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American beer is known for its grandiosity and assertiveness, so it only seems appropriate to open this piece with a bold statement: Portland, Maine, is the best beer city in the United States. In terms of numbers of breweries per capita, the east coast Portland reigns supreme with 17 breweries for their 67,000 residents.
Obviously, ubiquity doesn’t always denote greatness -- just because there are a great number of breweries to visit doesn’t mean that they’re worth visiting. But Portland, ME, is brewing something very special.
“I don’t think there’s another beer community like the Portland beer community in the country,” said Joel Mahaffey, owner of Foundation Brewing Company. “We’re all pretty small players in this town. The better everyone’s beer is, the more people are coming here because they want to check it out. And when they come to this building from Boston or New York or wherever...they’re not just coming to Foundation and turning around and going home. They want to visit everybody.”
And for good reason, too.
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Portland, Maine, is a small city located where the Fore River meets the Atlantic Ocean. It’s less than two hours from Boston by car, accessible by a train called the Downeaster, and has its own international airport. It’s mostly a walking city, with a number of restaurants and bars offering great beer downtown -- but the Portland beer tour begins on Industrial Way, on the city’s western edge. And it all begins with Allagash Brewing Company.
Rob Tod began Allagash in 1995, and it has since become the nucleus of the Portland beer scene, an entity of envy and awe. Oxbow Brewing founder Tim Adams told me that their recent collaboration with Tod’s outfit was “one of the greatest days of his brewing career.” Joel Mahaffey calls Allagash “[Foundation’s] biggest influence both in culture and beer.”
When the doors open at 11AM, seven days a week, there are always four beers on tap -- free pours! -- and facility tours available. On nicer days, one can take advantage of the outdoor seating and a game of bean bag toss. But on the damp and gray day I visited, the beer was the clear highlight; the standout being St. Klippenstein, a full-bodied Belgian stout fermented with a Trappist-style yeast and aged three months in bourbon barrels.
From Allagash, head just 100 yards down the road to 1 Industrial Way, a building with a great Portland beer history: Maine Beer Company, producers of the famed Lunch IPA, began their operations here before moving to nearby Freeport (worth a detour, if you’re ambitious); Rising Tide Brewing called Industrial Way home before relocating downtown; and Bissell Brothers brewed out of the building before heading to Thompson Point last year. Now, it houses two more of Portland’s best: Foundation and Austin Street Brewery.
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Foundation is best known in craft beer circles as the maker of Epiphany, a fantastic “Maine IPA” that belies it’s 8% ABV tag, and is as unique a double IPA offering as one can find in the state. But Mahaffey and his crew are largely unencumbered by the massive demand for trendy, hop-forward offerings, and brew a variety of styles from brown ales, to stouts, to sours, to a world-class pilsner called Riverton Flyer. To his credit, Mahaffey isn’t frustrated by people who walk in the door only looking to scratch a hop itch.
“I’m happy to have people come in and buy cases of Epiphany,” he told me, “because it allows us to brew [other styles]. If we were driven by profit as our bottom line, we’d have nine IPAs on -- but I look at the fact that we have a Bitter [and]...a Pilsner on…. It makes us a better brewery.”
As fantastic as his brewery is, however, Mahaffey will be the first to praise and promote his local colleagues, a habit in line with other Portland brewers. “There’s a positive energy here in the city that brings visitors to tasting rooms here in town; I think they can feel that positive energy. When people leave here, we ask, ‘Did you go visit Allagash? Did you visit Austin Street? Visit them before you leave.’”
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Behind Mahaffey’s operation is Austin Street Brewery. Their small tasting room, with seating both inside and out, typically offers their flagship Patina Pale, a hopped-up, but balanced pale ale available in samples and to-go in growlers (Austin Street has purchased a canning line that should be operational by the summer). Alongside my Patina was a full-bodied milk stout that was possibly the best beer I would taste all day long.
Next is a five-mile drive to check out Bissell Brothers Brewing Co., who moved to their new Thompson Point home in 2016. At the brewery and tasting room, one can sit down, sample whatever immensely hopped IPAs are on tap (the brewery’s social media accounts announce what’s pouring that day), and leave with a stack of canned beer. On the “definitely try” list is BBBC’s flagship IPA, The Substance, a dank ale brewed with Falconer’s Flight, Centennial, Apollo, Summit, and Chinook hops. Though, in my opinion, it’s best right out of the taps.
About a mile away under the 295 underpass is Bunker Brewing Co., which moved into its new home in November. Like his neighbors, brewmaster Chresten Sorenson appreciates the craft community in which he’s built a business. “We all borrow hops from each other all the time,”. “We’re all together, and we all help each other out. I feel like a lot of other brewers are jealous of [the relationships] we have up here.”
But with all of the flourishing breweries in Portland, I ask him, does this increase the pressure to make exceptional beer?
“Yes,” he answers with emphasis. “Yes. There are so many great breweries and only so many taps. You have to stand out.”
Sorensen and his crew do craft some fine big beers (including a double IPA and a Baltic porter), but the trophies are the lighter offerings. Machine is a crisp, and easy-drinking Czech Pilsner; Salad Days is a lighter IPL. Both are available in six-packs and have been met with enthusiasm as far away as Massachusetts and New York.
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After knocking out these requisite heavy hitters, you can at last make your way downtown to visit the many walkable breweries: At Rising Tide, in Portland’s East Bayside neighborhood, the people are nice as can be, and the Daymark -- a pale ale made with a touch of rye -- is a perfect accompaniment for a warm Maine day; Foulmouthed Brewing, serving food and an eclectic range of beer styles, was named by BeerAdvocate as one of the best new breweries of 2016; Liquid Riot Bottling Co., on downtown Portland’s main drag, makes great dark beers like Straight to Black:Out Imperial Stout and Disbelief (made with local maple syrup) -- all while doubling as a distillery.
Lest I forget some of the original Portland breweries, Gritty McDuff’s, Geary’s, and Shipyard were all pioneers in the craft beer boom that helped shift palates considerably. They’re still here in the city and, should they appear on some craft beer bucket list of yours, won’t disappoint.
But perhaps the coolest place downtown is Oxbow Blending & Bottling, providing an ideal bookend to your brewery visits. Oxbow’s Belgian-style beers are brewed about an hour northeast at their Newcastle facility, and then transported to Portland for -- as you may have guessed -- blending and bottling. The location is worth the visit alone for the walls lined with barrels and adorned with local art -- but the beer is killer, too.
credits:"Courtesy of Bret Labelle / Oxbow"
“I have a pretty artistic outlook on beer,” Oxbow owner Tim Adams told me recently. “In my mind, people are already killing it with IPAs…. I wanted to make something unique. Certainly we’re very much inspired by traditional Belgian saisons, lambics, blended Flanders beers, but also other European styles, [including] German and English beers.”
If you’ve followed my suggested itinerary, by now your car should be packed to the brim with Maine-crafted beer ranging from American- to Belgian-inspired; hoppy to mild; light to dark. Might as well grab some grub to go with all those tasty suds -- and just your luck: Portland has no shortage of fantastic food, either. Lobster roll and pale ale, anyone?