Story and photos by Claire Jeffers
The next big thing in local craft brewing might be living in a Portland basement.
Perhaps you’ve noticed, but the brewing industry is booming lately. According to the Brewers Association, the number of breweries in the U.S. is the highest since the 1880s. And of the 2,403 breweries operating in 2012, 2,347 were craft breweries (meaning: breweries with an annual production of six million barrels of beer or less). Simply put, the culture of American beer has come full circle.
So where are all these craft breweries coming from? The answer is somewhat unanimous: A basement. Or a home kitchen, or a garage (and sometimes all three).
In Maine, the craft beer craze has been on a steady rise since the early 1980s when D.L. Geary founded Geary’s Brewing in Portland – the first craft brewery in all of New England. As of December 2013, there were 50 craft breweries accounted for in Maine (up from 33 just this past spring).
Zach Poole, founder and owner of the Maine Brew Bus – a tour company dedicated to promoting local breweries – decided it was time for beer enthusiasts (or anyone with a Saturday night off) to get a glimpse of craft brewing at its inception. So, on an evening last fall, 14 locals boarded Lenny, a short bus painted kelly green, outside of the Great Lost Bear, a brew pub in Portland
“I’m not quite sure what we’re in for,” warned Poole, as everyone climbed aboard. Among us, there was a radio producer, a massage therapist, a website marketer, a handful of financial planners and IT guys, and even some old high school friends of Poole’s right-hand man, Don Littlefield. Littlefield is the designated brew bus driver and the self-proclaimed “guidance counselor” of the Maine Brew Bus. A life-long Portland resident, Littlefield knows virtually everything about Maine history – and more specifically, beer history.
Despite the range in careers, there’s one thing that everyone on the bus had in common – a love of and curiosity for craft beer. While certainly not a requirement for the first-ever homebrew tour of Portland, more than half of the group had experimented with homebrewing and almost everyone else was currently in the throws of a homebrew operation. For them, this tour would serve as a fun, lively way to meet other beer enthusiasts, but most of all, it would be a way to learn and take notes from some of Portland’s most fanatical homebrewers.
All of us, including Poole and Littlefield, knew very little about what to expect. We knew that at least three out of the four stops on the tour wouldn’t involve large facilities, gift shops, paid employees or even a company name (the fourth stop is a surprise, so stay tuned).
The next five hours would be about dusty cellars, makeshift brewing rooms, and living rooms that double as barley malt storage areas. This would be a glimpse into Portland’s underbelly of craft brewing and our mouths were starting to salivate.
The first stop was Craig Dilger’s home in the West End neighborhood of Portland. The sun was setting and seconds after disembarking the bus, we could smell barley and malt wafting toward us.
It was no surprise to see a 15-gallon pot filled with the makings for an American lager boiling in Dilger’s backyard. But this wasn’t just any old classic American lager. Dilger and his brewing partner, Bill Boguski, had added rose water to the to the secondary fermenter, a practice they’d recently started – adding unusual flavors and spices to their beer – to make their Rosewater Golden Ambrosia Lager.
“Between Bill and I there isn’t much time to be talking,” Dilger said as they stood over the boiling pot in front of their new, captivated audience. Both men have their own careers and day jobs but one or two days a week (typically on Mondays) they brew beer together. While there’s certainly some idle time when it comes to homebrewing, this team often has multiple beers at different stages – starting a new beer, experimenting with an old one, bottling another. And of course, tasting. One can never forget the almighty important job of tasting one’s homebrew.
“Brew days are the best days,” said Boguski. “I work five days a week and this is always the best part of my week.” Boguski started homebrewing in New York 10 years ago during college. When he moved to Portland, his interest in homebrewing was reignited when he met Dilger. Coincidentally, the two had been homebrewing in New York around the same time. “I’d rather be cleaning carboys and covered in hops but my day job pays the bills,” Boguski said.
For a friend’s wedding, the team developed a sweet potato beer. They decided to add sweet potato because it was a leftover ingredient and…why not add sweet potato to beer? The result was a flavorful beer with some bite that could easily stand up to a local brew master like Oxbow. They brew another called the “Experimental Hop 14190-Oxbow Style” made with hops they found at a friend’s house down the road.
The majority of their brew operation is in Dilger’s shabby basement. They’ve transformed an old freezer into an impressive kegerator with two taps, and there’s brewing equipment covering almost every square inch of floor and wall space (save for a number of bicycles and tools).
Other creations of this bearded duo include the “dark and stormy,” made with fresh ginger.
“Sometimes I use maple syrup for a beer, so then I have to buy a [expletive] ton of the best maple syrup money can buy and then it becomes the most expensive beer ever,” Dilger said.
Outside and ready to add the hops to the rosewater lager, Dilger and Boguski chatted with the brew tour about their future aspirations.
“I’d rather be brewing full time,” Boguski said as he stirred the pot, and hopes to one day brew for his day job.
For now, the two are happy with their hobby, albeit time consuming. A freelance photojournalist by day, Dilger has brewed at local breweries and is waiting for the right opportunity (and money) to line up in order to start his own brewery, but he’s still on the fence.
“Oxbow takes the same short cuts as we do, but on a much larger scale. And Marshall Wharf runs up against the same temperature problems as we do but on a much bigger scale,” Dilger said. “It’s nice to see that we all run into the same problems.”
Before long, it was time to go. We’d all tried at least a couple of this team’s beer and though we wanted to keep drinking and chatting, it was time for us to be moving along. The conversation ended with Dilger talking about their pistachio beer – they are the only people they knew who use pistachio extract. “We should name a beer ‘fatty nuts’!” Dilger shouted excitedly.
And back to the green bus we went.
The next stop was Greg Carin’s house just a couple of blocks away from Craig Dilger’s. Carin is a brewing friend of Dilger and Boguski and sometimes joins them on Mondays for their brew days. But Carin has his own homebrew operation to show off.
Carin has been brewing his own beer for nearly 20 years and now serves as a beer judge for a number of panels and festivals, such as the National Homebrew Competition in Philadelphia this past year.
Back when he started brewing, most people were interested in making what they could already buy – English-style ales – but he’s seen more people in the last five years experiment with unconventional beers.
“I love crazy beer,” Carin said. “I judged the specialty beer category at the competition and there was this one beer flavored with green apple Jolly Rancher candy…and it was good!”
Carin also enjoys drinking and brewing beer seasonally – light lagers and German Kolsch-style beers in the summer and darker beers in the winter – and he thinks Portland’s local, seasonal food and beer scene go hand-in-hand. “Where there’s good food culture,” he said, “there’s good beer culture.”
Our fingers and toes were starting to go numb out on the patio, what with the glasses of beer we were sampling, so we shuffled inside to warm up in Carin’s living room where he stores his brewing supplies under a staircase and where an entire china cabinet is filled with beer mugs and glasses.
While he has gravitated more recently to experimental craft beers, Carin still respects the classics that helped to jumpstart the craft beer movement back in the 1980s. “Geary’s and Sierra Nevada will always be good and I’ll grab one when I really want a good pale ale,” Carin said. “When I’m hanging at home and just want a solid beer, those are the ones I’ll be drinking.”
At this point in the tour, the group was starting to warm up to each other (the copious samples of beer might have helped). Shonee Strickland, an assistant brewer at Run of the Mill in Saco, was definitely one of the most enthusiastic tour-goers and provided some great inspiration for the group.
“If you’re at home and making beer and it tastes good, you have done something successful!” Strickland reassured a small circle of us that had formed in the living room. “Every homebrew system is unique – no two are alike. You fit your brewing to your house and just make it work,” she said. “You start to salvage things that you find on the side of the road – I do that all the time. I see something on the side of the road and I say, ‘I can use that for brewing!’”
Before we knew it, it was time to leave again. We said goodbye to our gracious host and headed to the third stop on the tour: Brian Hall’s basement.
Parked outside of Hall’s house, still seated on the bus, Poole made an announcement to the group: “Your palates are about to get [expletive] up.”
A math teacher by day and an Alaska native, Hall has been homebrewing since he made a strawberry-blueberry wine at his mom’s house in Anchorage 10 years ago. “Yeah, that didn’t turn out so well,” Hall said to the group, as we crowded around, shoulder to shoulder, in his very low-ceilinged cellar.
He then moved to a cabin somewhere in Alaska with no running water and continued brewing. “After a while, things started tasting great,” he said.
For the past two years, Hall has been living in Portland with his wife as she completes her residency at a local hospital. They are expecting their first child this spring.
In the small cellar room there were six oak barrels, a freezer transformed into a six-tap kegerator, and 48 five-gallon kegs (the result of just two years of homebrewing in Portland).
Hall’s favorite beer is a petite sour, so that’s his specialty. “The best thing about all these beers is that they’re old,” he said, explaining that his beers, and sour beers in general, go through a completely different aging process.
The minute we tasted some of Hall’s beer, a silence filled the room – we were all floored by the taste and the quality. A few moments after we’d all had our first sip, people were shouting, “oh my!” and “that’s the best beer I’ve ever had!” and asking questions like, “how does he do it?”
So far, Hall was the only one on the tour who had given his homebrew operation a name. And perhaps readers should jot it down: Chugach Brewing Co., named after the national park right across the street from where Hall grew up in Alaska.
However, there was some disappointing news. Hall and his family plan to move back to Alaska as soon as his wife completes her residency.
Heartbroken but rather satiated from Hall’s generous pours, we lumbered up the stairs, back to solid ground. It was time to make our fourth and final stop.
Jake Austin and Will Fisher of Austin Street Brewery, an up and coming “nanobrewery” on Industrial Way in Portland (between Geary’s and Allagash), invited the homebrew tour over for a quick sampling.
Many of us hadn’t even heard of Austin Street until Poole gave us the run down on the drive over. Still in the early stages of planning, Austin Street is a “3-bbl,” or three-barrel brewing system operation in a well-lit garage/warehouse space off the peninsula. So, while not technically a homebrew operation, nor was it in someone’s basement or cellar, it felt like the natural way to end the tour – by visiting a team that had gone from homebrewing to renting out a proper space to brew beer for public consumption.
Austin and Fisher have been in the area for about 15 years and homebrewing for about five. Self-proclaimed perfectionists, they want to continue to brew in small batches until they can find the right space and equipment for a larger operation down the road. For now, they would like to be a small production brewery with a tasting room. One of their goals is to be on tap at Novare Res Bier Cafe in Portland in five years or less.
“We’re not competing on volume,” Fisher said. “We would like to make money but don’t plan on making money for about a year.”
We stayed at Austin Street for about an hour before our Maine Brew Bus guides announced that we needed to board the bus one last time. By then, it was after nine o’clock. We’d been swinging around Portland and sampling some of the best homebrew the city (and perhaps the state) had to offer. We bundled up in our coats, took one last swig from our glasses and said goodbye (some of us had even purchased an Austin Street Brewery beer glass for $7, perhaps to prove the place existed).
Wind gusted off Back Cove as the green bus made it’s way back to the Great Lost Bear, where our homebrew tour began. None of us wanted the night to end – surely there were more basements to crash! Plus, we’d all become friends and smarter beer drinkers.
The bus parked and some of us continued on inside for a late-night burger and perhaps one more pint of craft beer, while others made their way home (safely, of course).
There may never be a homebrew tour of Portland quite like it – until next time.