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Twelve tourists load into a bright green short bus called “Mabel” on a crisp fall afternoon, after paying around $75 each and knowing that the next six hours have been blocked off for a special brew-filled excursion through York County.
Coming from across the country — in one couple’s case, from across the continent — these tourists are here to tour four of the state’s craft breweries, aiding Maine’s craft beer industry, which has seen unprecedented growth over the last year.
The tour through York County, called “Southern Crawl,” is just one of 11 brewery tours offered by the Maine Brew Bus, a Portland-based tourism company that gives patrons a chance to get up close and personal with Maine breweries.
Maine Brew Bus is one of many businesses in the state that have been simultaneously supporting and benefiting from Maine’s craft beer industry, which has nearly doubled in size, from 35 breweries in 2013 to more than 60 this year.
A study released earlier this year by the Maine Brewers’ Guild, the state’s trade group, found that at 2013’s 35 breweries, production was expected to increase by 36% this year and double by 2018, figures that sound a little conservative now, considering this year’s boom.
“Now we’re making up for lost time,” says the Maine Brew Bus tour guide on that fall afternoon, referring to Maine’s Prohibition era, led by “Father of Prohibition” Neal Dow, who must surely be spinning in his grave now.
Passing a patchwork blur of amber and orange foliage, Mabel the brew bus goes south on Interstate 95 to catch four breweries in York County. The tourists, from California, Pennsylvania and Ontario, Canada, among other places, are introducing each other, explaining where they’re from and what kind of beer catches their fancy.
“I started brewing pretty recently myself,” says a man from Long Island, N.Y., who was accompanied by his partner. “One of my favorites is the whiskey-bourbon stout. That’s the one I’ve been messing with and it’s been coming out pretty good.”
These are the kind of enthusiasts who are flocking to breweries, helping prop up not just Maine’s craft beer industry but that of the entire country.
Domestic beer, the kind produced by Anheuser-Busch InBev and other companies, continues to dominate the U.S. market. But the market share for craft beer, defined by its smaller and more independent production, grew by 17.2% in 2013, representing $14.3 billion in sales in a $100 billion market, according to the Brewers Association, the industry’s Boulder, Colo.-based trade group.
“Americans are realizing this flavorless swill they’re drinking is not all that beer can be,” says Sean Sullivan, executive director of the Maine Brewers’ Guild. “There’s a style of beer for everyone, whether you like something spicy, summery, chocolatey or anything in between.”
To get a baseline of Maine’s craft beer industry, Sullivan commissioned two economists at the University of Maine to produce the economic impact study that was released earlier this year. It could be used to lobby for industry-friendly policies at the state level, Sullivan says.
Beyond finding that the state’s 35 existing breweries are poised for major growth in the next few years, the study also found:
• Maine breweries sold $92.6 million in beer in 2013 while employing 1,500 workers;
• Maine craft beer generated an additional $35.5 million in revenue in 2013 at brewpubs, restaurants and retail shops;
• Directly and indirectly, the Maine craft beer industry has an estimated $189 million in annual statewide economic impact.
Accounting for the boom of new breweries this year, Sullivan says the Maine Brewers’ Guild is already planning to release an updated study next year.
“I am confident that within two to three years, we’re going to be a major player in the economy,” he says.
After hitting breweries in Biddeford and Wells, Mabel the brew bus takes its passengers to York for SoMe Brewing Co., a brewery that opened last year and is already seeking to expand. (SoMe Brewing stands for “southern Maine brewing” or “some brewing.”)
Opened last December by Dave Rowland and his father, David, SoMe Brewing was born out of a confluence of personal aspirations, bittersweet fortunes and economic realities.
Having been laid off as a high school teacher in 2011, Dave started home brewing with his father, something they had done separately in the past. After his maternal grandfather died, Dave’s mother decided to use her inheritance to help him and his father make their dream come true.
“It’s still kind of a dream in a way, but we’re starting to get over that,” says David, the father. Not far away, Maine Brew Bus patrons enjoy a “paddle” featuring sample glasses of SoMe Brewing’s seven current brews, including Crystal Persuasion, its popular 8% alcohol by volume imperial pale ale made with crystal hops.
Dave Rowland says despite a bumpy start — with much thanks, he says, to last fall’s federal government shutdown — SoMe Brewing has been seeing increases in sales every month, “with the summer being an exceptional jump in business because we’re in a resort town.”
The growing demand, which is expected to increase even more with a newly announced statewide distribution deal with Portland-based Vacationland Distributors, has already pushed Rowland to invest in new brewing equipment. He says he also is looking to expand the brewery’s 1,500-square-foot location. “It’s not nearly enough,” he adds.
While the Maine Brew Bus provides nearly daily brewery tours, transporting around a dozen beer enthusiasts at a time, events and festivals like Portland Beer Week aim to attract hundreds, if not thousands in some cases, to Maine.
Heading into its third year, Portland Beer Week, Nov. 1-7, was created to give breweries and the bars and restaurants an extra bump in business during what is typically a slow time of the year, says organizer Allison Stevens, who owns The Thirsty Pig bar in downtown Portland.
“It’s a good way to show off beers [from Maine and] other states,” says Stevens, who keeps a number of tap lines open for local beer at her bar. “We have to find ways to engage with consumers,” not only telling them that these breweries exist, “but that there’s a whole culture around them.”
Portland Beer Week is held across more than 20 venues, mostly in Portland. Around 30 craft breweries, including SoMe Brewing, were expected to participate, sometimes appearing at venues where their beers have never been served.
“I think bars like The Thirsty Pig need to drive people to local beers,” Stevens says. “We should be supporting the people that work in our area.”
Stevens says while it’s hard to track attendance numbers across participating venues, she knows anecdotally that Portland Beer Week has attracted hundreds of people to the area and that it has made a big difference in sales. “Typically it’s one of the slowest weeks for beer, and now it’s the best week for beer,” she says.
And that’s only one of the few major events happening this year.
In August, more than 3,000 people congregated at Thompson’s Point in Portland to try beer from 120 regional breweries, including dozens from Maine. The event, “Beer Camp,” was part of a seven-city traveling festival organized by Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., the nation’s second-largest craft brewer (behind Boston Beer Co.).
“They could’ve gone anywhere,” says Sullivan, the Maine Brewers’ Guild head. “But they decided to come to Maine because our craft beer industry continues to grow and is a bright spot on a national scale,” with the state listed as having the fifth highest number of breweries per capita in 2013 — that’s 4.7 breweries per 100,000 people 21 years or older. Two of the nation’s top 50 craft brewers are based in Maine, Shipyard Brewing Co. and Allagash Brewing Co., both of which are based in Portland, according to the Brewers Association.
For many, Maine’s fast-growing craft beer industry is a reason for celebration. But it’s also causing some to ask: Is the beer bubble going to burst?
Sullivan says he is not worried that the market is becoming too crowded, noting how Maine’s beer industry is very collaborative and community-minded. While craft beer still has a relatively small share of the U.S. beer market, it is growing while the overall beer market is not.
SoMe Brewing’s Rowland agrees about the industry’s community spirit, saying he and other breweries recommend each other to patrons. But, he says, market saturation could eventually become a reality if more breweries continue to pop up. That’s why breweries need to support themselves not just with a quality product, he adds, but with a good business plan.
“I’d be lying if I said we weren’t consciously trying to dig our heels in a little bit here and really start to be more aggressive about carving out a good share of the market right now,” Rowland says. “So when it all comes crashing down, we can weather it.”
To help foster the industry’s growth — and perhaps to fight against a bubble-bursting scenario — Sullivan says the Maine Brewers’ Guild is launching a new event series called “Beer School.” The series was scheduled to kick off on Nov. 2 and aims to attract beer enthusiasts throughout the next year with interactive events that allow them to meet local brewers, taste their brews and learn about various aspects of the trade.
Sullivan says it’s one of the ways the Maine Brewers’ Guild is trying to get breweries to think more critically about their niche within an increasingly crowded marketplace.
“People are increasingly seeking authentic experiences and want an authentic connection to a company they support,” Sullivan says. “They’re coming to Maine because they want that authentic experience. They want to eat the lobsters pulled out of Maine’s coast and, increasingly, to drink the beer that is made within this state.”
Correction: A previous version of this story stated the incorrect name for a tour by the Maine Brew Bus.