October 15, 2012

Luke Livingston launches brewery, trend bringing commerce to Lewiston

Luke Livingston, president and founder of Baxter Brewing Co., has brought canned craft beer and a boost to the cultural renaissance of Lewiston-Auburn

VIEW: Luke Livingston gives a brewery tour

Baxter Brewing Co.

Address: 130 Mill St., Lewiston

President/founder: Luke Livingston

Founded: 2011

Employees: 10

Gross sales projection, 2012: $1.8 million

Contact: 333-6769

Two years in, Luke Livingston is doubling down on Baxter Brewing Co.

By 2014, he plans to nearly triple staff, quadruple production and brew around the clock to reach new markets across New England. A $2.5-million expansion to start this year will max out the company's Bates Mill brewery in Lewiston, allowing the can-only facility to produce over 1 million gallons of beer.

To keep up with the pace, the operation's lone canning machine will get a partner to share the workload.

"It far outpaces my wildest dreams," Livingston says of his company's growth. His commitment to the area and to breathing new commercial life into a hapless mill building has earned him accolades from regional economic development organizations, but beer aficionados are equally impressed.

In Maine, the craft brewing industry has seen strong growth in the last few years, increasing production by about 50% since 2009. Livingston's business — as with other craft brews going to cans — is rising ahead of that pace, he says.

This year's expected output — 250,000 gallons — is about double the 120,000 gallons of the brewery's first year, which started when the first case of Baxter beer left Lewiston on Jan. 28, 2011.

By August 2011, Livingston expanded his brewery's capacity for the first time, doubling production by adding two more 60-barrel fermentation tanks and one conditioning tank, bringing startup costs to $1.4 million.

The latest renovation will add two 20-foot-tall fermentation tanks in a courtyard adjacent to the current brew house and likely will include renovating an 8,000-square-foot warehouse down the street.

That growth is reassuring for the beer-maker who staked his business model on trends catching on out West, where craft breweries like the Colo.-based Oscar Blues were finding success canning hop-heavy brews.

"I said to myself, 'the first person in Maine who cans their beer has got it made,'" Livingston says.

He didn't think it would be him, until his mother lost her fight with breast cancer in 2009 and Livingston started reexamining his life and a job in college admissions. He quit his job, focused on writing a beer blog that he later sold and toyed with a foray into Internet marketing.

"A few nervous breakdowns later, I found that I had such a great idea for what I think is canning a big IPA in Maine," Livingston says.

With money from investors and from selling his blog, Livingston started the brewery, putting an India Pale Ale at the helm. Baxter became Maine's first craft brewery to distribute only in cans, a move that allows Livingston to get more beer out the door for less.

Brewing only in cans has been a Maine distinction for Baxter — even on draft, a Baxter can tops tap handles — but the company is unique in at least one other way: it's the only production brewery located in Lewiston.

The decision was partly happenstance for the Auburn native living in South Portland. Livingston says his eyes were set on Portland to get into the brewing business, until a meeting his father had with friends in Lewiston took a surprise turn to talking business.

"My dad mentioned the business plan and they said, 'What a great idea! Lewiston-Auburn really needs something like that. Would Luke consider putting it here?'" Livingston says. "And God bless my dad, his response was, 'I don't know. You tell me.'"

The reception in Lewiston has been strong, Livingston says, where Baxter is "selling well everywhere in town from dive bars to tablecloth restaurants" and where he says more than just beer fans are rooting for Baxter's success.

"These mills sat vacant for so long and we're the first new manufacturing in years," Livingston says. "That's really exciting to a lot of people and they've supported us because of that."

Graduating 10 years ago from Edward Little High School in Auburn, Livingston says his enthusiasm continues to grow for an area he says is experiencing a "cultural and economic renaissance."

It's enough that he and his wife — who also works at Baxter — have recently put their South Portland home on the market and plan to move back to L-A.

By the end of the year, Livingston says, about eight of the company's 10 employees will call Lewiston-Auburn home, which marks a change from the company's beginning.

"A year ago, there were only two or three of us," Livingston says, "So, we're all really committing to it."

With the pending expansion, Livingston says he'll look to add around 17 employees immediately and then through 2013 bring on another 10 employees, a pace that the 28-year-old says is "absolutely terrifying — the good kind of terrifying, you know."

It's the kind of terrifying that comes with direction-defining decisions for the company — of which there have been many since January of last year — that move his ideas from concept to reality.

Just last February, around the company's first birthday, Livingston had that feeling when the warehouse was filling with beer he couldn't move.

"We needed to sell it to keep the lights on and our Maine distributors didn't want it," Livingston says. "They had all the Baxter they could handle, so in order to pay my employees, I had to send beer to Massachusetts."

At the same time, the brewery was gearing up for its first seasonal beer, a citrusy summer ale, while demand for Baxter's flagship IPA blew up.

"It's been about 60% to 70% of our production this year," Livingston says. "We're hearing, 'Why did you make a summer beer when we can't get enough IPA?'"

Livingston says the company was only able to fill 30% of the orders for its IPA through 2012, making the year a balancing act between a move to seasonal beers — a commitment of around $25,000, or 150,000 pre-printed cans — and sticking to its most popular brews.

"Hindsight being what it is," Livingston says, "would I have waited a year to go to Massachusetts? Yes. Would I have waited a year to do seasonals? Yes."

Where he is now, waiting is the last thing on his mind.

Read more

Baxter Brewing Co. adds New York distribution

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