Originally published in the October 2017 issue of The Bollard
When Bray’s Brewpub, in Naples, was listed for sale in a small advertisement in the April 2014 issue of Ale Street News, many feared it was a sign of the demise of one of Maine’s oldest brewpubs. The brewery and restaurant, opened in 1995, was known as a destination for locals, leaf-peepers and vacationers to the Lakes Region that offered live downhome blues music and down-to-earth brews. Finding a buyer for the Victorian-style farmhouse-turned-pub on Route 302 wasn’t easy, and for several years there was little news about the fate of Bray’s. Some just erroneously believed it had closed.
Last May it was announced that the property had been sold to Gary Skellett, a National Guardsman with a background in finance and a vacation place in Point Sebago. Bray’s Brewing Company now leases the brewing space from Skellett, who renamed the establishment Gary’s Olde Towne Tavern (perhaps a nod to the fictional rival bar from Cheers?). Skellett has made improvements and added some seating, but otherwise he’s kept the pub’s rustic charms intact, and it continues to be a music venue in an area that sorely needs one.
With the sale of the property finally behind him, Bray’s Brewing Company owner Michael Bray is free to focus on the beer. I recently met with Bray over a few pints during an event at the Great Lost Bear. He’d spent the day visiting Portland beer establishments to introduce (or reintroduce, as the case may be) the newer brewers and barkeeps to his brand.
Brewing on a 4.5-barrel system, Bray keeps about a half dozen different beers on tap at Gary’s, and is branching out to other accounts. The beers range from an entry-level Brandy Pond Blonde, crafted to entice drinkers to cross over from light lagers, to Yammityville Horror, an autumn brew made with sweet potatoes.
Bray said that when brewing beer, it’s important to consider the drinker. “I want to brew beer in a way that the customer wants to order four of them,” he said. That philosophy translates to mostly low-ABV beers, and many that are low in bitterness.
Old Church Pale Ale was the first beer Bray ever brewed and sold commercially, back in 1995, and I found it to be a really nice English-style IPA, balanced with the malts and very gentle in its bitterness. My favorite of the night was the Muddy River Bog Brown. I’m not usually a big fan of brown ales, because I find them too thin in body, or too mild to keep my attention. The Muddy River Bog Brown, however, was substantial and had a robust roastiness. At 4.5% ABV, I could see myself ordering several in a sitting, especially with some food.
Bray said he’s been looking for a new space to house the brewery — the lease arrangement is not intended to be permanent. “I’m looking for a space somewhere on the 302 corridor, anywhere between Naples and Portland,” he said. “Let them know I’m looking and maybe someone will write in with something for me!” he added with a chuckle. Bray said he’d like to expand and eventually step up to a 20-barrel brewing system, but the demand has to be there to justify it.
This begs the question: Is there room in Portland’s crowded craft market for beer that’s simply … beer? In a scene renowned for its cloudy and pungent IPAs, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine many drinkers would welcome a reprieve from those styles, but it could be a challenge to stand out amid all the hype.
We’ve seen several of Maine’s earliest craft-beer companies make news this year, including the sale of Geary’s and the revival of Lake St. George Brewing Company, in Liberty. I’m eager to see what the future will bring for these revolutionary brands, and hope they can find a niche where they’ll be sustained and appreciated.
Bray’s in good spirits after all these years and ready for yet another chapter. He even joined Facebook for the first time to set up Bray’s Brewing Company’s business page. One of the first posts has some tongue-in-cheek references to rumors of the brewery’s fate: “Despite the popular belief in Portland that Bray’s Brewing Company no longer exists…”
I can assure you, Portland: Bray’s Brewing Company is back in action. In fact, it never went away.