MAINE ON TAP: The Beer Boom

Maine on Tap

STATEWIDE (WGME) -- It's no secret: Mainers love beer, and over the last six years, Maine has seen an explosion in independent breweries.

According to statistics from The Maine Brewers’ Guild there are 117 active breweries in Vacationland as of April 2018. A recent report found the breweries added $228 million dollars to the state's economy in 2016. Sean Sullivan, Executive Director of the Maine Brewers' Guild, says the industry adds 1,600 to 1,800 jobs to the state’s economy, and those numbers are only expected to rise.

For all its recent success, Maine has a complicated relationship with alcohol. In fact, Maine was the first state to pass prohibition, forbidding the manufacture and sale of alcohol. It led to violence and death 163 years ago known as Portland's Rum Riot.


In 1851, Maine became the first “dry state.” Portland Mayor Neal Dow led the charge to ban alcohol. He's remembered as the "Father of Prohibition," championing total abstinence from intoxicating drinks, and what is still known as "The Maine Law."

"Neal Dow had put into place the Maine Law, which is the first form of prohibition. Local townspeople didn't like it," said Michaud.

Jaime Kingman Rice and the Maine Historical Society said the law was rigidly enforced in Portland, a prosperous, boisterous waterfront city, where it was a major change.

"To put it in perspective, there were almost 200 drinking establishments on the peninsula alone in 1850," said Kingman Rice.

Many of those establishments were forced to close while others converted to making alcohol for the few permitted purposes including medicine. Illegal liquor was often confiscated and kept in what was known as the "Rum Room," in the basement of Portland's City Hall.

On June 2nd, 1855, tensions boiled over.

"There was a rumor that Neal Dow and other members of city government were going to disperse that liquor," said Kingman Rice. "So, a mob started to form, or a crowd of people started to form-- and they were marching on City Hall. The militia was called in and they fired on the crowd, killing one individual."

Witnesses say Dow himself ordered the militia to open fire.

"Neal Dow-- once the Rum Riot happened -- he was not re-elected. So, him trying to fight rum and trying to fight through prohibition, was kind of the demise of his political campaign," said Kingman Rice.

Today, at Portland's Liquid Riot on Commercial Street, you can find an homage to the Rum Riot and Neal Dow.

Founder Eric Michaud says they have two runs named for the violent weekend in 1855, including "Rum Riot Rum," and "Dow's Demise."


Even during Neal Dow's heyday, prohibition hardly stopped people from drinking. Instead, they found new was to do it.

Author Josh Christie touched on the history of "homemade hooch," in his book Maine Beer: Brewing in Vacationland.

Speaking to CBS 13 from Print Bookstore in Portland, which Christie co-owns, he says in the 1700s and 1800s, Mainers were among the heaviest drinkers.

"In the early 1800s, Maine was considered the drunkest place in the country, and there were some European writers that wrote the United States was the drunkest country in the world,” Christie said. “So theoretically, Maine was the drunkest place in the world."

Christie says Mainers were forced to get creative during prohibition. The initial "Maine Law," banned the sale and manufacture of alcohol, but a more relaxed law passed in 1858 only banned selling it.

"There would be bars in what we now call the Old Port selling oyster crackers for what a pint of beer would cost," Christie said. "So you'd buy the crackers and then they'd throw in the beer for free."

In other places, alcohol would be smuggled in from out of state.

"There's some geographic advantages to Maine," said Christie. "We have this incredibly long coast – if you count all the inlets and islands and peninsulas so lots of places for people to bring alcohol in from other states and Canada,"

Some people sold alcohol for medicinal purposes, which was still legal at the time. Many farmers fermented apples and rhubarb for hard cider and wine.

"People were making alcohol out of what they had left over," said Amanda O'Brien, co-owner of Eighteen Twenty Wines in Portland.

O'Brien's winery business is picking up where those farmer's left off. Eighteen Twenty Wines makes modern-day rhubarb wine.

"This is what people have been doing. Why not do it again, do it a little better and get it out in people's hands?" said O'Brien.


Today, people have the right to homebrew and drink if they are 21-years-old, but many prefer to wet their whistle at the exploding number of craft breweries that are popping up all over Maine. However, it would not have happened without another change to Maine law that happened only a few years ago.

In April 2012, the “tasting room law” passed in Augusta.

Prior to that law, breweries couldn't sell samples or have modern day tasting rooms. They were only allowed to give away small samples of product.

LD-1889 allows breweries to sell beer in cans, bottles or growlers. They can also sell samples on site.

"Before it would have been like, 'Ok, we had an industrial tour and here's your tiny little sample.' It just changed everything," said beer writer Carla Lauter. "And that culture, just as soon as that law came by to allow for charging of samples and allowing for them to pour bigger samples, rather than just a free little teeny one-- it meant that it was economically viable for them to have a place where people could come."

From there, Maine's beer map exploded from a relative handful to more than 100 breweries in a matter of a few short years.

"As these breweries succeed and grow, they're taking that money, they're putting it right back into their business. They're hiring more people. They're expanding their facilities. And it's all about accommodating this growing, growing interest in craft beer," said Sean Sullivan, Executive Director of the Maine Brewers' Guild. "What we're seeing now, where we're thinking the industry is heading, is a lot of small producers operating on a small scale, serving a hyper-local market. And that really fits into what consumers want. They walk into a bar and go, 'What's local?'"


The first breweries to open in Maine were Geary's in 1986 and Gritty McDuff's in 1988.

Before the tasting room law passed in 2012, the beer scene was slow to grow, with only a few other companies setting up including Sea Dog Brewing Company in 1993, and Shipyard and Allagash in 1994.

One thing they all seem to have in common, regardless of opening date, is their location: greater Portland.

According to brewers, it all has to do with one main ingredient in beer: water.

The breweries use water from Sebago Lake, which is just northwest of Portland. The state's Office of Tourism lists Sebago Lake as more than 300 feet deep with a glacial sand bottom that acts like a natural filter. The state says the water is pristine and is widely viewed as some of the best water in the world for brewing.

The state says breweries that open outside of Portland are just as happy with their water quality.

Oxbow Beer in Newcastle taps into an aquifer under the brewery itself. The aquifer also waters the orchard where they grow fruit used in many of its nontraditional Belgian-style farmhouse brews.

Nearly an hour away from the Midcoast in Lewiston, the founder of Baxter Brewing Co., Luke Livingston, says his company sources from Lake Auburn, but they are even more proud of the water that isn't used.

The state says because of green practices, Baxter Brewing Co. only needs four gallons of water to make one gallon of beer. It normally takes seven gallons of water to make one gallon of beer.


If you travel to Industrial Way in Portland, you'll find one of Maine’s “beer neighborhoods.” It's a spot where several of Maine’s most prominent breweries got their start.

Maine Beer Company, Rising Tide, and Bissell Brothers all started in the building at 1 Industrial Way. Currently, the building is home to Foundation Brewing Company, Austin Street Brewery, and Battery Steele. Just down the street you will find Allagash, and Definitive Brewing, which opened in late May 2018.

It's a similar scene in the city's East End. At Lone Pine Brewing on Anderson Street, it's a tight squeeze in their tasting room -- the result of two years of hard work.

"it is intimidating when you come in as the new guy," said Co-owner Tom Madden.

Lone Pine is next door to Eighteen Twenty Wines and around the corner from Goodfire Brewing. Just blocks away is Oxbow's Portland location and Urban Farm Fermentory.

"It's one of those situations where a rising tide lifts all ships," Madden said.

It just so happens, Rising Ride is Lone Pine's biggest brewing neighbor, and, so far, there seems to be room for them all.

"You are amongst others making high quality beer, you yourself should be making high quality beer to fit in," Madden said.

"The odds are if you threw a dart at the wall and went to a brewery, the beer there is going to be good, which is not the case in other states," said Carla Lauter.

Lauter says there is no cap to the number of breweries that can find success as long as the quality keeps up, and they have a balanced business plan. She says it's especially true, if they're willing to open past Portland, which Lauter says more brewers are doing

"We're kind of going back to what was happening before prohibition, which is where the town had its own brewery and it was kind of self-supporting. So, it's about its own community," said Lauter.

"We're not quite city folk. It feels more comfortable out here," said Tim Bissell, co-founder of Gneiss Brewing in Limerick.

He and Dustin Johnson opened their brewery in 2013. They built on family land to save on rent. With few brewing neighbors, Bissell says they welcome more brewers like them to the state.

"There are not too many breweries in Maine. To a larger point, there are not too many breweries in America. We still don't have as many breweries as wineries. So, I think we have a lot of catching up to do," said Bissell.

Many others are joining Gneiss in smaller areas of Maine.

In 2018, nine breweries have opened in places like Waldoboro, Waterville, and Fort Kent.

Nine more are set to open by the end of the summer in places like Berwick, Bethel, and Boothbay Harbor.


With the explosion of breweries in Portland and beyond, Maine has become a destination for craft beer.

"Maine has a lot of infrastructure for tourists, but they're coming here for beer," said Sean Sullivan.

"We've become a state where craft beers and wines are becoming very, very important," said Governor Paul LePage at a tourism conference. "We have trails now that people will come to Maine and follow the trails of craft brewers and the wine makers. I think it’s all really, really good."

The Maine Brew Bus saw an opening in the industry six years ago.

"We started with the idea that people wanted to be connected to these breweries. We had one bus - one tour," said Don Littlefield, the General Manager for Maine Brew Bus.

This summer, they'll have more than 30 tours a week and will shuttle tourists from brewery to brewery. So far, they've served people from 38 states and four countries.

"I think what we've seen is that the visitor to Portland is here for more than just lighthouses and lobsters. They’re also here for lagers and ales,” said Littlefield. “Businesses around greater Portland have adapted to that.”

Maine beers are also being shipped across the ocean with the state's first ever "beer box." It's a 40-foot shipping container with nearly 80 draft lines on the side. First, it shipped to Iceland, and it's taking another trip this summer.

"We're shipping it over to the United Kingdom," said Sullivan. "We're going to be featured in one their biggest beer festivals over there."

The beer business is also having a big impact here at home.

"Now-a-days, the microbrewery movement seems to be expected when you go to a town," said Steve Lyons with Maine's Office of Tourism.

Sullivan says it’s bringing business to communities that may need an economic boost.

"Maybe the mill has shut down a couple towns over. One restaurant is hanging on, but then a brewery shows up. They start selling beer a few hours a day. Then, they open up seven days a week. Then, the lunch place starts doing well,” Sullivan said. “Often times, brewers are serving as pioneers to help redevelop some of these small downtowns.”

He says it’s not only giving tourists a place to enjoy a pint, but locals as well.

"It becomes a point of pride for the community," said Sullivan.


With so many options, Maine brewers have to get creative to stand out. Many businesses are teaming up on “beer collaborations” to make one-of-a-kind drinks.

CBS 13 visited Westbrook's Mast Landing in mid-May. The brewery teamed up with Orono Brewing Company to create "3 The Hard Way," a double-IPA.

On release day, a line started forming late-morning with people wanting to get their hands on it.

"Super delicious, hoppy, citrusy, tropical. It's what everyone wants right now," described customer Allison Stevens.

"Wicked smooth. Not too hoppy, juicy," added customer Justin Elwell.

It's the first time these two breweries came together. The collaboration was born out of need and want.

"This all started because we're getting a new canning line and these guys have the exact same canning line that we're getting, so I said can we come down and use that and get a little experience there," said Asa Marsh-Sachs, Brew master at Orono Brewing Company.

"Collaboration beers are a lot of fun. It kind of breaks us out of the normal day to day brewing process," added Mast Landing co-owner Parker Olen. "It's really just an excuse to hang out with industry friends."


There are plenty or restaurants and bars in Portland where you can find many of Maine's craft beers. There are also several businesses using the state's unique history to create a current-day cocktail and bar scene with nods to the past. Their drink menus are overflowing with prohibition classics and some establishments are adopting a “speakeasy” style.

At Bramhall Pub in Portland's West End, many people can pass it on the street and not even know it's there. Owner Mark Hibbard calls it a modern speakeasy,

"It has this escape value where you can't really see what's going on in the outside world," said Hibbard. "it's really nice kind of gives you that element of a different time."

The brick, stained glass and candle votive create an intimate scene, and the drink menu stays on theme.

Hibbard says their craft cocktail list is extensive with prohibition cocktails as mainstays. The “scofflaw” is a bourbon-based drink served during prohibition. The word means “a person who flouts the law, especially by failing to comply with a law that is difficult to enforce effectively.”

"There's a reason why these drinks have been around so long, it's because they're good and they work,” Hibbard said.

Lincolns is Portland's only hidden bar – as close as you will find to a speakeasy in Maine’s largest city. It has no signage, no marketing, no address or phone number.

"We just keep it very simple really. Back to basic gin and tonic, vodka soda, jack and coke. We save the craft cocktails for the other places. We make drinks not cocktails here," said owner Angie Drinkwater.


Whether it's a cocktail or a beer, many drink makers in Maine are focused on quality. As fledgling brewers ran into problems with taste and consistency, a partnership formed between the Maine beer industry and the University of Southern Maine.

"Quality was becoming more and more important, but people didn't have the tools," said Dr. Lucille Benedict who runs the QC2 Lab at the University of Southern Maine.

“QC2” is a beer quality-control lab.

“We had the tools that could fill that gap, and I had the students who needed to learn how to learn those tools,” Dr. Benedict said.

For four years, the quality control lab at USM has paired scientists with suds.

"Then there was no turning back. Now I'm a yeast biologist!" said USM Junior Nicolas Mesloh.

Students are working with small breweries across Maine, New England, and even Texas. They’re focusing on things like color and taste.

"As much as we can the students are running the testing services. They're doing research with brewers," said Dr. Benedict.

"It’s fun, but it's a really serious thing that they're doing with the beer, and the students take it very seriously too when they're doing they're research. "It's all business in here, but we have been known to visit some of the local tasting rooms for sure," said Dr. Benedict.

At Allagash Brewing Company in Portland, there is an entire team devoted to quality.

"Quality has been the focus of [owner] Rob Todd since day one of opening the brewery," said Zach Bodah, Quality Manager at Allagash.

Scientists in their lab are testing for contaminates, alcohol levels, and carbonation.

"Our lab does a lot!" said Bodah.

As Maine's beer scene continues to grow, quality will remain the key.

"Have a healthy respect for the brewers and the scientists who make sure your favorite beer stays your favorite beer and doesn't gradually turn into some abomination over time," said Mesloh.

close video ad
Unmutetoggle ad audio on off