April is a banner month for beer holidays. National Beer Day, celebrated on April 7, marks the first loosening of prohibition rules and the start of a slow and steady march back to normalcy for the nation’s brewing industry. King Gambrinus Day is a holiday celebrating the (supposed) first use of hops in beer and is celebrated on April 11.
Here in Maine, there’s another milestone that probably deserves to be recognized: the passage of LD 1889 in the Maine House and Senate. Signed and enacted in mid-April of 2012, LD 1889 laid the groundwork to fundamentally change the entire beer industry in Maine by allowing Maine brewers to charge for samples at their own breweries. While this seems trivial, its passage had cascading effects that have allowed the beer industry to become what it is today.
Let’s rewind to 2011, when there were about 34 breweries and brewpubs in Maine. At that time, there was little in the way of beer tourism. Only die-hard brew fans made sure they had the required closed-toed shoes and embarked on journeys to industrial zones for brewery tours. At some breweries, there may have been small, free samples provided after the tour, but most likely not.
For the most part, the experiences were more like factory tours. There was no reason for anyone to spend the afternoon at a brewery; once you’d seen it, you were basically through. And the only way to try out a beer from a brewery was usually at a bar or in a bottle. The reason? Maine state law did not allow breweries to pour beer at their own location, aside from those tiny free samples. Maintaining what we now know as a “brewery tasting room” would have been impossible, and, if nothing else, it would not produce any revenue to pay for the added infrastructure and employees to run it.
With limited resources to package and distribute beer, it meant that the smaller craft breweries that had opened in the late 2000s were dependent on off-premise sales and had to dedicate lots of time to securing accounts at restaurants and package stores because there was little opportunity for people to discover what brewers had to offer.
Thanks to the efforts of the Maine Brewers Guild and Rising Tide Brewing co-owner Heather Sanborn, the state took up the bill at the end of 2011. The revision to the liquor law allowed for breweries to “charge for samples …” as long as ” … each sample poured is subject to a charge” and as long as all the other appropriate rules about alcohol were followed.
The effect of this small item was immediate. Breweries planning to move or expand could now begin to set up tasting rooms and charge for samples. The law didn’t specify sizes, but most breweries choose to offer 4- to 10-ounce pours.
Six years later, and it would be hard to imagine Portland and the rest of the state’s beer industry thriving without this change in place. Small, nano-scale breweries like Austin Street were able to open in small spaces but still have a dedicated audience. And the larger breweries could have a space to get feedback from consumers, sometimes on pilot batches of beer that would later be brewed in full-scale batches.
Tasting rooms quickly became hangouts and destinations, and beer tourism began to seem like a viable industry. Breweries began to hire staff just for tasting rooms and pursue opportunities for expansion to include these spaces. Breweries without food available on-site enlisted food trucks, and beer tour companies sprung up to happily shuttle beer-curious tourists. Rising Tide, the brewery that pushed for the law that then led to its own expansion in the East Bayside neighborhood, now serves thousands of patrons each week in its tasting room. A recently added a private event space is available for community gatherings, weddings or what have you.
Also included in the legal update was wording that would allow breweries to donate beer “in-kind” for charitable events. While this has had a smaller impact, it is still significant. Many events for local causes have been buoyed by breweries donating beer. This set up a win-win for breweries and community groups, and allowed many breweries to form long-lasting partnerships with their neighborhoods and causes that they value.
When we look back at it, the change wasn’t really about having a room, but rather it was a way for breweries to connect with their communities, but in a sustainable and economically possible way.
So, as spring begins to finally appear, and our favorite breweries begin uncovering and opening their outdoor spaces, pause for a moment to celebrate the handful of words that made it into law on a cold day in April in 2012, and raise a taster glass to LD 1889.