May 29, 2017
On the record

On the record: Craft brewing goes hyperlocal

Photo / Lori Valigra
Photo / Lori Valigra
Pennesseewassee Brewing Co. CEO Lee Margolin plans to triple output and add a taproom by the holiday season. He's part of a trend of more craft breweries locating in rural areas.

Lee Margolin, founder and CEO of Pennesseewassee Brewing Co. in Harrison, is proof that the craft brew scene has moved beyond Portland and Bangor and into rural areas, following the trend of beer buyers wanting to quench their thirst with more local fare. It hearkens back to the days before Prohibition, when neighborhood breweries were common places to socialize.

"The rural breweries are changing the way people think about craft beer," Sean Sullivan, executive director of the Maine Brewers' Guild, based in South Portland, told Mainebiz in March, when the guild and the University of Maine School of Economics released a study noting craft brewers overall had a $228 million economic impact in Maine in 2016.

Pennesseewassee, named after a nearby lake in Norway, is one of 27 breweries in Cumberland County, which includes Portland, out of a total of 82 craft brewers in the state. Margolin started the brewery in 2011.

Pulling into an unassuming dirt driveway in the rural Bolsters Mills section of Harrison, I'm greeted by Margolin's two dogs, Lucy and Krumpy, as they bolt out of a house hidden by trees. Part of the house now serves as the brewery with its three fermenters, Thing 1, Thing 2 and Thing 3. The former bathroom off the fermenter room has a commercial sink, as well as storage in the shower stall.

In the basement Margolin, who also is a neuroscientist, collects and supplies live sea lamprey to research institutions. His 1.5 barrel system produces Pennesseewassee's flagship pale ale, known as Pennybrew, and Honey Brown Ale, which uses Maine-grown organic elderberries.

Margolin recently talked to Mainebiz about his plans to add more flavors and double his current capacity by using the entire house for beer production and adding a new taproom for passersby. Pennesseewassee is on the Maine Beer Trail and already gives brewery tours by appointment.

An edited transcript follows.

Mainebiz: How much beer do you produce a year now?

Lee Margolin: Fifteen barrels a year. Some breweries produce that in a single batch.

MB: How do you distribute your beer?

LM: I self-distribute in state, primarily to Bridgton, Harrison, South Paris and West Paris, plus to Lewiston-Auburn, Brunswick, Topsham and Portland.

MB: Where can we taste your beer?

LM: We have taps at the Thirsty Pig, Great Lost Bear, Café Nomad, Rustic Grill, Olde Mill Tavern, Vivo and Black Horse Tavern.

MB: With such a small operation, do you collaborate with other breweries?

LM: Brewers are a collegial group. Norway Brewing opened a year ago. [Co-owner Charles Melhaus] has come to my mill with his oats and he has a three-head keg washer at his facility that I use.

MB: How are sales and profits?

LM: We're not very profitable. The state inspector is coming soon to look at converting the entire home into a taproom and expanding the brewery, and then we'd be able to operate at capacity. With the expansion, we could make a profit and I wouldn't have to schlep the beer to distribute it. I'd like to add another style or two, maybe follow the drumbeat of the IPA. I'm considering other options as well, like locating in the Olde Mill Restaurant in downtown Harrison.

MB: How will you pay for the expansion?

LM: We'll get a loan. The lending environment for craft brewers is really favorable.

MB: How can rural craft brewers compete in areas with small populations?

LM: The western Maine craft brew destination is the opposite of the urban craft beer destination, but people do both. Millennials come out here.

MB: How did a neuroscientist become a brewer?

LM: I've been a home brewer since the 1980s. I left [the neuroscience company where I worked] in 2010 and followed my interest in craft beer. I have a science background and a love of gadgets, so brewing is perfect.


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