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WILTON — Ambition Brewing was not open on Tuesday, but that didn’t stop people from popping in the unlocked door at 295 Main St.
As co-owner Jeff Chaisson worked in the brewery behind the newly renovated tasting room, a steady stream of visitors, both friends and the curious, stopped in.
“I thought I saw a flag out,” one hopeful customer said.
“No, I’m brewing today,” Chaisson told him.
“I’ll come back Thursday, then,” the man said.
Thursday is when Ambition Brewing, downtown Wilton’s newest business and first craft brewery, will hold a ribbon-cutting and grand opening.
Owned by Chaisson and Josh Michaud, his partner in Expenet Technologies, a computer and technology company, the brewery and tasting room is the latest of several contributions the pair have made to Wilton’s evolving downtown.
Expenet, which they began in Wilton in the building that now houses the brewery, has moved up the street to 343 Main St. the former Masonic hall, which also houses Wilton Hardware, which Chaisson owns.
He also owns 430 Main St., the former hardware store building, which is home to Life’s Perks Coffee Co.
They’re even making use of the space above the brewery. The apartment where Michaud once lived is now an Airbnb rental.
Town Manager Rhonda Irish said the two have made a big difference into Wilton, which has been working hard in the past three or four years to bring more life to its small downtown.
"Jeff and Josh have been very committed to Wilton's downtown revitalization,” Irish said. “Between the two of them, they own four buildings on Main Street. They have been very forward-thinking regarding the businesses going into their buildings,” she said, citing a contest and incentives that brought the coffee shop to the former hardware space.
“They have both been actively involved in downtown revitalization committee efforts,” she added.
The pair got part of the town’s Community Development Block Grant facade money to renovate the former Masonic hall, and they have done much of the renovation work to their buildings themselves.
Chaisson is an accidental entrepreneur.
A Rumford native, he and Michaud, who’s from nearby Weld, in 2011 chose Wilton to locate Expenet because it’s central to the region — close to Farmington, Jay, Livermore Falls and Rumford.
When Wilton Hardware, a longtime downtown staple, closed in 2014, Chaisson was hoping someone else would revive the business, but no one did.
“I wasn’t planning to buy a hardware store, it just kind of happened,” Chaisson said. “I didn’t want it to go away. I swore I wasn’t going to do it, but then I did.”
He bought the business and the building, then moved the store into the former Masonic building, at 343 Main St., where higher ceilings and more space allowed the business to spread out a little.
Then he began renovations on the former hardware building, at 430 Main St., which now houses Life’s Perks Coffee Co. Owners Amy and Eric Ward beat 13 other competitors to win $15,000 in incentives to set up the coffee shop in 2,500 square feet in the building.
Expenet has been working out of 343 Main St., the former Masonic building that also houses Wilton Hardware, since late last fall, when they got about 80% of the renovations to the three-story building done.
That work was then put on hold while they got Ambition Brewing up and running.
“Now that the brewery is operational we are circling back to finish the remainder of the work [at 343 Main St.],” Chaisson said.
He and Michaud are partners on both Expenet and Ambition, as well as Wilson Stream Properties, which owns 430 Main St. Chaisson is the sole proprietor of Wilton Hardware and Chaisson Properties, although he said Michaud has been “a great help with those as well.”
Chaisson is modest about the role the two have played in helping to get Wilton’s small downtown back on its feet.
“Property wasn’t that expensive here a few years ago,” he said.
Irish, the town manager, stressed, though, that they’ve made a difference.
“This last project, Ambition Brewery, will help to diversify the types of businesses in the downtown area and is a great addition to Wilton and Franklin County,” she said.
The town of 3,900 in 2014 sought a “slum and blight” designation to apply for a $400,000 Community Development Block Grant, the first of several grants it has used to bring new lift to downtown.
In the past two years, nine new businesses have opened, including those supported by Chaisson and Michaud.
While the town has suffered some blows, including Barclaycard, which employed 227, closing this spring, other businesses, including Origins USA, which is expanding its production plant from Farmington, and a state DHHS call center, are opening in town and downtown development is still on the upswing.
Chaisson said Ambition Brewing was more of a plan that some of their previous projects.
He’s a longtime hobby brewer, and also got Michaud interested. In 2017, while running Expernet with Michaud, he was also working in information technology at the Verso paper mill in Jay, and decided he wanted to do something different.
“I wanted a new adventure,” he said.
The planning has taken two years “with a lot of changes of plans, scaled up, scaled down,” he said.
When he opened the new Wilton Hardware in 2015, “I knew nothing about retail or owning a hardware store. I was really lucky to find a good manager.”
But beer, he knows. After high school, when he was in the Air Force in England, he began his “beer career.” He knew what he wanted with his brewery and tasting room.
“The design is mine,” he said, standing in the room, which has more of a feel of a cozy neighborhood pub than modern tasting room. “I wanted creative control.”
Last summer, he and his wife took a trip to England and he researched the type of place he wanted. “This is kind of a mashup of all that,” he said.
The tasting room and brewery together are about 1,200 square feet, but the small L-shaped bar and cafe tables fit the room well.
A mirrored mantelpiece behind the bar was a gift from a town resident who wanted it out of his house.
“I wasn’t sure about it at first,” Chaisson said. “But we got it in here and it works.”
The mirror serves as the menu board, with calligraphy by Chaisson. There are also small touches — for instance coat hooks along the wall and under the bar — and a repurposed barn door frame that Chaisson is hoping to find the “right artist” to do illustrations of the beer-making process to fill its frames.
There are 31 stools, both at the bar and around the room, and also standing room.
He, Michaud, and family members and friends also did much of the renovation work, which involved taking down walls from the former Expernet office space, building the bar, installing the back-room brewery and more.
While the ribbon-cutting is Thursday at noon, the brewery has been open limited hours since the end of February. It already has 129 mug club members — people buy a mug and then get discounts and other perks.
“People just keep signing up for it,” he said.
There are standard and VIP memberships for the mug club, as well as Legendary, where members can help brew one of their own beers. That has three members so far.
The tasting room will offer 10 beers on tap, including some of Chaisson’s British influences, like bitters.
While the only food is snacks, Ambition offers snack flights — a pickled flight, a salty flight and a jerky flight. He said that, too, is popular so far with customers.
While it’s only open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, he said once they’re up and running, they may add days.
Ambition is on the Maine Beer Trail and part of the Maine Brewers Guild. It joins Tumbledown Brewing of Farmington as Franklin County’s only craft brewers.
The plan was for a soft opening for mug club members until the official ribbon cutting, but “People just show up,” Chaisson said, laughing. “We’re not going to tell people to leave.”
The second weekend it was open, a couple from Machias popped in.
He said that’s part of the point — to pull people to downtown Wilton after hours and on weekends.
“I really think people are looking for something to do after hours,” he said. “The town is really supporting it.”
He said that some Maine Beer Trail participants are very discerning about their beer, but he’s happy to hear what they have to say.
“I’m hoping people who visit enjoy my beer,” he said. “I take a lot of pride in it, and I listen when people give me compliments, and when they give me criticism.”
He said owning the hardware store has been fun. “There’s a great customer base, very loyal. People are great.”
But the brewery, even in the short time he’s been running it, is different.
“People just seem really happy we’re here,” he said. “And they’re really happy to be here.”