The Maine Event
All photos by Phil Galewitz.
PORTLAND, Maine --- Arriving in this northern New England seaside city by Amtrak was peaceful and easy. And best of all from the train station it was just a 10 minute walk to our first brewery in one of America’s best beer towns.
Wheeling our luggage down the quiet road we knew we were headed in the right direction as the Portland Brew Bus passed us moments before we spotted Bissell Brothers Brewery. It would be the first of seven Portland breweries and brewpubs that we visited over the next three days. They varied from the tiny Bunker Brewing in an old 1920s brick mechanics shop building to giant Shipyard Brewing that houses a dozen giant 300 bbl fermenters that produce enough beer to distribute beers to 47 states.
Having visited Portland, Oregon last fall on a craft brewery trip, this older Portland had a high bar to live up to in terms of number and variety of beer makers.
In fact, the Maine city exceeded expectations. And to be fair, I won’t even count the fresh lobster in my ratings.
We knew we were in the right city when we heard a panhandler on the street ask: “Would you have a dollar for a beer?”
Portland, Maine, (which the Oregon city is named after) has less than 100,000 residents and has the most per-capita breweries and bars in the United States. It has 17 craft breweries – one for every 4,000 residents — according to SmartAsset, a technology company that compiled its own list of the top 25 U.S. cities.
Even in the middle of summer, most of the breweries had various styles of beers from hoppy IPAs to wheat ales to sours.
That was apparent from our first stop at Bissell Brothers which had people lining up seeking their canned Substance Ale at 2 p.m. on a Thursday. Substance is Bissell’s flagship, and one taste of the hoppy American IPA and you’ll see why. Its quite drinkable (not too bitter), with notes of citrus and pine and hints of Summit and Falconer’s Flight hops. It pours gold and slightly creamy. We also sampled Lux, a tropical rye ale with a pleasing citrus aftertaste. For a small brewery, they have one of the most spacious tap rooms in the city with seats on two levels overlooking the brewery equipment and a wall of their colorful canned beers.
At 4 p.m., we arrived at Allagash Brewing, a 15-minute drive north of downtown Portland. Situated in a small industrial area, Allagash also had a spacious tasting room but we spent little time there before beginning our tour. We saw the original brewery area as it was in 1994, then saw the canning and bottling lines and big fermentation tanks in a newly expanded area. Then it was on to the barrel room where we tried some of their less well known sour beers starting with a Brett saison called Century Ale. Served in a 22 ounce bottle, the Brett was fermented for two years in stainless steel with a blend of a
traditional Saison yeast and Brettanomyces which makes it just slightly tart.. Golden in color, the Brett has aromas of toasted crackers, passion fruit and citrus. We also tried different variations of the Brett including one made with cherries and one made in rum barrels. Then it was back to the tasting room to try the flagship Allagash White, which has just right amount of spice to make this wheat beer tasty and smooth. After picking up a couple Allagash sweatshirts and beer soaps, it was time for Main’s other culinary treat: lobster. It was nearly an hour wait at Eventide, in downtown Portland but one bite of their warm lobster roll made it more than worth it.
The next morning, we gathered our beers from Allagash, and hopped on the ferry to Peaks Island, about five miles off the coast of the city. The 20-minute crossing was refreshing and the island felt like paradise as soon as we disembarked.
We found the one taxi on the island waiting for us at foot of ferry to take us to the 8th Maine Lodge and Museum. Built in 1891 as a reunion place for soldiers from the Civil War to gather, the three story home is a discovery not to miss. A large main floor houses pictures of soldiers and artifacts from the war. It also has numerous board games as well as a ping pong table and a piano. The wrap around deck offers breathtaking views of the Atlantic. The upstairs rooms are sparse but quite comfortable. Each room gets to share part of refrigerator in the basement—handy for story beers. The main activity at the inn is really sitting in the rocking chairs on the deck to watch the sunset and sunrise.
But we didn’t have too long to linger. A couple hours later we took ferry back to Portland to visit the largest craft brewery in New England: Shipyard Brewing. Just two blocks from the wharf area, Shipyard has a tasting room and large merchandising room. But it only offers regular tours once a week, on Tuesdays. However, we were offered a special tour led by one of the brewers. He led showed us their unique open fermentation process and told us about their wort boil which you could see coming out a tube before it turns into beer. From there, we saw their massive brick kettles and then their humungous 300 bbl rectangle fermenters, and their bottling and canning and kegging lines.
After the 30 minute tour, it was back to the tasting room for a couple flights. Shipyard had 16 of its beers on tap. So many great and varied beers but on a 90 degree day in Maine, we both agreed the best was Melonhead, a crisp, quenching wheat ale with a taste of watermelon. Perfect for a summer day. In front of tasting room, was large Shipyard store which had many of their beers in bottles to buy –which is special since not all make it to every state.
Next, we walked a few blocks down on the wharf to Liquid Riot, part brewery and part distillery - also noted for its best chicken sandwich in the country! After a flight which included a couple of their sour ales and IPA, we walked 5 minutes to the oldest brew pub in the city: Gritty’s Portland Brew Pub. Downstairs has cozy seating looking into their fermentation tank. Upstairs, though, had the fully air conditioned restaurant and bar. Opened in 1988, Gritty’s was the first brew pub to open in Maine since Prohibition. It's in the heart of Portland’s historic district as seen by the cobblestone street where guests and their dogs were sitting outside on the patio. We made acquaintances with so many friendly folks there it was almost hard to leave to catch our ferry back to Peak’s Island. But we did.
On Saturday we were about to leave town but stopped at Rising Tide Brewery on a quiet street across from a park in the city’s East Bayside neighborhood. The brewery has 25-seat bar inside and handful of picnic tables outside two large garage doors where a party atmosphere was in full swing with live music and a food truck. Ishmael, an American copper ale and Daymark, a pale ale made with locally grown rye, were two favorites.
Our final brewery, was only a 5-minute walk away but it was down a street that was under construction with several abandoned buildings so we almost didn’t see it. But we were glad we found Bunker Brewing. The nano-brewery is small inside a former mill’s mechanic shop. They had three beers on tap with most popular being Machine Czech Pils, a lager made with German hops.
We took our beers outside to a couple picnic tables and watched four young women from Boston playing cornhole. We quickly made friends and competed for a couple rounds in the midafternoon sun, and they even bought us beers!
That’s Portland in a nut shell: friendly, full of nice surprises ….and tasty beer.