My GPS became agitated as I approached the riverfront. It couldn’t seem to decide whether I’d already passed my supposed destination or if I should continue further. As I circled the block, nearly turning the wrong way down a one-way street, I was reminded why I never really liked to use GPS in cities like Augusta.

I had a rare opportunity to allow myself to experience a city’s reaction to its first brewery – before the beer geeks descend upon it or before it gets listed on a listicle by a writer who’s never been there.

The purpose of my trip was to get a peek at Cushnoc Brewing – a not-yet-opened new brewpub that would be Augusta’s first, despite Maine already closing in on the 100-brewery mark. Augusta is among Maine’s oldest cities, originating as a trading post on the Kennebec River, and called “Cushnoc” by Native Americans (meaning “head of tide”).

This once-thriving trading hub is now the Maine state capitol, which might lead you to believe that it a busy and lively place to live. But Augusta in 2017 is an odd city – a magnet for donut shops and restaurants with poorly maintained changeable marquees, far too many automotive parts stores and mediocre food chains. Population-wise, it isn’t even in the top 15 cities in Maine, and its airport only has one commercial carrier that takes customers back and forth on commuter flights to Boston. Portland has more than three and a half times more residents. To Mainers, Augusta is often forgotten… aside from the political fireworks that sometimes put the area into the spotlight.

 

What I found at Cushnoc was unexpected. I walked in to see a Friday-night sized crowd (despite not being “officially” open) in a beautiful open space that felt both new and immediately friendly. In the center of the wide, deep space was a community-style table that stretched from nearly the front entrance to the back of the room. A neon sign spells out “Born on the Kennebec” on a darkly-painted wall, and the bar is backed with star-shaped former tin ceiling tiles. Along the wall to the right were tables, and a row of booths divided the dining area from the bar area, providing a natural division between the spaces.

“Thank you so much for doing this,” they said. “You have no idea how much we need something like this here.”

I picked out a seat at the bar and ordered All Souls, an American IPA. While I make it a point not to review beers from breweries that have just opened (after being burned by some in the past who had immediate consistency issues after their initial batches), I can at least say that they seem to know what they are doing here. The flavor profiles in the beers I tried were clean, the taste was inviting, and the variety was interesting. I didn’t sample any that weren’t enjoyable.

To supplement their own beer, they offered a selection of guest taps from some quite popular breweries, including Bissell Brothers, Sebago Brewing, and Flight Deck, but most guests were keen to try the local pours first.

As I sipped, customers regularly engaged staff behind the bar in conversation, and comments flowed in what amounted to a stream of gratitude. “Thank you so much for doing this,” they said. “You have no idea how much we need something like this here.”

The manager of a local hotel came by to sample the beer and was delighted that he’d “finally have someplace to recommend for their guests to eat and have a beer.”

An older gentleman remarked that “you couldn’t have done a better job with this building, it’s perfect.”

As I moved on to a couple of their other beers, I caught myself feeling proud on behalf of the city of Augusta and for the owners of Cushnoc brewing. Even if the concept is a simple one – a brick-oven-fired pizza place with some fresh, locally made beer and plenty of seating – the execution feels special.

I stayed incognito that night, and didn’t reach out to get any official statement or comment from the brewers or owners. There will be plenty of time for that later. I had a rare opportunity to allow myself to experience a city’s reaction to its first brewery – before the beer geeks descend upon it or before it gets listed on a listicle by a writer who’s never been there.

The communal nature of the tables, with strangers striking up conversations together, as well as the happily hectic staff that never looked anything but proud, all contributed to the feeling of an optimistic future. It may just be beer, but if the happy faces sitting in this downtown room are any indication, it may just be all they need.


This piece is part of a 30-Day writing challenge – an attempt to stretch my writing by posting something a little different each day.