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Updated: April 20, 2020

Portland brewer takes prize among New England beer makers, will expand to Kittery

man in sunglasses behind beer counter Photo / William Hall Ben Bramley, who works at Definitive's tasting room in Portland, was selling to-go packages of the brewery's craft beer and ale on Sunday. "We're grateful it's this busy," he said about sales during the public health crisis.

While debate goes on about when Maine and the country might open for business again, Portland-based Definitive Brewing Co. is preparing to open a new tasting room in Kittery when they do.

The craft brewery, which launched in 2018 and last week won Boston Magazine’s ranking as the top beer maker in New England, is building a second branch at 318 U.S. Route 1, founder and CEO Michael Rankin told Mainebiz on Sunday.

The 1,100-square-foot location, in a former Starbucks, is “still very much in construction mode,” he said. But he anticipates the work being complete by Memorial Day, the original target date for opening.

With many town and state offices closed during the coronavirus pandemic, Rankin will probably need to wait a while longer before getting final permits to open. But once the paperwork can be completed, the tasting room will begin serving up Definitive beers and ales from 16 taps.

The new branch, across from the Kittery Trading Post and Bob’s Clam Hut, will also feature a half-barrel brewing system for making stout, a small barreling facility, and canned beer for sale. Rankin expects the Kittery site to employ three, in addition to the 12 staff in Portland.

Plans for business expansion may seem unusual at a time when many businesses are contracting. Definitive is now operating at 80% of capacity, Rankin said. The 15-barrel, 8,100-square-foot facility on Industrial Way, which produced 2,000 barrels last year, has closed its tasting room during the pandemic. Products are available only through to-go sales and delivery.

But Rankin said “it wasn’t that difficult to pivot” to the new normal. The company was already doing its own trucking, so increasing home deliveries was relatively easy. And while a couple of employees have voluntarily stopped working for now, Definitive hasn’t had to furlough anyone.

Expanding to Kittery makes sense, Rankin feels, because it allows Definitive to tap deeper into a large market in southern New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

Out-of-state customers make up the majority of visitors to the Portland facility — as much as 90% of the traffic during the summer. “But we know there are thousands of people who haven’t visited, or can’t visit. That’s evidenced every day,” he said.

There’s no substitute for a tasting room visit, Rankin said, and by offering it an hour closer to out-of-state beer fans, “we hope to increase the number of customers and then the number of Definitive lovers.”

While Kittery doesn’t offer the same concentration of craft breweries as Industrial Way — home to Allagash Brewing Co., Foundation Brewing and Geary Brewing — it’s a “great little town” with breweries of its own. “Plus, the beer scene in Portsmouth [N.H.] is absolutely a help,” said Rankin.

Another help is recognition by Boston Magazine as the top New England brewer in the publication’s third annual reader survey. Boston’s “Malt Madness” competition began with 64 popular breweries, chosen from over 500 throughout the six-state region. Readers were then asked to pick their favorite in a bracketed series of one-on-one comparisons.

Like the (canceled) college basketball championships, Malt Madness narrowed the field to an elite eight and final four. Definitive emerged as the winner last week.

“We’re humbled by this, and we’re grateful for the support of our fans,” Rankin said. “There are just so many great breweries all over New England.”

Despite the success and the prospects for the new tasting room, he sounds realistic about the near term. “We can’t say what the future holds,” Rankin said. “For now, we need to keep our heads down and just keep doing what we’re doing.”

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