Less Is More?
As with most things in a marriage, the details of our trip started with a negotiation. We were driving from Washington, DC, to Acadia National Park, with several pits stops along the way—NYC, Portland, Camden, Cape Cod—and my wife knew that breweries would be part of the itinerary—because it’s always part of the itinerary. Denver, Fort Collins, Portland, Oregon. We’ve toured more than a handful of beer cities, but she can never indulge in more than a few sips because they trigger migraines. A sip of an IPA, a small pour of a sour or a saison, sure. But I knew that what I hoped for—dedicating half the itinerary to beer—wasn’t gonna happen. Not if I wanted to have fun on the trip and…you know…stay married.
I knew I had to narrow my ambition considerably.
Maine does not make this easy. It boasts 57 breweries, according to the Maine Brewer’s Guild, including Allagash—who built their empire by introducing the Belgian White to mainstream America—and a slew of other must-visits. The official map of Maine Breweries is so dense with points of interest it looks like Google Maps contracted the measles.
The route we’d take—driving north from Portland along Route One to Acadia—did help eliminate some of the contenders. But Portland has more than half a dozen breweries and loads of beer-centric bars and bottle shops, and that’s just one town.
So, I narrowed it down to three stops. Well, I started with five, but quickly realized (with my wife’s patience guidance) that three was the magic number. To help focus, I looked to the craft pioneers (Allagash) as well as the results of best-of lists, like the ranking of the best American IPAs (Maine Beer Company) and the sage advice of similarly beer-obsessed friends who’d toured the state last year (Oxbow). I also planned to scour every Whole Foods I could. Those shelves always carry surprises.
What I didn’t expect? The joys of discovering things beyond the rare beer you had to try. Visiting the sprawling complex of Urban Farm Fermentory to try flights of kambucha, cider, and gruit, an ancient form of beer made from fermented herbs. Or finding a stellar beer list at a restaurant amidst the tourist frenzy of Bar Harbor, just outside of Acadia. And discovering that any self-respecting establishment throughout the state—from lobster shacks to oyster-shucking upstairs bars—prides itself on carrying a few local brews, most of which were entirely new to me. And most of those places also had a nice dry white wine that my wife could enjoy.
Brewer Rob Tod timed the launch of Allagash perfectly. The U.S. beer scene had become familiar with German and British styles, but Belgian styles hadn’t found its place on the American palate. He assembled a 15-barrel brewhouse made from used equipment and sold his first batch of the Belgian wheat—aptly named the Alllagash White—in 1995. For some, it was a gateway into a variety of other styles. For others, it’s just a great freakin’ beer; it still accounts for most of Allagash’s sales more than 20 years later.
Tod has since expanded his line to include other Belgian staples like its Tripel, Dubbel, and the Saison, a relative newcomer that’s fast becoming one of the strongest-selling brews in their line. But beer geeks likely gravitate toward Allagash’s more adventurous offerings, like their experimental limited-release beer and those that pass through the coolship. The latter uses a traditional Belgian method of spontaneous fermentation, where the hot, unfermented wart is cooled overnight using the ambient outdoor temperature in a large, shallow pan known as a “coolship,” which encourages wonderfully unpredictable elements (like the wild berries growing just outside) to inoculate the beer. The next morning, it’s transferred into French oak wine barrels, where it’s aged for one to three years and then blended to create tart, sour beers like the Resurgam. Built in 2007, it’s the only one in the country, and the stained-glass windows (which always stay open) evoke a cathedral atmosphere to the room.
My visit to the brewery was relatively quick—as are most. The tours are free, as are the samples of the four beers they have on tap each day, but they don’t sell beer by the pint at the brewery, so that the tours keep moving and the tasting room doesn’t become a mess of tippled tourists. I met with Lindsay Bohanske, the brewery’s media handler and all-around beer expert, for a quick walk through the facility, which sits in the same place where Tod first started brewing, about a 15-minute drive outside of downtown Portland. The facility has naturally expanded in the decades since he sold his first Allagash White, and now includes bottle and canning and the wild barrel room.
I left with two bottles of their Farm to Face, a limited-edition ale brewed with three pounds of peaches per gallon of beer. The fruit was sourced from Applecrest Farm in New Hampshire, and last year’s crop had suffered from a premature frost—the 2016 would be the last until 2018. Start planning your trip now, and hope they still have a few available. Oh, and if you want the tour, reserve a space.
Urban Farm Fermentory, Portland
I swear I’m not making this up: when my wife and I got to the Urban Farm Fermentory, a basket-weaving class was happening in the courtyard just outside its expansive property. Inside the massive space, the hippy/hipster vibe continued, like something out of a feverish Portlandia dreamscape. But in a good way.
As its name proclaims, this “experimental urban farm” and community engagement hub is focused on making authentic fermented beverages—kombucha, cider, mead, and gruit, using local and foraged ingredients whenever possible. They even have a sign asking for donations of any herbs or other ingredients that you might have in abundance.
We opted for a flight of kombucha, cider, and gruit (I find mead to be too sweet), and it was a spectacular tour of different, bold flavors—sour, sharp, herbal, earthy, sweet, and spicy. The three gruits—an ancient method of beer-making using herbs—won’t replace my love of West Coast IPAs, but the ciders were refreshingly tart and funky, a far cry from the saccharine sweetness typical to most mainstream versions. And the kombuchas were a revelation, particularly the one made with ghost pepper. The heat didn’t punch you the way that pepper’s reputation would have you believe. It was subtle, coming on quietly, artfully at the end of the beverage’s sour notes.
The menu is entirely seasonal—naturally—and they also offer 32-ounce growler fills. They also distribute bottled kombucha throughout the state, as well as in Massachusetts, Vermont, New York, and Washington, DC.
Oxbow has a tasting room in Portland, but there’s no substitute for a visit to their Newcastle facility, which sits about 20 minutes off Route 1. As with Allagash, Oxbow specializes in traditional Belgian-style ales, but with a decidedly American influence. The tasting room resembles a wood shack (in the best of ways), and is attached to the farmhouse brewery.
Don’t expect an organized tour, and don’t hold that against ‘em. By now you probably already know how beer is made. Besides, the property embodies everything pastoral about Maine—rolling hills, pools of shade cast by the canopies of massive trees, a small lake—along with all of the brewery trappings like picnic tables, corn hole, and occasional live music or food trucks. You can get a sample flight of the six or so beers on tap, and also buy regional cheese, as well as a handful of 750ML bottles to go (some barrel-aged), as well as the requisite t-shirts, hats, and onesies.
Their farmhouse styles cover the gamut, including a pale, an IPA, and a grisette, all accompanied with various degrees of funkiness akin to the farmhouse style. If they have a bottle, grab a Barrel-Aged Farmhouse Pale. The American saison was aged in American and French oak barrels, making the beer a tart, funky success. We were less thrilled with the Saison Dell’Aragosta, which was brewed with live lobster and sea salt, resulting in a disappointingly briny aftertaste. This may be exception to prove the rule that Maine lobster always tastes good.
Maine Beer Company, Freeport
If Oxbow is brewing gone rustic, then Maine Beer Co. is its opposite—at least in terms of architecture. Their modern brewing facility sits off Route One, just north of Portland’s suburbs, and it’s a gleaming sight to behold. Food trucks outside, a buzzy tasting room inside, with big plate glass windows overlooking the mad alchemy afoot in their brewing facilities. Tours aren’t offered, and they don’t offer kegs or growler fills. But you can taste from the eight beers on tap, including some brewery-only releases. But for me, the biggest draw was scoring several of the reasonably-priced bottles to go, like their award-winning Lunch IPA, the Beer V, and “a tiny beautiful something” (arguably the most perfect and understated beer name ever).
Visiting the brewery will also help you grasp their overarching commitment to brewing “the right way,” which translates into giving back. Solar panels dominate a large part of the brewery’s yard—and Maine Beer Co. offsets any additional energy consumption. They’re a part of the Brewers for Clean Water and have signed the Clean Water Pledge. Local farmers inherit their spent grain and liquid waste for compost, fertilizer, and feed. They also participate in 1% for the Planet, and host a variety of fund-raising events like fun runs and bike rides.
Blaze, Bar Harbor
Bar Harbor sits at one of the most-used entrances into Acadia National Park, and in many ways, operates as the travel epicenter of the region. We visited the town late one afternoon, went straight for a long day hike, and the throngs of tourists walking shoulder-to-shoulder on the sidewalks, dazed and unaware of the rest of the world around them, sent us scurrying for shelter.
The façade of Blaze promised craft beer and wood-fired flavors, and it delivered.
The place has 50 beers on tap, with everything from “microbrew” stand-bys like Ballast Point to a whole host of regional beer from Maine and the surrounding states. They had limited release brew from Bissell Brothers, an upstart brewery from Portland, and a robust selection of lambics and sours. And—yes—a respectable wine list.
I can’t attest to what this bar/restaurant scene is like once the sun sets—we got there as the dinner staff was starting to prep, and their uniforms and overall decor felt like Blaze was ambitiously trying to corner the nighclub scene in Bar Harbor. But it offers sweet solace from the sprawling masses that choke Bar Harbor’s main drag throughout the summer.