The Maine Brewer’s Festival has for years been one of those ones that got away. When I went to school in Atlantic Canada, the festival was always on my wish list. The beer scene in Maine was quite enticing – lots of little micros, including one that had achieved significant acclaim (Geary’s). For a variety of reasons, I never did make it down there. Well, I had enough air miles to get there this year, and decided to pull the trigger.
<P>First impressions come from airports for many travelers, and Portland, Maine’s has a restaurant bearing the Shipyard name and carrying their brands. I gave it a pass, however, and proceeded straight to the Great Lost Bear to pass the time until the fest. The GLB is one of the most reknowned beer bars in the US. It’s been around for 15 years already, and serves mainly Maine micros on draught. This brings up immediate comparisons with other draught-only, local-micro-friendly establishments like the Latona in Seattle, the Winking Judge in Hamilton or the Wenlock Arms in London. The Bear has a tavern-like feel – minimal natural light and cluttered with bric-a-brac, Americana-style. The weather was stellar and I couldn’t bear to sit inside so I headed for the patio. Too bad about the obnoxiously loud music blaring through cheap speakers. Even worse was the car alarm that kept going off every couple of minutes.
<P>As I said, the Bear is all about Maine microbrews, which naturally was the theme of the day. I kicked things off with Alewife Ale, from Liberal Cup. Given the name, I was hoping for something gruity, but was informed that it was an IPA. I found it serviceable, and it really set the tone for the Maine scene overall…well-made, unpretentious beer from breweries nobody outside of Maine has ever heard of. I followed it up with a couple of like products – the porters from Freeport and Maine Coast. I also had Geary’s Harvest Ale on cask…oh and I went inside and joined the rather large Beer Advocate contingent.
<P>Always good to see how the other half lives. There were a couple of differences that I noticed between that gathering and the Ratebeerian gatherings I’ve attended. First, Ratebeer seems to have a higher 20-something component. While I doubt I was the youngest of the group there, I was definitely down the list a ways. Also, nobody was taking notes. This could be, I thought, because they’d had all these beers before, but I didn’t notice any of them rating at the festival later on, either. Interesting stuff, that, but I understand where they’re coming from. Sometimes it’s good to just put the pen down and enjoy some good brew and good company. As my note a few weeks ago on the Events page states, I’m shooting for a mix of the two at my Christmas party.
<P>Next up was the festival. I parted ways with the BA crowd, left a couple of beers for them to try later on, and walked down to the Portland Expo Centre. I was expecting a convention hall, and instead got a glorified high school basketball gymnasium. The event was sold out, so I also got a packed house, sauna-like environment, and long lines at every turn. I wasn’t too keen on that aspect, and reports are that it wasn’t quite so bad the previous year.
<P>Now, to the beers. The scene in Maine has a vibe all its own. I didn’t see a single ultra-strong brew there. No barley wines. No imperial anything. No barrel-aged buffoonery. Just straight-up, honest session beers. The outdoors influence is prevalent. Brewers everywhere like to play on the nature theme to help sell their product, but when was the last time a brewer skipped the biggest festival in his area because it was the first day of hunting season?
<P>Pretentiousness is non-existent. Andrew Hazen from Andrew’s Brewing Company explained that he’s never bothered to enter his beer in a competition because “We’ve been around for 12 years. The beer must be pretty good.”
<P>The drinkers showed great enthusiasm for Belfast Bay Lobster Ale, even after the disappointment of learning that it was sans homard.
<P>Two new beers launched at the festival. On paper, it was a mismatch – Geary’s Winter Ale (Hampshire being a year-round product now, for those who didn’t catch the press release) and the contract-brewed Sparhawk Golden Ale. But that’s why they play the game. In the glass, Geary’s was a total dud. The golden ale, made at Casco Bay Brewers, was tasty, reminding me of the better English golden ales. I’ve maintained for a while now that North Americans could learn a thing or two from the old country regarding golden ales, and it looks like a few people are starting to listen.
<P>The one strong ale at the fest, Lucifer’s Hammer from Sheepscot, was sold out after just two hours. I missed it, but was able to get their Daramiscotta Double Brown Ale, which was one of the more unique brews there, and my lifetime #4000.
<P>After the fest I hit two local brewpubs – Gritty McDuff’s and Sebago. Neither rocked my world (Gritty’s was way too crowded for me to enjoy myself) but I did enjoy the Black Fly Stout from Gritty’s.
<P>Many thanks to Richard Pfeffer from Gritty’s, for hosting my festival visit, to all the brewers who took the time away from the long lines to talk to me, and to the BA crew for letting me crash your party for a while.