Saturday marks the anniversary of some pretty significant historical events. On July 21, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon. On the same day in 1988, Maine’s first brewpub was born.
Ed Stebbins and Richard Pfeffer opened the doors to the Portland location of Gritty McDuff’s and would serve their first house-brewed beer exactly five months later. Along with his crew and anyone who chooses to stop by, Stebbins, who is still brewmaster and owner of Gritty’s, as it’s locally known, will be celebrating the 30th anniversary of the brewpub’s opening on Saturday. The party, which will last throughout the day, will take place where it all started – on Wharf Street – and will include live music, free food and no cover charge.
Before throwing back a few pints of Gritty’s well-known ales and lagers, imagine the world of brewing in 1988. While only a handful of the nation’s breweries that were opened in the pioneer years of the 1980s and 1990s still exist, several big names remain. The famous Class of ’88 includes Brooklyn Brewery (Brooklyn, New York), Deschutes Brewing Company (Bend, Oregon) and Vermont Pub & Brewery. If you ask Stebbins what’s changed in the last 30 years, he’ll tell you, “pretty much everything.”
Stebbins said ingredient sourcing (which used to be primarily an international affair, but has switched to many U.S. and now local options) used to involve round trips to airports and suppliers in Massachusetts to get the imported ingredients he wanted for his beers.
“Looking back, it may seem simple, but it wasn’t,” Stebbins told me via email. “I know this might sound cliché, but it took a lot of hard work, dedication and perseverance to make Gritty’s a success.”
The brewpub now has three locations – Portland, Freeport and Auburn – and employs about 200 people (a combination of 50 full-time workers and other part-time and seasonal positions). Stebbins is proud of the brewery’s pioneer role in Maine.
“There are very few 30-year-old brewpubs in America; I’m pretty sure you could count them on one hand,” said Stebbins. “I know that does not fit into the ‘newest is best’ climate that rules Maine’s beer business these days, but, let’s be honest, how much time does a new brewery get to be ‘new’ these days? Gritty’s will always be the first.”
When I asked Stebbins what excites him about the brewery’s future, he mentioned a family connection. “I’m excited that my son James has joined me in the brewery and is now designing his own beers for Gritty’s.” One of those beers, a hazy IPA named Galactically Stupid IPA, will be on tap at the anniversary party.
Family also came up when I asked about Gritty’s employees. Because they’ve been around for 30 years, some of the current employees had parents or other relatives that worked there in the past – with the new generation carrying on their work.
Earlier this year, Gritty’s announced it would discontinue bottling its six-packs of beer, but would keep bottling 22-ounce bottles at the Freeport location, and growlers will still be available at all three brewpubs. The focus for the upcoming year is to focus back on the brewpubs themselves, with more packaging options slated for the future.
For the anniversary festivities, the brewers at Gritty McDuff’s are planning to debut three collaboration beers – with each brewery bringing a unique touch to the brew. The first collaborative beer was brewed with a neighbor of the Portland brewpub, Liquid Riot. The Old Porter began as an English-style porter, and was then aged in rum barrels from Liquid Riot, finishing at 6.2 percent alcohol. Stebbins brought in Steve Spear of Run of the Mill brewpub in Saco to brew Stevie’s Rye. Both Stebbins and Spear, coincidentally, began working at Geary Brewing Co. on the same day, over 30 years prior. Using only Liberty hops, this beer is a single-hop beer with rye in its malt and comes in at 5.6 percent. The third collaboration beer was brewed with another brewery that’s been around for the long haul – Allagash Brewing Co. Jason Perkins got his start brewing at Gritty McDuff’s over 20 years ago before joining Allagash alongside Rob Tod. Fittingly, the beer, named Burton on Brussels, mixes the English and Belgian styles of pale ale. Allagash yeast was used in combination with English hops, wheat and locally-produced Blue Ox malt.
If you miss out on these three, don’t despair. Gritty McDuff’s plans to brew other collaborative brews throughout the year to celebrate both their anniversary and the Maine brewery community.