Squire.