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.