Carla Jean Lauter

The Beer Babe

Category: Maine Editorial (Page 2 of 4)

Maine. Yes, Beer’s Good Here.

Portland Beer Week, happening Nov. 1-7, is a celebration of the state’s beer scene, a collection of events designed to showcase the best brews, encourage experimentation and collaboration, and rekindle the camaraderie local craft brewers famously share. There are opportunities to try beers that will never be made again, or sample a new brewery’s beer for the first time. Portland Beer Week is also a good time to reflect on the industry’s previous year and look ahead to where the scene is going.

There are now over 4,000 breweries operating in the United States, which is just shy of the historical peak of 4,131 breweries that were open in 1873. Based on the current rate of openings, it’s predicted that we’ll exceed that previous high in early 2016. Maybe one of Maine’s breweries-in-waiting will end up being number 4,132. Depending how you count, there are over 60 breweries in the Pine Tree State, with several in the planning stage that should come online next spring and summer. The pace of openings has slowed a little, but the rate of expansions has not. It seems that nearly every month, one of our favorite locals has a flatbed truck with a bigger fermentation tank strapped on it pulling up to its front door.

Last month, Budweiser’s corporate parent, AB InBev, the world’s largest beer company, announced its intention to merge/take over the second-largest beer manufacturer in the world, SABMiller (maker of Coors, Miller, and dozens of other brands). The resulting conglomerate would be so large that three out of every 10 beers brewed on the planet would come from that one mega-brewer. It would be bigger than Coke buying Pepsi.

I mention this not because it is going to drastically change the way Mainers drink beer, but to point out that we are entering a new phase of the craft beer business. Many are concerned this merger will make it harder for local breweries to get their beer distributed, because both companies have their hands in distribution networks across the world. Others say it could encourage the new beer behemoth to include more “craft” beers in its portfolio, but with the unfair advantage of being able to produce and distribute these faux-micros on a massive scale. Nationally, numerous smaller brands have been sold off to larger entities in the past few months, angering fans who accuse them of “selling out.”

During the past decade of craft beer expansion, Maine has been largely insulated from the Wall Street world of mergers, takeovers and buyouts. Though there is contract brewing here (by which a brewer contracts to use a larger company’s facilities to produce and/or distribute their product), we haven’t had to face the disappointing news that one of our own has relinquished its independence.

Why not Maine? For one thing, most of our breweries have limited distribution (many don’t even cross a state line), so they’re not tempting targets for Big Beer to acquire. I think there’s also a stubbornness and an independent streak characteristic of Mainers that can make such deals a tough sell. Tough, but not impossible, however.

Rather than trying to hide from the changes to come, I suggest we revel in our good fortunes right now. Maine beer lovers are in the midst of a golden age of growth, independence, collaboration and creativity.

To help guide this revelry, I’ve made a “bucket list” for this year’s Beer Week events…

  • Try a few different local IPAs and actually decide which is your favorite.
  • Reap the benefits of collaboration: find a beer created by at least two brewers.
  • Ask a brewer how they realized they wanted to make beer, and what a typical day on the job is like for them.
  • Pair food from a restaurant, food truck or farmers’ market with your beer.
  • Bring a can of beer to a place you couldn’t bring a bottle.
  • Try beer from a brewery you’ve never heard of before.
  • Try a style of beer you haven’t had before.
  • Go to a bar or tasting room you’ve never been to before.
  • Try a Maine beer that’s brewed over 50 miles from where you live.

After making this list, I realized our beer scene is so strong that one could do all these things during any week of the year.

Now, that’s the way life should be.

 

 

As the Crow Flies

Mama’s CrowBar, a popular watering hole on Portland’s Munjoy Hill, will serve its last beer this Labor Day. Owner Tricia Pryce Henley will be hitting the road this fall in a refurbished camper, nicknamed “Honey,” leaving her beloved city of Portland to visit friends, family and fellow poets while figuring out what’s next.

It might be easy to let a bar in a city full of them close without much acknowledgement, shrugging and muttering something like, “Oh well, guess that’s how business goes these days.” But Mama’s was not just a bar. This place had a significant impact on its rapidly changing neighborhood, on the landscape of craft beer on the peninsula, and on the community that gathered around its taps. And the CrowBar isn’t simply going out of business. Its closure is the culmination of a long and tangled legal battle between Henley and the building’s owners — which is a particularly painful way for a well-loved establishment to meet its demise.

Though its story is unique, the closing of the CrowBar seems symptomatic of the development pressures affecting the now-trendy Munjoy Hill neighborhood, as well as working–class enclaves facing gentrification in other cities. “I think what’s happening to this bar is happening to little huts and taverns all over the place,” Tricia said when I paid her a visit at Mama’s last month.

This 10-stool Congress Street bar, formerly George’s Tavern, had been sold and was operating as Awful Annie’s Irish Saloon for several years before Tricia took it over in 2009 and made it Mama’s. She arrived with a mission. When she first sat down with the beer distributors to place orders, eyebrows raised over her refusal to serve Pabst Blue Ribbon (on grounds that it contains corn syrup). People told her she couldn’t run a bar in this town without carrying PBR. Tricia raised more eyebrows when she insisted on making Allagash Black (her favorite beer) a flagship of the bar, instead of the much more popular White. Her opening tap lineup consisted of Allagash Black, Allagash Curieux (a bourbon-barrel-aged tripel), Brooklyn Lager and Sebago’s Frye’s Leap IPA. The draft list made some people think she was crazy.

Allagash Black has remained a fixture at Mama’s. I’ve yet to find another bar (or even brewery) that features a Belgian-style stout atop its offerings. Mama’s CrowBar has also been a supportive home for new breweries. “I met Nathan Sanborn [co-owner of Rising Tide] right here, sitting at the end of the bar with an unlabeled beer in his hand,” Tricia recalled. “Oxbow delivered their first keg for the bar on a skateboard.” Not one can of PBR has been served.

As we sat and talked, Tricia checked in with everyone coming and going. She made sure her customers had what they needed, even if all they needed was to sit at the end of the bar and read a book. As one of the relatively few female bar owners in Portland, Tricia has been an outspoken advocate for women in a male-dominated environment where bars are often considered places for men to either pick up or get away from members of the opposite sex. She established the CrowBar as a “safe space” where harassment of any type — hate speech or degradation of anyone based on their beliefs, race or sexual orientation — was not tolerated. As patrons witnessed Tricia and her staff make good on their promise to intervene when harassment took place, the number of female customers grew along with the overall diversity of the clientele.

Any new bar on the Hill will have a hard time replacing or replicating the ethos Mama’s established — assuming its owners even care to do. “New businesses in Portland are disconnected from the people in Portland,” Tricia said. “The people of Portland do care how their actions affect other people, and then these businesses roll up and they open and they don’t [care]. They don’t think about their neighborhood.”

It would be naïve to believe our favorite neighborhoods and taverns will never change. My hope for Portland is not that everything remains the same. I hope that throughout the inevitable changes, bar owners and brewers and proprietors of small businesses of all kinds will have the courage to defy conventional wisdom and stand up for the people and the values of their neighborhoods. If the story of Mama’s CrowBar can teach us anything, let it be that.


 

2015: The Year of the Craft Beer Growth Spurt

This year will be a year of growth – and possibly some growing pains – for Maine’s craft breweries. [Read more…]

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