In the timeline of Maine Brewery openings, it’s a little easy to miss – or skip over – the beginnings of Sebago Brewing Co. Its opening was not quite as far back as D.L. Geary Brewing Co., which opened in 1986, but well before the second boom of the late 2000s that included Maine Beer Co. and Rising Tide.
In 1998, the trio of restaurant and hospitality managers Brad Monarch, Tim Haines and Kai Adams opened up Sebago Brewing Co. via a brewpub in South Portland. As they celebrate their 20th anniversary this month, it is worth reflecting on how this brand was able to adapt and survive as the market has changed around it.
I first became familiar with Sebago Brewing Co. when I moved to Portland in 2009 and began to frequent its brewpub on the corner of Market and Middle Streets (which now houses a West Elm furniture store). On nights with a full moon, there would be “Full Moon Cask Nights,” which occurred once a month until the pub moved out of its Middle Street location in 2011.
Casking is when unfiltered and unpasteurized beer is served from metal vessels known as casks without adding carbon dioxide artificially. Casked beer can be difficult to serve, and it sometimes requires special equipment to dispense without the added pressure of a carbon dioxide system. But for casked beer fans, this traditional way of serving the beer can take beers that you know very well and give them an entirely different life.
Instead of sitting back and sticking with its model of successful brewpubs, Sebago Brewing Co. has grown – and changed – significantly since opening. The company’s willingness to evaluate its strengths and weaknesses and earnestly (instead of superficially) pursue new directions has kept it relevant in ways that perhaps other brands have not managed to accomplish.
In 2013-’14, the brand underwent a face-lift, with a new logo, colors and styling. The change, however, was far from superficial. It included the launch of several new seasonal beers, including Simmer Down, a slightly lemony session beer, and Bonfire Rye (now just Bonfire), an earthy and satisfying autumn beer. To the heartbreak of some, several fan-favorites were shelved, including its Hefeweizen and Boathouse Brown. Looking at it from a business perspective, though, that seems to have been the right call. A move to canning beer soon followed, and Sebago’s flagships and small releases soon sidled up next to Maine’s trendiest beers.
There are still several semi-limited beer releases that I eagerly await each year. Among them is Whistle Punk, a double IPA that was developed after the rebranding effort a few years ago. Whistle Punk evolved from the long-gone Full Throttle Double IPA, but only slightly resembles its original recipe because the hops have changed. Whistle Punk is a gem that stands out among other double IPAs being brewed right now because this one is just tropical all day long. There are no dank flavors reminiscent of recreational drugs or bitter notes like in the previously popular West Coast style of IPAs. It also remains mostly unclouded and stands up well, both next to the New England IPAs and apart from them, and comes in at 8 percent alcohol by volume. Whistle Punk was released again this week, and if you haven’t had it, the anniversary is a great opportunity to try it. It’s available in four-packs of “tall boy”-style cans wherever fresh double IPAs can be found.
To celebrate hitting the almost-old-enough-to-drink age, Sebago will be hosting a party at its shiny new facility in Gorham. The celebration will take place on Saturday and will take advantage of a newly opened outdoor beer garden. The $20 ticket price includes food (either barbecue or wood-fired pizza), a tasting glass and a beer. Probably the most anticipated aspect is the potential to try two yet-to-be-announced small-batch beers brewed specifically for the celebration.
When Sebago Brewing Co. opened its doors in 1998, there were fewer than a dozen breweries in the state, but there are now more than 100 creating and pouring alongside them. Sebago’s thoughtful approach and practice of keeping an eye on what’s going on around them should ensure that its beer continues to pour, even as the numbers continue to climb.