The great state of Maine keeps a curiously low national profile, despite its assertive name, prime corner real estate, and robust moose population. Sure, the governor’s a buffoon, the 3,500-mile coastline they love to brag about (longer than California’s!) is a jagged granite hellscape, and a nation of poutine-fueled savages lies to the immediate north. No state is perfect. But Maine lands squarely in the keeper category because, in addition to all the wonders entailed above (moose, mostly), our northeasternmost state is home to America’s most exciting beer scene.
Portland’s D.L. Geary Brewing Company launched Maine’s modern beer era with the introduction of their Pale Ale in 1986. Geary’s is still going strong, and now they’ve got more company than a moose has antlers, as the locals say. Specifically, there are now 75 breweries in the state, according to data compiled by local beer authority Carla Lauter, aka The Beer Babe, who also confirms that moose have only two antlers and denies that locals measure things in moose-units. I regret the error.
Anyhow, 75 breweries operating in a state with a human population of 1.3 million (and 60,000 moose, but we’re done talking about moose) works out to a brewery for every 18,000 residents. At that per-capita rate, Brooklyn would need 150 breweries and Los Angeles 225 to keep up. Mainers drink, man.
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But the truly impressive thing about Maine’s high beer-per-head count is how damn good most of it is. New England’s loudest state, Massachusetts, has more breweries than Maine, at about 125, but many of them, new and established alike, produce fair to middling beer that is perfectly good enough to drink but nothing to go out of your way for. And Maine’s high-quality beer tends to be relatively accessible, too, unlike much of the sought-after stuff from New England’s proudest state, Vermont, where the marketers have convinced beer pilgrims that walking on dirt roads and waiting in long lines makes beer taste better.
Oh, Maine makes trophy beers. If you want a case of Bissell Brothers’ acclaimed Swish double IPA (100 points on RateBeer), you’ll have to get to the brewery a bit early on the right Saturday morning. But the special trip is well worth the effort, as Bissell Brothers is located just outside of downtown Portland in an industrial park that also houses Foundation Brewing, who make their own 100-point double IPA, Epiphany; and Austin Street Brewery, home of the excellent Milk Stout and Patina Pale Ale. And, oh yeah, a quarter-mile down the road there’s some weirdo Belgian-y joint called Allagash, which gets my vote for best brewery on the East Coast. Allagash Curieux, a partially bourbon-barrel aged tripel, is perhaps my favorite beer of all-time, which doesn’t mean it’s better than Avance, their Belgian strong ale fermented with wild yeast and then aged with fresh strawberries. And of course neither of these beers would have been possible if not for White, widely regarded as one of the handful of best witbiers in the United States, if not the world.
Portland also has plenty of great options for local beer right downtown, near the hotels and restaurants and lobster-kitsch shops and whatnot of the waterfront Old Port district. The venerable Gritty McDuff’s features excellent old-school styles such as Black Fly Stout and Best Bitter; right around the corner lurks Sebago Brewing, with their Runabout Red and Frye’s Leap IPA. A mile back from the water there’s Rising Tide’s good-time taproom, where you can drink some of the region’s best hoppy beers in Cutter imperial IPA, Zephyr IPA, and M.I.T.A session pale ale. Returning to the waterfront, combination distillery/restaurant/brewery Liquid Riot is a wonderful place to lose an afternoon while gaining an appreciation for offbeat beer styles and oat whiskey.
And Portland doesn’t hog all the good stuff, either. There’s a ton of good beer to be found throughout the rest of Southern Maine, and the action’s even starting to extend up perilously close to the aforementioned land of the gravy-fry demons. Maine Beer Company, 15 miles up the coast from Portland in Freeport, produces the renowned Lunch IPA (named for a whale) and Dinner double IPA (named for a popular evening meal). Oxbow Brewing makes fantastic Belgian-style farmhouse ales another 35 or so miles up Route One in Newcastle (there’s also a Portland outpost). Banded Horn, 15 miles south of Portland in Biddeford, makes great beers in a wide range of styles, including their Pepperell Pilsener and Veridian IPA.
Don Littlefield of the popular Maine Brew Bus tour company predicts the next big wave of Maine breweries will open farther afield, citing existing or soon-to-open operations in places like Lubec, Norway, Fryeburg, North Haven Island, and, yes, even a not-at-all-fictional town called Caribou, Maine. This widespread proliferation is why he suggests the long-time state nickname “Vacationland” should give way to “Beercationland.” I’m sold.