An adventure down dirt country roads leads to refreshing brews
By Melissa Paquette
When I searched for a street address on the Funky Bow Brewery and Beer Company website, all I found were these directions: “Head down Route 35 in Lyman. Look for the BEER sign. Turn up a dirt road.” Yet on the warm spring evening I visited the brewery in rural Maine, people poured onto that dirt road like it was right off the highway.
My visit felt like I was at an impromptu backyard party with strangers. Retirees and blue collar workers mingled with young professionals and tourists. Were were in Maine, after all, where strangers strike up conversations with whomever is standing by.
Where the Beer Buses Don’t Go
Craft breweries like Funky Bow are popping up all over the U.S. According to the Brewer’s Association, 75% of adults age 21 or older live within ten miles of a craft brewery. My native state of Maine boasts 5.2 breweries per capita (6th in the nation) and a thriving beer tourism industry, complete with beer bus tours and the Maine Beer Trail.
While I visit Maine often, I rarely travel beyond Portland or the nearby small towns where I grew up, so I was struck by the abundance of rural breweries on the Maine Brewer’s Guild Beer Trail map. I wondered how they could survive in a state that, according to the Federal Bureau of Economic Analysis, is 47th in the nation for economic growth. I decided to find out.
Over the course of a year, I visited several breweries I’d never get to by beer bus. I learned that Mainers’ penchant for ingenuity, practicality, and camaraderie make the state well-suited to the craft beer movement, and that to experience Maine culture, all you need is a love of craft beer and a sense of adventure.
Great Beer, Great Party
The band Bud Java plays at Funky Bow Friday growler nights. Father and son team Paul and Abraham Lorraine brew and market Funky Bow beer. Every Friday and Saturday, they welcome the public to their 20-acre farm for growler nights
Funky Bow growler nights aren’t just opportunities for customers to refill beer jugs – they are full on parties. We paid a small cover fee and purchased tokens to turn in at the bar for glasses of beer.
There was live music and toys for the kids. Resident dogs mingled with the guests, waiting for a pat on the head. We ate house-made thin-crust pizza direct from a wood-fired oven. All this took place in and around a greenhouse with picnic tables.
Beyond the narrow southwestern Portland corridor, Maine is sparsely populated, so while a traveller may not know anyone at a Funky Bow growler night, if you live in the area, you’ll eventually run into someone you know. And if you’re from away, you’ll make new friends.
Since my visit, Funky Bow added directions to their website, built an outdoor stage, and began renting the farm for events. I’m not surprised business is booming. Despite their location “deep in the woods of Lyman”, people make the trip to Funky Bow because the beer is some of the best in Maine. And it doesn’t hurt that they throw a darn good party.
An Agro Geo What?
Dustin Johnson founded Gneiss Brewing Company in his hometown of Limerick. He’s a geologist by training, which explains the interesting brewery name: Gneiss (rhymes with nice) is a type of rock.
More interesting is Dustin’s vision for a closed-loop farming and brewing concept he calls an agrogeobrewery. While the loop is a work in progress, here’s how it will work: Spent grain from the brewing process will feed the animals. The animals’ manure will feed the grains. The grains will be brewed into more beer.
The term agrogeobrewery may sound like a new-fangled hipster notion, but the process is grounded in typical Maine values. Use the land and animals to make a living, but treat them well. Take the time to do things right. Waste nothing.
The brewery’s marketing strategy is inspired by its neighbors. Tim Bissel, who grew up with Dustin and works with him to brew, sell, market, and distribute the beer, says it was a bit risky opening a craft brewery in an area where most people drink mass-produced beer. Nevertheless, Mainers appreciate quality and inventiveness, so they won over the locals with the easy-drinking, consistent Gneiss Weiss, a German-style weissbeir that doesn’t overwhelm the palette.
As I tasted the lineup at Gneiss Brewing, the strategy became clear: Focus on quality and consistency. Build a customer base. Take it up a notch or two, then move onto something bold and different.
Something bold and different came with Cenozoic, an unusual imperial wheat porter with ginger. After two sips of this 7.5% ABV beer, I pictured myself drinking it by a wood stove, with wool-stockinged feet securely ensconced in a cozy blanket.
Mountains and Beer
“The outdoors and beer go well together”, said Matt Swan, owner of Tumbledown Brewing in Farmington.
That might explain why his brewery in sparsely populated Franklin County is thriving. Travelers come to the area for some of the best outdoor recreation in the state. Indeed, I was there with my sister to not only to visit the brewery, but to hike Mt. Blue in nearby Weld. The morning of our hike started off rainy,
Little Ossipee lake is on Route 5 in East Waterboro, about 15 minutes from Gneiss Brewing. Many of the rural breweries we visited attract customers with live music, either on growler nights or during special events.
But by the time we made our way down the winding, hilly roads to Mt. Blue State Park, the autumn sun was breaking up the clouds in a stunning display of light and shadow.
Farmington is surrounded by natural beauty and is home to a University of Maine campus. The downtown has enough good restaurants and shops to keep visitors happy for a few days. But it’s also a long drive from any city, so while I agree beer and the outdoors go well together, the brewery’s success was still a mystery to me.
Matt explained that about half of his business comes from locals. Farmington, like many rural Maine towns, has a culture of camaraderie. The small farms and businesses in the area can’t easily reach a lot of customers, so they rely on local support. And the locals, rooted in their community, are happy to buy Matt’s “great beer from the mountains of Maine.”
Local Lying Bastard Makes Good
As I drove into the former mill town of Skowhegan, it looked a little worn around the edges. Skowhegan is located in one of the poorest Maine counties. Like many former mill towns, it struggles for economic vitality. Yet during my visit, I saw signs of economic life, including Bigelow Brewing Company.
Bigelow Brewing owner Jeff Powers and his wife, Pam, live in a beautiful spot among rolling, wooded hills about 10 minutes outside of town. The day I visited the brewery in a former horse barn on their property, I chatted for a while with Pam, who loves horses.
“I had, said Pam, “seven horses at the height of my mania”. That’s a lot of horses!
Pam also loves good beer, so the day Jeff announced they would finally open a craft brewery in the barn, she called him a lying bastard. In 2013, Lying Bastard Pale Ale and Bigelow Brewing Company was born.
Despite their location in a community that had over 9% unemployment the year they opened, business took off right away. Jeff and Pam partially credit their success to collaboration with Maine’s craft beer business community, but they owe continued growth to the local community. Jeff is growing the brewery into an entertainment and event center that relies on nearby businesses, including local farmers and a Skowhegan grist mill.
Locals enjoy good company and good beer at the Gneiss Brewing farm. Inside, the tasting “barn” is modern and inviting, with retro stools alongside a polished granite bar.
Outside, a gleaming copper oven and lush lawns make a great spot for casual weddings and fundraising events. Friday evenings feature live music and pizza. On select Wednesdays, the brewery hosts paint night, where you can meet a local artist and try your hand at copying one of their paintings.
A taste for sociability and fresh beer make for good business. Jeff says Friday nights often bring 100 to 150 local visitors, a strong showing for a town with only about 8,500 residents. Yet, the Saturday afternoon I visited, I saw very few customers. Pam explained a high school musical and other events were underway. In other words, the local were out doing what they always do – participating in their community.
No Frills, Just Facts
Although the sign by the door said Open, my sister and I walked into a dark, seemingly deserted Oak Pond Brewery near the Canaan-Skowhegan line. At the far end of the building, we spotted a desk and small display of t-shirts and souvenirs.
Head brewer Adam Chandler greeted us. Adam’s parents, Don and Nancy Chandler, started the brewery in 2003. Adam took over as head brewer after his father’s death in 2013. Adam and his mother, Nancy, offer small, personalized tours without the noise and crowds you find at larger breweries.
Oak Pond Brewery is a no-frills experience. You won’t find a stylish bar. You won’t even find a place to sit. But you will learn how beer is made.
“What are the four ingredients of beer?”, Adam asked at the start of the tour outside the barn, presumably to gauge our level of beer knowledge.
“Water, yeast, malt, and hops,” I answered, glad I wasn’t a complete novice.
Adam led us to a room with a funnel that deposits grain inside the barn. He invited us to touch and smell the malted barleys, explaining how malt affects the color and taste of beer. We looked inside the spotless masher and boiler as Adam described the process that prepares the ingredients for fermentation.
We moved onto the filtering equipment and ended at the machinery that bottles and kegs 15 to 16 thousand gallons of beer a year.
The Oak Pond Brewing website says they brew beer “using only the purist ingredients”. A visit to the brewery is about as pure as it gets. No nonsense, no airs, nothing fancy – just like a typical Mainer.
Melissa Paquette is a native Mainer who makes a living as a technical writer in the Boston area. To fulfill her creative side, she writes short stories about her travels in, around, and nowhere near Boston. You can read about her latest adventures and musings on www.peregrinecall.com.