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August 16, 2017

Maine Food Insider: Oxbow Brewing marks anniversary with Duckfat pig roast

Photo / Lori Valigra
Photo / Lori Valigra
Tim Adams, founder of Oxbow Brewing Co., at the Portland aging and taproom facility. The company will celebrate its 6th anniversary on Aug. 16 and rerelease its Barrel Aged Farmhouse Pale Ale for the occasion.

Oxbow Brewing Co. is celebrating its sixth anniversary today with a pig roast by Duckfat's new, second location abutting the boutique craft brewery on Washington Avenue in Portland and a burger and fry truck at its 18-acre farm and brewery in Newcastle.

"We have a new beer for the celebration," Tim Adams, founder of Oxbow Blending & Bottling Co. of Portland, told Mainebiz. "It's our flagship Barrel Aged Farmhouse Pale Ale, which is an American Saison aged in a blend of American and French oak barrels." He said Oxbow hasn't released the beer for more than a year because it takes more than one-and-one-half years to make it.

The company produces all its beer in Newcastle, then brings it to Portland to be aged, blended and bottled. The 10,000-square-foot Washington Avenue location also has an indoor bar and eatery with seating, an entertainment area and art displays. He noted Oxbow has a Class A lounge license to let it serve beer and food.

That helps in its new partnership with popular Portland restaurant Duckfat. Duckfat already had been serving Oxbow's beers, which are Belgian style, but was cramped for kitchen space, Duckfat Chef Rob Evans told Mainebiz.

"The production at our restaurant [on Middle Street] was crazy, so we were looking for production space. Tim called us to tell us about the space next to him," said Evans. The original Duckfat is about 1,700 square feet, including kitchen and serving area, and the new space is about the same size, with most of it to be devoted to kitchen and expansion space.

Duckfat was opened in 2005 by Evans and his wife Nancy Pugh. Evans was named "Best Chef Northeast" by the James Beard Foundation in 2009 and is a three-time Food Network Chopped Champion restaurant.

Duckfat, which used the month of July to sporadically open a fry window at the new location to judge traffic, plans to open in late fall, Evans said, and will be open seven days a week for lunch and dinner and for special events at Oxbow.

Evans and Adams worked for over a year to update and put in stonework and a grill on a patio the two share between their spaces. The patio houses picnic tables where customers of both can eat and drink. In the winter, Duckfat's fry window customers will be able to use Oxbow's indoor eating space.

Evans said Duckfat will only serve fries at the window, but there will be an assortment, including poutine French Canadian fries with gravy and cheese curds.

"This [arrangement] fits perfectly with our Belgian fries and their Belgian beers," Evans said.

For the Aug. 16 celebrations, both tasting rooms open to the public at noon. Newcastle will stay open until 7 p.m. and Portland until 11 p.m.

Spontaneous fermentation

Oxbow is one of the few craft brewers in the country to use a coolship, a long vat that exposes wort to naturally occurring yeast and bacteria so they reproduce faster by consuming sugars. That in turn starts the production of alcohol. It's a process from Belgium known as spontaneous fermentation, which maximizes the surface area so it has the most contact with air. It is typically done in the winter, Adams said.

Oxbow's beer-making process is slow, from six to 18 months, so it can sell beer at a premium, from $12.50 to $17.50. It also has started putting the production time on its bottles and the date it was bottled.

The beer is shipped from Newcastle to Portland for barrel aging, blending and bottling. Adams said Oxbow releases about 40 beers annually, and this year that will include 12 new beers.

The company made just under 50,000 gallons, or about 1,600 barrels in 2016, which puts it at the state's limit for brewers to self-distribute. Oxbow will need to choose a wholesale partner in a year, he said.

The company distributes its own beer now in Maine, but has relationships with distributors and wholesalers in Massachusetts, Vermont, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Chicago and Washington, D.C. It also has exported beer and collaborated with breweries to make its brews in Belgium, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Japan and Canada.

It's overall focus is on steady but slow growth, and to be part of the local community, Adams said. Oxbow has about 30 employees in both locations.

In 2018, it plans to slowly grow production.

"We don't want to become a large-capacity brewer," he said. "We aim to make 4,000 to 5,000 barrels a year as a result of slow, steady growth."

Currently, it produces Belgian- and French-style farmhouse ales and one pilsner.

"Different tastes aren't a priority for everyone," Adams said of other craft brewers. "We focus on making new flavors in the realm of farmhouse ales." Some of the flavor comes from the honey bees at the Newcastle farm, along with cherries, strawberries, raspberries, elderberries and blueberries grown there. He also farms his own pigs for the pig roasts.

The controlled growth also relates to the company's funding. It initial was funded with a $400,000 equity round to friends and family, and last year the company brought in $150,000 of a $1 million round focused on buying out an existing partner.

"We are very selective about our business partners," Adams said, referring to the amount remaining to be raised. He doesn't like talking about money matters, so he declined to specify the amount of loans the company has with Bath Savings bank, nor the total investment to date or revenue. He would only say the company is profitable.

"For us it's about how to keep producing beers and be a center of culture in our community," he said. "That's what the reward is for us."

Too many craft brewers?

There have been a series of craft brewer acquisitions outside Maine in recent months. Anheuser-Busch InBev bought its 10th craft brewer in early May, Wicked Weed Brewing of North Carolina. On Aug. 10 Constellation Brands, the parent company of Corona, bought Florida's Funky Buddha. In early August Japan's Sapporo bought San Francisco's Anchor Brewing. And on the consolidation front, San Francisco craft brewer New Belgium Brewing bought Magnolia Brewing, also of San Francisco.

"Maine hasn't seen acquisitions of craft breweries, but it certainly will happen," he predicted. "There's not that much room left in bars and breweries in terms of shelf space." He said the industry consolidation will up the competition, which he sees as a good thing.

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