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February 8, 2016

Craft brewers ferment more than beer as they aim to revive neighborhoods

Photo / Tim Greenway Eli Cayer, owner and founder of Gruit, at the Urban Farm Fermentory in Portland.
Photo / Lori Valigra Adam Tüüri (left) and Eben Dingman of Bear Bones Beer in Lewiston.
Photo / Lori Valigra (L–R) T.J. Hansen, Alex Anastasoff and John LeGassey, co-owners of Fore River Brewing Co. in South Portland.

When Adam Tüüri and Eben Dingman looked for the perfect spot for their new craft brewery in Lewiston, they waited more than a year to find their current location at 43 Lisbon St., just off of Main Street.

It was a fixer-upper, but it was in the block where they had imagined Bear Bones Beer being located, close to three restaurants, and at 8,000 square feet, it has plenty of room to grow beyond the 2,000 square feet now in use.

“We wanted to be part of the downtown community,” says Tüüri. “And we're close to Baxter Brewing. They are excited to have another brewery to go to after work.”

To get established as a brewery, the co-owners of Bear Bones Beer had to first get their area rezoned as light industrial, which would allow other businesses that made things to locate there. Both envision their brewery and tasting room, which are scheduled to open in a few weeks, to be an inclusive space where people of all ages can come to taste their beer. They even make Halal soda, as they are located near a mosque.

Bear Bones isn't the only new craft brewery trying to become an anchor in its community, a place akin to the neighborhood breweries that were common before Prohibition.

“At one time people knew their neighborhood brewer,” says John LeGassey, co-owner of recently opened Fore River Brewing Co. in the Cash Corner area of South Portland. “People are starting to get in touch with people who work in these industries.” He points to a well-trodden path in the snow between two houses across the street, where customers cut through from a block away.

“There's a huge market here,” says LeGassey, a former deputy marshal who owns the brewery with partners T.J. Hansen and Alex Anastasoff. “It's a place that didn't have a production brewery. We are the first.”

Fore River has an open concept layout where customers in the tasting room can see the beer works in the next room. “We wanted people to see us working while they have a beer. It engages them,” he adds. The tasting room also has games like cribbage and Scrabble that patrons play while drinking a couple beers over one or two hours, he says. Fore River has 2,000 square feet, but hopes to expand with an outside seating area once it gets permission from the city.

Another neighborhood anchor will be Bissell Brothers Brewing Co., which will relocate to Thompson's Point in the second quarter of this year. Having other craft brewers in the area helps stimulate business for all, notes LeGassey.

Eli Cayer, founder of Urban Farm Fermentory and the new Gruit brewery, can attest to that. Once the only fermentory in the East Bayside neighborhood of Portland, UFF has been joined by Rising Tide Brewing Co., Maine Craft Distilling, Bunker Brewing Co. and, soon, new brewer Lone Pine Brewing Co. The neighborhood is the most diverse in Portland, according to the 2010 census, with 60% white compared to more than 94% for the state as a whole. The area is 21% black, 6% Hispanic, 8% Asian, 1% Native American and 4% multiracial.

“The more people who are down here producing, the more people will be drawn here,” Cayer says. “When we were the first people here for the first two years, it was like pulling teeth to get people down here. Now people just show up because they're already at Rising Tide or Bunker or at the coffee producers here.”

UFF operates in 10,000 square feet, including 6,000 square feet for production, 2,000 square feet for the tasting room and performance area and another 1,500 square feet for the art gallery and hallway.

“The performance space can be used for anything. We have open mike nights and people can rent it for weddings,” says Cayer. In addition to a craft market on Saturday. “The nice thing is they can try our products and we can get feedback at our events.” UFF also plans to sponsor a 5K in the spring from its parking lot through the Maine Trails near it and to the narrow gauge train depot and back.

While UFF initially had a winery license for its fermented cider and kombucha, it now has a brewery license and plans to soon offer gruit (pronounced “grew it,” a herb flavoring for beer) and Braggot (mead made with honey and barley malt).

“We are focused on the local side of things and are doing things other people aren't,” says Cayer, who co-owns UFF with Reid Emmerich. “In a place where there's a ton of craft breweries, people aren't going to be doing what we're doing for a while. We've diversified so we have many different draws to our space.”

Standing apart

Distinguishing your brand is getting more important as the craft brewing market continues to grow. Maine already ranks fifth nationwide in the number of craft breweries per capita, with 37 as of 2012. And while only a handful of craft brewers opened up in the state in the past six months, Sean Sullivan, executive director of the Maine Brewers' Guild, expects the pace to pick up this year, with at least 13 craft breweries on tap to open in the first half of 2016. One, Northern Maine Brewing Co. in Caribou, will be the first in Aroostook County in a long while.

LeGassey of Fore River says there's no issue with market saturation of craft brewers now, and with neighborhood brewers coming back into fashion, there's plenty of room for growth. “Breweries are starting to have different things like sours and are using other types of bacteria and wild ingredients, like UFF's different fermentables and gruit,” he says. Fore River makes three beers: John Henry, which is an oatmeal stout, plus Irish Red TimberHitch and Lygonia IPA.

Like Fore River, Bear Bones is the first brewery in its neighborhood in Lewiston. The two owners were born in Lewiston and met in middle school on the cross country ski team. They started the brewery in 2013, and experimented with recipes out of their home until they found their current location.

The name for their brewery came from Tüüri telling Dingman that he was ready to start a brewery and wanted to keep it minimalist, or bare bones.

“We wanted to keep things simple. Everything we can reuse we do,” Tüüri says of the brewery's emphasis on kegs and refillable growlers and minimal waste, with no disposable bottles or cans. He blew the glass for the light fixtures, and the two reused wood and other construction materials found in their building and elsewhere. Even the carriers for the growlers — available for $50 each — were made by a local woodworker from the old wood lath that was used in the past to hold plaster on walls. They salvaged an industrial stainless sink for $250, and refinished the inside of the tasting room and brewery themselves, a process that took more than a year.

“We want to be small and sustainable and grow with the community,” Dingman says. “There's no other place in town where you can fill up a growler.”

The goal was to be thrifty in their two-stage build-out, and make a comfortable space where everyone could come and drink beer or their home-made Halal ginger soda.

“There's a mosque down the street so we'll have Halal soda on tap at all times,” says Dingman. “We made a point to make this an inclusive space for all ages.” And while both men like the popular IPA ales, when they did taste-testings in their neighborhood, they discovered they were not popular. “So we listened to our customers,” Dingman adds. The brewery is making Double C.R.E.A.M., Old Smokey pale ale, plus a hoppy season ale and rye brown ale.

The plan is to get people in the door to both taste their beers and then buy and take them home in growlers. And the men welcome other breweries in the area.

“This street is vivacious,” says Dingman, referring to the three restaurants and other businesses on the block. “Hopefully we'll get more brewers here. The more we build up the community, the better.”

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