Saturday April 19th 2014

The Beer Babe

Brewing without a road map: D.L. Geary and the birth of microbrewing

By: Carla Companion

With the steady opening of new breweries in Maine, is easy to get lost in the constantly-changing offerings of Maine’s more than forty craft breweries. It is also easy to forget that there are now almost twice as many breweries operating in the state of Maine than there were in the entire U.S. thirty years ago. It is in this landscape that David Geary and co-founders Karen Geary and Alan Pugsley set out to open DL Geary Brewing Company (known by locals as “Geary’s) in the early 1980s.

David Geary participated in several Portland Beer Week events earlier this month, and took the time to share some of his stories about the origin of craft beer in Maine, and what it was like to lead the way in New England in a time when the craft brewing industry was in its infancy. I had an opportunity to chat with him before an event at Bull Feeney’s where he and Alan Pugsley shared stories over a beer dinner.

We’ve heard a lot of stories about breweries opening in Maine over the last 5-10 years, but I imagine it was a lot different in 1983. Can you tell us what it was like to open a brewery in that landscape?

We incorporated in October of 1983. Then I traveled to England and Scotland and studied brewing. I then came back, wrote a business plan and went about raising money. All of that took a while – and so we sold our first beer in 1986. Back then, there were maybe two dozen craft brewers – we called ourselves microberewers then – in the country, mostly in the west. The real problem was there were no road maps, nobody knew anything about what a craft beer was, so we had to explain things to everyone. Our fist package was a six pack of pale ale. Our big break came when a couple of the large supermarket chains embraced the idea enthusiastically and included us on their shelves. That was a game changer.

At the Bull Feeny’s event, David pointed out the difference between opening a brewery now and opening one then:

We started on a very rocky road. No one was doing this… There were no brewery stores. Now, you want to open a brewery? You go to the brewery store – “Okay I’ll take that one!” and they bring it in and it’s turn-key. We build everything to spec, everything was custom built, If you look at my brewery, you’ll say that it doesn’t look like anyone else’s brewery. Exactly. Because we built it.

Taking inspiration from English-style ales, the beers that Geary’s offers are mostly traditional, and stick with classic recipes that are consistently executed. The current beer lineup is very similar to what they began brewing all the way back when selling their first beer. A British-style Pale Ale, Hampshire Ale, London Porter and IPA are joined by the seasonal lineup of the Summer Ale (a German-style Kolsch), an Autumn Ale (a nutty auburn ale) and a Winter Ale (a bitter). While many of these recipes have remained mostly unchanged since their initial debut, Geary’s has also followed the market somewhat by producing more specialty brews, though not without some resistance.

You’re known for your straightforward and traditional beers. Can you tell me a little about Geary’s lineup and why it is the way it is?

We’ve done an imperial IPA, a Scottish wee heavy, but I think five years ago, extreme beers were all the rage. I think that’s changed somewhat. I think people realized, what’s the point? It’s a beverage, damn it! It should be balanced. Great beer is all about balance. If you go to a restaurant and they ask you if you want pepper on your steak, you don’t dump the whole can on it. I think the love affair with hops reached its peak a couple years ago. If you like hops, those beers are great, but they tend to be one-dimensional. We make an IPA that’s dry hopped, but it has plenty of body to back it up.

Can you tell me what your plans are for expansion, and whether you’ll use that to get more beer into existing markets or spread to more?

We’re a 22,000 square foot in an 18,000 foot space. It’s really hindering our growth. It’s kind of risky. Doubling our square footage, but it’s gonna change everything.

We’ve got plenty of market where we are right now. It doesn’t make sense to spread so thin. What we want to do is spend some money on developing markets, particularly in New York and Massachusetts. Brooklyn is just insane. All the hipsters in Williamsburg, all they want is artisanal this and that, and kale. But I love it down there.

What are the best and worst things about being in the craft beer industry for as long as you have?

The best thing about it is the quality of our lineup, being a veteran, our network of distributors, retailers, is very solid. The worst part is that people, particularly ‘millennials’ think I’m your father’s craft beer. They want the new stuff.

Do you have any advice for would-be brewers?

I would say first and foremost, make sure you’ve got the money. Because the volume you have to make to pay the rent, some people don’t have that luxury. Also, make sure your beer is good! There are so many out there, it’s so crowded. I wonder about demand keeping pace with capacity.

At the event, Geary mentioned that recently some of his beers have been taken off of draught lines in favor of other beers from “unnamed breweries.” He went on to say that he’s thankful that draught accounts are a very small part of his business – but when he sees beers of lesser quality with flaws – such as those that were “not hazy, but cloudy” – were replacing them he reflected, “Yeah, that hurts.”

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As he sat on the stage at the Bull Feeny’s event, Pugsley and Geary shared knowing smiles when colleagues – past and present – were mentioned. They bantered back and forth as the audience sampled a beer from each brewery with each course of the meal. They also expressed their gratitude towards the distributors, supermarkets, restaurants and bars (such as the Great Lost Bear, that put Geary’s beer on tap in 1987) that had faith in the beer that they were brewing. And maybe we, in turn, should express our gratitude to Geary’s, for starting to sketch out a road map for everyone that followed.

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