After hearing that a fellow beer blogger Luke Livingston (ofwww.blogaboutbeer.com) was opening a brewery in Maine – I knew that I had to learn about how this came to be. I mean, how many craft beer enthusiasts have dreamt of standing at the doorway of a brewery and saying, “I did this!” Luke has hired the well-known Michael LaCharite as head brewer, and the beer will start flowing out of Baxter Brewing in Fall of 2010 – in cans!
Tell me a little bit about your background. How long have you been a beer writer? Business owner?
I graduated from Clark University in Worcester, MA in 2007 with a degree in communications and went to work in print advertising sales for a local weekly alt-newspaper. It was in August of that year that I launched BlogAboutBeer.com and really started to get involved in – and fall in love with – the beer industry. I had always enjoyed craft beer and had been homebrewing for a few years, but the blog definitely took my knowledge and appreciation to a whole new level. It was almost exactly a year ago (in June of 2009) that I had the idea for Baxter Brewing Co. when I started to learn about the craft cans which were popping up out west and noticed there was this great void in Maine for both cans and West Coast-style American ales. I have been working on it ever since and now that work is starting to come to fruition.
What made you “take the leap” into the business of brewing?
Again, it was largely that I realized that void of cans and readily-available, heavily-hopped American ales in Maine and thought I could fill the void. But maybe even more than that, I lost my Mom to breast cancer in January of 2009 which really made me realize that life is FAR too short to be doing something I wasn’t happy doing and that I needed to do whatever it took to make the rest of my life one I was happy with, and I knew that would take something in beer; something like Baxter.
Why open a brewery in Lewiston (vs. Portland or other cities in Maine)?
There are a number of benefits to being in Lewiston – the city itself, which is the 2nd largest in the state, is located within a 40 minute drive of more than 60% of the state’s population, so it’s very centrally located. There is plenty of highway/truck access to take our beers all over the state. I grew up in the Lewiston-Auburn community and not only have a great network of business professionals here who are bending over backwards to make sure Baxter is successful but it feels great to give back to the community I grew up in. And maybe most importantly – in Lewiston, we will be a big fish in a small pond. There are production breweries all over Portland so there we’d be just another face in the crowd. But in L/A, we’re the only ones; we’re really going to stand out here and be something for the community to hang their hats on.
Where will the brewery be located?
The brewery is located in the historic Bates Mill in downtown Lewiston. The mill itself dates back to the mid 1800s and at one time was the largest employer in the state. In fact, the tents for the Union Army in the Civil War were manufactured where Baxter’s beers are going to be made. It’s a great building and we’re really excited about its adaptive re-use.
Why open a can-driven brewery?
I opted for cans certainly because it’s a unique product for this market and of course for their environmental benefits – cans use far less energy to produce than glass bottles, less energy to ship, are made of 70% recycled materials and Americans are twice as likely to recycle post-consumer cans than they are glass – but in Maine, I think the single biggest benefit for cans is their portability. Since outdoor culture is so predominate here and cans fit that perfectly – you can take them with you to the beach, the boat, the mountain, the campsite, the ski slopes, the ice fishing shack; the list goes on. It’s a match made in heaven.
How do you anticipate the canned beer being received by Mainers?
Like I said, it’s a match made in heaven. I know that as soon as Mainers (and everyone across New England) taste how good and how fresh our beer tastes poured from a can and they see what it’s like to have it on the beach with them, or to crack open a can on top of a mountain after a long hike, there will be no going back.
Have you had any mentors through this process?
Oh absolutely, I couldn’t have done half of what I’ve done without a very long list of mentors. The nice thing about the small town community feel of Lewiston-Auburn and having grown up there is how well connected I am to the business community – everyone from the Chamber of Commerce, to the SBDC, Economic Growth Council, SCORE, my lawyer, accountant, investors, etc. – they’re all friends of the family and have been absolutely invaluable! It really is all about who you know.
Do you have any advice for someone considering the same path?
Obviously my biggest piece of advice is that if it’s something you’re passionate about, something you think you have found a niche for and the market to sustain your product, and think you can make it work – go for it. As I said earlier, life’s too short to be doing something you’re unhappy with. That being said, don’t for a second think it’s going to be easy. I made that mistake early on – I thought that if I build it (it being a solid business plan) that “they would come” without the elbow grease on my end; I quickly learned that I couldn’t be more wrong. And I know it’s been easier for me than it has for most. So yeah, point being – never think twice about going for it, but be prepared for a helluva battle.
Have there been any voices of doubt or dissent considering factors like the economy or your (relatively) young age?
One or two, maybe but the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Even though the economy as a whole is down, there is still money out there for those with solid plans. And the fact is that beer sales, especially craft beer sales (and canned craft beer sales even more, if you want to dial it down that far) are still way up, despite the economy. As far as my age goes – I think more people are impressed by what I’m doing at my age (I’ll be 26 in September when we begin shipping beer) than they are worried about it. And I’m always quick to point out that Ken Grossman was 24 when he started Sierra Nevada and Sam Calagione was 25 when he opened the first Dogfish Head brewpub, so they beat me.
How did you come to work with Michael LaCharite?
I was very lucky to find Michael when I did. I had actually hired another brewer very early in the process but due to the timing of the project and some factors on his end, he and I parted ways; I thought I was screwed. But thankfully Michael had heard about my project – he’s local; from Brunswick – and was looking to get back into the industry after a few years off after he sold his start-up Casco Bay Brewing Co. around 2001. We ended up getting together for a couple of beers and instantly knew it made sense for us to move forward together. It was clear that I need him and his expertise and experience, and he certainly needed me. I think it’s a perfectly poised partnership (sorry for the alliteration, couldn’t resist).
What are the first styles that we’ll see from Baxter Brewing?
Initially we plan to produce two styles of beer – our flagships if you will. The first, Stowaway IPA, is a heavily-hopped, West Coast-style IPA unlike anything currently produced in Maine (or the Northeast really). The second, Pamola Xtra Pale Ale, will be a very easy-drinking, session-able beer, perfect for a long summer day. It will also be a very unique beer, easy enough on the palate to satisfy a newcomer to craft beer without scaring them off, but will still have the flavor profile necessary to please even the most seasoned craft drinker. From there, we’ll certainly be exploring options for seasonal and one-off releases and plan to use as many Maine-based ingredients as possible – like maple syrup, raspberries and spruce tips.
What do you think the role of beer bloggers is in the successful launch of a brewery (if any)?
I think these days it would be impossible to launch a successful brand in any industry without heavily relying on the entire “Web 2.0” world (bloggers, Twitter, Facebook, etc.)! Maybe if you’re an already established brand, you can get by without the attention of bloggers, but if you’re just starting out (or even looking to grow at all beyond your current customer base) a lack of attention from the blogosphere would be futile.
I admit I’ll be a little sad to see the end of your work on www.blogaboutbeer.com. What’s next for the site?
Thank you. I’ll tell you, I’m sure no one is sadder to see the end of my work on BAB than I am! It’s my baby; the site really is what got me to where I am as far as beer is concerned – my connections within the industry, my palate, my knowledge and my appreciation. Without it, there definitely wouldn’t be a Baxter. What’s next? I’m in the process of trying to sell the site – or more importantly, trying to find it a good home. I hope it will be able to stay local, but I definitely need whomever’s hands it ends up in to continue it in the same vein I have built it into since August 2007. Finding someone who will take care of it and continue to grow the site is much more important to me than the money (so readers, if you’re interested in purchasing it, give me a shout. Sorry for the shameless plug).
I read on the Baxter Brewing website about the meaning of the winged moose logo, but where did the name “Baxter” come from?
The name Baxter definitely derives from Baxter State Park – for those unfamiliar, Baxter State Park is located in North-Central Maine and is the largest state park in the Northeast. It’s also home to Mt Katahdin, Maine’s highest peak – which is so indicative of that outdoor culture I spoke of earlier which is such a big deal in the state. But for those unfamiliar with the park, Baxter itself is still a familiar word (I think everyone I’ve met knows someone with a pet named Baxter) which is easy to remember, easy to pronounce, easy to spell, and easy to order in a loud bar when you’ve had one or two already.
When does the brewery think it will be selling its first beer? Will there be some kind of “grand opening”?
It’s definitely an aggressive timeline but we’re hoping to have our first beers on store shelves across the state of Maine in September 2010 and across northern New England in early 2011. There will definitely be a very large grand opening celebration, you can count on that! The specific details are being kept more-or-less under wraps for the time being, but be sure to check out our Facebook fan page (www.facebook.com/baxterbrewing) and our website (www.baxterbrewing.com) all summer for more specific details.