Something’s brewing: a look at Maine’s fun & funky craft beer scene

2016-04-20 (7)

Photo courtesy of Gneiss Brewing Co.

By Carey Kish

Maine’s microbrewers have been at the forefront of the craft beer movement in the U.S. ever since pioneer David Geary opened his brewery in Portland in 1986, the first microbrewery east of the Mississippi River. Today, the number of licensed breweries in Maine hovers around 80 and includes some of the best breweries in New England.

“There’s a craft beer to suit every Maine beer lover’s palate,” said Sean Sullivan, executive director of the Maine Brewers Guild, “from traditional English-style ales and lagers and American Belgians to Farmhouse fanatics and German-style wheat beers and many more seasonal brews.”

Maine’s colorful beer scene ranges from home brewers-turnedprofessional beer crafters using locally-sourced ingredients to make small batches in barns, basements and old buildings to large operations with miles of hoses and pipes and stainless steel equipment housed in 10,000-square-foot warehouses.

Maine’s brewers, very often clad in Carhartt overalls and knee-high rubber boots, love what they do and enjoy sharing the malty, hoppy fruits of their labor. Here’s a look at a handful of Maine’s smaller craft beer makers, each with their own unique character and a little bit off the beaten path, all worth a fun visit and a sit-down with a fine pint of brew.

Gneiss Brewing Company

Longtime friends Dustin Johnson and Tim Bissell co-founded this small brewery in the backwoods of Limerick in 2013. Located on a side road off a side road, the operation is very much tied to the land, where they raise pigs that turn over the soil and eat the spent grain from the brewing process.

“We specialize in very drinkable German-style wheat beers,” Bissell said, noting the brewery’s unusual name. “Dustin studied geology in college, so we decided to have some fun by naming the brewery and our beers after geological formations” (gneiss is a type of metamorphic rock).

Gneiss-weiss is the flagship beer, a traditional 4.8% ABV hefeweizen, served in the small tasting area right in the brewing space. Enjoy it and four other beers on draft or take away a growler. Gneiss beers are available in bottles and on tap throughout Maine.

Northern Outdoors-9216

Photo courtesy of Kennebec River Brewery

Kennebec River Brewery

Traditional British-style pub beers are what’s on tap in the beautiful open-timbered Maine log lodge at Northern Outdoors in The Forks, billed as the only whitewater rafting and adventure resort with its own brewery.

“We’re a brew pub in the strictest sense, a throwback to a neighborhood pub,” said Jim Yearwood, vice president of Northern Outdoors and the brewery’s founder in 1996. “We don’t distribute, so you have to enjoy our beers onsite or take home a fresh growler.”

Magic Hole IPA is the brewery’s flagship beer and still its best seller. There’s also Let ‘Er Drift Summer Ale and a variety of other custom ales and lagers on tap.

Marsh Island Brewing

Alice Swett owns Swett’s Tire and Auto and the adjacent Hogan Road Deli & Convenience on Hogan Road in Bangor, the latter featuring over 600 labels of beer from around the world. Swett took notice when one of her master auto technicians, Clay Randall, started winning numerous awards at home brewing competitions.

“That’s when we put our heads together and said, hey, what about opening our own brewery,” Swett said. “We found an old tire storage space in downtown Orono, cleaned it out, and set up shop in 2014.”

Marsh Island produced its first beer, Downrigger IPA, the following summer, and today has 10 labels of beer available in kegs and bottles from Kittery to Presque Isle, all self-distributed. A tasting room is planned for 2017.

“Our specialty is doing traditional recipes well,” said Swett, noting that Randall claims his Wooly Bugger Pilsner is the “best thing he’s ever brewed.”

Norway Brewing Company

Photo courtesy of Norway Brewing Company

Photo courtesy of Norway Brewing Company

This new brewery (April 2016) on Main Street in Norway has the look and feel of an old farmhouse, with lots of barn wood and pendant Edison lights with chicken-wire shades. Wooden skis and snowshoes, remnants of a bygone era of local manufacturing, adorn the windows and walls.

“Mr. Grumpy Pants Oatmeal Stout is our signature beer,” said Charlie Magne Melhus, co-owner and head brewer (he also claims chef, stone mason, farmer and janitor among his titles). The stout features Maine Grains oats and roasted beans from Coffee By Design. “If it doesn’t grow around here, we’re not putting it into our beers.”

The taproom also serves Left Turn Pale Ale, Impersonator Pilsner and a session ale named Green Machine, plus a limited menu of local foods. A 75-seat beer garden will open this summer.


Photo courtesy of Strong Brewing Company.

Strong Brewing Co.

Al Strong was a home brewer for years, and together with his wife, Mia, decided to open a brewery in their Sedgwick home as their retirement job. Saunter past the chickens and pigs in the yard to reach the daylight basement, where the taproom and brewery are found.

“We’re beer geeks,” said Mia Strong. “We’ve been drinking microbrews since the early ‘90s. We like a lot of different styles, and here we brew what we like.”

Enjoy a selection of 4 or 5 ales and lagers on draft indoors year-round or at the picnic tables in summer, brews like Localmotive, Bale O’ Hay IPA, Maineiac, Soulpatch Porter and Rope Ferry Red. There’s a local food truck and music on Friday evenings.

Find these breweries and many more on the Maine Beer Trail, which highlights the many and varied locations around the state where fresh, hand-crafted beer can be enjoyed.

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