A quick Google search—how beer changed the world—directs me to a documentary called How Beer Saved the World. Its thesis, no surprise considering the name, is that beer had a major impact on the whole of human history. Listen to any podcast about the fermented grain, and you can dive into the world of malting, milling, and mashing all the way to aging and maturing. I’ve heard that the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock because they ran out of beer—a theorized important source of nutrition that was less likely to be contaminated than water on a long, dirty voyage.
But the fermented barley the Pilgrims drank is far from the refined tastes of beer we have come to love today. From Belgian-style golden ales to fresh hop pilsners with refreshing bitterness to that ever-sought-after juicy IPA, the craft beer scene in Maine has exploded like an over-carbonated beer bottle. After work, who doesn’t want to meet up with friends—especially when it’s dark more hours of the day—and sip on a nice, cold beer? And why, in Maine, is that beer often brewed right in your neighborhood?
My objective for this Drive story is to visit beloved neighborhood breweries, so I take a trip to southern Maine to visit some of my favorite spots. First, we go to Maine Beer Company, an industry leader of craft brewing in Maine, for their clean tasting, West Coast–style IPAs. Their branding, like their beer, is pure. A simple font, elegant glass bottles, and a motto of “Do what’s right.” At a table in the corner, ambassadors from the Center for Wildlife are passing out flyers of information. Two tiny bats hang upside down in a glass box, and a turtle periodically comes out of its shell. I quickly learn from talking to the team at Maine Beer Company that sustainability and community partnerships are central to their ethos.
Our next stop is Bissell Brothers, where our stomachs are grumbling for the dishes we read on their menu. We are shocked, poring over offerings of delicata squash, fresh salads, a charcuterie board featuring meat from Broad Arrow Farm—not your average brewery food. Their iconic beer, The Substance Ale, is the homebrew that started it all. For that reason, IPAs are oft associated with Bissell. (When I tried the Swish IPA, I was blown away with the juiciness!) Yet Lucy Henson, their marketing and events manager, has noticed more buzz around their lager program. Their focus is their tie to the state of Maine, putting the state and its people first. That includes supporting the community in Portland and their other location in Milo, and sourcing local ingredients when possible. The fresh ingredients come through in the taste of their beer.
Also in Portland, Allagashhas more than made a name for itself in Maine—you can find it nationwide. But you won’t find any other Allagash breweries, where the beer is made and distributed, other than the location in Portland. Allagash White, a witbier that is citrusy and refreshing, is many people’s first foray into the world of craft beers. It certainly was mine! Their Belgian beers are their specialty, but they dabble in a range of styles and flavors, from dark and barrel-aged stouts to complex, spontaneously fermented beers. This is a great place to visit for those newly interested in craft beer, as well as longtime fans who want to try a unique taste. The space is open and free-flowing, with a fantastic outdoor seating area that is a walkable distance to other breweries for those looking to do a beer hop!
A relative newcomer to the Portland scene is Belleflower, but their beer tastes far from novice. When I used to live in Portland, I’d swing by after work for a pint with friends. In the cold, dark winter of Maine, I thought the lack of light somehow amplified my other senses because I could taste so many flavors in their beer. It turns out, that’s just Belleflower. Their stouts and lagers are just as impressive as their IPAs. One of co-owner Nick Bonadies’ go-tos is a Baltic porter called The Awakening Place that takes a long time to brew, which makes it rich and dark. The art that frames both the interior and exterior is also a big draw to the space. On the outside, there’s a colorful mural by local artist Rebecca Volynsky that welcomes people to the space. Inside, a rotation of art by various local artist hangs on the walls—there’s always something beautiful and thought-provoking to look at. Nick says of the initial design that they knew they didn’t want to re-create your typical brewery. Femininity and art are centered in this space, creating a laid-back and vibrant tasting room.
In Oxford, we end our journey at Oxbow, known as a winter wonderland for its miles of cross-country ski trails. (What could be more Maine than that—skiing at your local brewery?) We arrive at night, but it feels more vibrant than perhaps the day had. Fire crackles on the front lawn, warm lights are strung about, and a bluegrass band is swinging in the pavilion. A-frame open cabins are brightly lit at the edge of the property, and the whole scene is nothing less than exuberant. Inside is warm, and we taste two of their farmhouse ales, both very distinct from the previous juice bombs and lagers we had tried. They were fruity, sour, and light.
It was amazing that the different beverages we tried were all under the umbrella of beer, because so many of them tasted nothing alike. Sipping on the Oxbow beer by the fire with the bluegrass music haloing around us under the stars felt more real than real life. It was like achieving that moment in a movie when everything lines up perfectly and you feel so alive under the open sky. I have known for a long time, as many do, that Maine breweries have a magic to them. It’s fun to learn the why, but dare I say it’s even more fun to let the why be a mystery, to just order the damn pint, to drink it without being able to say it has a hint of pine, to sit under the lights and to listen quietly to the bluegrass band that always seems to be playing somewhere in Maine on a Friday night.