It’s 10:30 a.m. on a Saturday as I pull into the lot at Thompson’s Point in Portland, Maine, the headquarters for Bissell Brothers. As I get out of my car, I begin to think to myself, “it’s a little over an hour until opening, this is actually pretty tame for a can release for today’s standards.” That was before I noticed that all the cars around the parking lot that I thought were empty, were actually filled with one or two individuals, patiently waiting to see someone make the first move and start the lineup for cans. We’re all here for the dual release of Reciprocal, a double dry hopped double IPA, and Substance, their flagship pale. As I slowly walk into the brewery, tip-toeing as if not to wake any of the sleeping giants around me, I see looks of uneasiness from everyone in their cars. They’re wondering if I am starting the line, 1.5 hours early, in 20-degree weather.
Walking into the brewery, I head to the counter to let them know I’m waiting for Peter Bissell, who opened Bissell Brothers with his brother Noah just over three years ago. In that short time, they’ve become known for their pale ales and IPAs. As I wait, I sit and chat with the brewery staff, realizing that one of the guys actually grew up in the same small town in New York as I did. As we both gaze outside, he says, “They’re all waiting to see who will start the line first.”
Roughly 15 minutes before doors open, Peter walks in, smiling ear to ear, bursting with energy. Not knowing it, I would have thought it was his first can release by how excited he is. As he takes some final photos for Bissell’s Instagram, letting everyone know today’s can limits, the staff discusses one of the most crucial decisions of the morning, what song to open the doors to, eventually deciding on Mark Morrison’s “Return of the Mack.”
As not only beer nerds, but families and working professionals begin to pour into the taproom, I quickly move to the side with Peter, so as not to get trampled by the crowd, and we begin to chat about how crazy this whole thing actually is. For those of you who have not visited Bissell before, or least before 2017, this is uncharted territory. The idea for the brewery actually started in 2011, back when Noah decided he wanted to brew beer for a living. Peter recalls when Noah first asked him to join him on this journey: “I abandoned my previous career plans and we pivoted toward this goal. It took two years from conception to execution – from an idea to a pint poured at the bar. We were two kids from rural Maine, with zero brewing experience and zero finance experience, so we had a lot of learning to do, and that’s what we did.” Peter likes to call that time in his life between 2011 and 2013 his “great awakening.”
What was once a dream would become a reality in 2013 when David Kleban from Maine Beer Company actually reached out to see if Peter and Noah had interest in taking over his space. “At the time, we could not believe that this guy, who was a legend in our eyes, was actually calling us on the phone because he had heard about our plans,” Peter recalls. “It ended up being a win-win, as Maine Beer Company sold us some equipment (that was still in great condition, and already hooked up) that they would have had to pay to move/dispose of, and they just left it in place for us, and we took over the lease. At the time, signing that three-year lease in April 2013 (eight months before we would have any type of cash flow) was the scariest thing we had ever done.” Peter had no idea that he was about to become a tenant at what would become known as a beer mecca in Portland, a location that would host not only Bissell, but Allagash, Foundation, and Austin Street, all within the same complex.
As Peter and I try several of the offerings on tap, including one of my favorite hoppy beers out there, Swish, he introduces me to the guys at The High Roller Lobster Company, a food stand that is serving up some of the best lobster-centic dishes you will find anywhere in Portland, with their signature cheese crisp-shell lobster tacos. As one of the guys hands Peter a custom double lobster cake sandwich, I realize I’m missing out and order one as well.
We both sit there eating our sandwiches, marveling at how happy everyone is, even those waiting in line, and I ask Peter about how easy the transition has been to this new location at Thompson’s Point. For those that haven’t been, it’s about 10 times the size of their old brewery at Industrial Way. Peter says that Thompson’s Point was by far the most complex deal he’s ever done before, noting, “When we signed the lease, the building still had a dirt floor, holes in the roof, etc. The potential was very clearly there, but realizing it depended on many other factors and elements falling into place. The other major factor was that it involved moving our existing equipment, and ceasing production for a time. This was very scary for a small business with 13 or 14 people on payroll at the time. But it all worked out. Noah and I got the new brewery planned, built, and the old location moved and merged with the new equipment, and none of our worst fears came to pass.”
The building itself is quite unique. Having been built back in 1904, it served as a railcar repair location for the Maine Central Railroad. On each side of the building you can actually still see the archways that once allowed trains to pass through the building over a century ago while being either maintained or repaired.
The move to Thompson’s Point has not only provided additional space for patrons, but it has also allowed Bissell to expand their portfolio and focus on a barrel program. Peter mentions that right now they have various types of beer aging in many different barrels – red and white wine, whiskey, maple syrup, port, Moscatel, etc. “In many ways the program is still in its infancy,” he says. “Noah is doing what he does best – researching, experimenting, learning from the results and then repeating the process, with a singular goal of making the best possible finished product it is within his capacity to make.”
As for the expansion, Bissell is really just getting started, as they are already looking to open a second location in rural Maine to focus on “barrel and foudre aging, wild yeast fermentation, proper lager production and anything else that tickles our fancy,” Peter mentions. “A quiet piece of land/ in our hometown will serve as the perfect setting for this type of work, and will contrast with the fast-paced, energetic, never-a-dull-moment vibe of the Bissell HQ at Thompson’s Point. Is it so wrong to want the best of both worlds?”
As we walk through the back of the brewery to check out the barrels, Peter quickly introduces me his brother Noah before heading home to spend the rest of his Saturday with his son. Before taking off, I chat with Noah about his experiences these last three plus years, the current beer scene, and some of our favorite breweries. Then I ask him if he’s seen what’s going on out front. Pausing, he notices all the people, from all walks of life, and he appears humbled and taken aback, as if it’s something he’s seeing for the first time. “I still can’t believe people are actually coming here to try what I brew,” he says. “It still blows me away every time.”
Jason Stein is a New York-based beer nerd. You can find more of his writing on NYC Beer Society.