Maine vacations built specifically around breweries
In recent years, I’ve gotten into the habit of counting license plates at big beer releases. Specifically, I’ve been checking out how many out-of-state plates are mixed in among the Mainers seeing what’s new from their local brewers. More and more, the number of people “from away” dwarfs the locals. There’s always a reliable contingent of Massachusetts folks, followed closely by flannelled Vermonters and our neighbors from New Hampshire. But Maine beer is drawing drivers from further and further away. On release days at Allagash and Bissell Brothers, you’ll increasingly see people coming from as far as New York, Pennsylvania and even Virginia.
Beer tourism — that is, trips and vacations with an itinerary built specifically around breweries — is booming in Maine and around the country. The Brewer’s Association (the trade association for small and independent American brewers) estimates that about ten million people visited craft breweries last year, and that number is only rising. With over 90 breweries operating in the state, and one of the highest concentrations of breweries per-capita in the country, Maine is at the forefront of the world of “beercations.”
“During 2016, 85% of the 5,300 guests on board came from places other than Maine,” says Don Littlefield, General Manager of the craft beer tour company the Maine Brew Bus. And these visitors weren’t here just to try Maine beer, but to take it home. “Over a 12-month period, our tour guests purchased over $50,000 in additional spending for beer and merchandise to bring home.”
These purchases of beer (either for consumption or to-go) at breweries are big business — the Brewer’s Association reports that about 7% of total brewery beer sales are made at a brewery or in a tasting room. Littlefield suspects the rate is much higher in Maine, with “75% or more of sales” for some brewers coming from direct interaction with customers at their breweries.
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Maine is called “Vacationland” for a reason — tourism is practically the state’s raison d’etre — and has been part of the state’s brewing landscape since the first lobster-branded phial of Geary’s Pale Ale rolled off the bottling line in the ’80s.
On top of this, the brewers of the Pine Tree State are making great beer. Beer so great, in fact, that it’s highly sought after outside of our borders. And with the majority of the state’s brewers only distributing within Maine (and many distributing themselves, only within a few dozen miles of the brewery), demand for Maine-made beer straight from the source is at an all-time high.
“Visitors from out-of-state have been a big part of the people who walk into our tasting room since we’ve opened, and it has only grown since then,” says Tina Bonney, Business Manager at Foundation Brewing Company. “It’s great to see interest in Maine beer grow, not only because we love to share what makes the beer scene here great, but it’s also a chance to share other cool things that are going on here, and why we love calling Maine home.”
While demand is peaking now, it’s not a new story. For years, the largest beer sites online (Ratebeer, BeerAdvocate, and Reddit’s r/beer) have hosted forums for beer-lovers looking to share their local beer. If you’ve ever looked on these sites, or even on Facebook and social media posts, you’ll see the popular acronyms FT (“For Trade”) and ISO (“In Search Of”) floating around every local beer release.
In the early 2000s, Bar Harbor Brewing’s Cadillac Mountain Stout was among the most highly sought-after beers from Maine. The dry stout, voted best stout in the world in the World Beer Championships in 1995, topped plenty of “best beer” lists and turned lots of people onto Maine beer. Also in high demand at the time was Shipyard Brewing Company’s Pumpkinhead, a divisive spiced beer that had devoted fans willing to go to great lengths to get their favorite seasonal beer as the days got shorter. Demand also rose for Allagash Brewing Company’s Belgian-style brews, particularly after 2010 as they began releasing small-batch beers brewed in their Coolship (a broad, open vessel used to cool spontaneously fermented sour beers). The Coolship beers age particularly well, and Coolship Resurgam, Coolship Red, Coolship Cerise, and Coolship Balaton, among others, remain in high demand by beer-lovers around the country.
In recent years, the fervor over beer releases has shifted in a hoppier direction. While bold stouts still demand some attention (Rising Tide Brewing Company’s Nikita and Tributary Brewing Company’s Mott The Lesser are two such examples), IPAs, Double IPAs, and cloudy “New England IPAs” draw hundreds of visitors to releases. Foundation’s Epiphany IPA and Maine Beer Company’s Dinner Double IPA both draw massive crowds at each release, creating snaking lines of visitors down Industrial Way and Route 1. Demand for Bissell Brothers’ Substance has been astronomical since they started brewing, but every new release from the brewery draws scads of people to their spot-on Thompson’s Point. The brewery releases a schedule of can releases seasonally, and there seems to be a line no matter the release.
In addition to the demand seen at Maine’s breweries and taprooms, Maine beer retailers see visitors looking to bring home local beer (or trade it with friends near and far). “When we wrote our business plan in 2011, we never foresaw how big beer tourism would be to our business,” says Greg Norton, owner of the state’s best beer store, Portland’s Bier Cellar. “Each year we see increasing numbers of out-of-staters coming in to Maine … It’s been amazing to see how much beer that has gone from our shop to other states and even countries.”
Norton has fostered a good relationship with local brewers, and his shop is a go-to spot for new releases from many Maine brewers, including the aforementioned Bissell Brothers, Foundation, and Allagash. He also advocates for other local beer that doesn’t have quite as much hype behind it. “I generally try to steer them to great examples of styles that may fly under their radar as well as crowd pleasing beers that are pretty universally loved. If it’s summer time, a nice Weiss beer or lager, in winter a porter or stout.”
Outside of Portland, beer stores represent both the greater Maine beer scene and their local brewers, many of whom might not be available in the Forest City. A stop at Tully Beer and Wine in Wells can get you beer from tiny Theory Brewing Company, for example, and Ron’s Market in Farmington carries growlers from local Tumbledown Brewing Company. Bottle shops in the expanding Bangor/Orono beer scene, like Bangor Wine and Cheese, carry bottles, cans and growlers that never make it to Southern Maine’s shelves.
Looking to enter the wild, wooly world of beer trading?
Be advised that shipping through the U.S. Postal Service is a strict no-no, while using carriers like UPS and FedEx is a bit more of a gray area. Forums on the popular beer sites are a great place not only to find trading partners, but also for advice on how best to package and ship your beer. Some bottle shops are also helpful, as sources for bottle shipping containers if nothing else. The short answer? Pack carefully, throw in some extra favorites, and don’t be a jerk. Use trading as an opportunity to share local favorites and receive the same from someone. If nothing else, think of it as a boxed-up beercation.
— Text: Josh Christie