On Saturday November 3rd, I was down in Portland for the 19th Annual Maine Brewers Festival. This is my second time in attendance and I highly doubt it will be my last. This year I had the opportunity to stop in early and chat with some folks at the festival and get a behind the scenes look as everything pulled together, it’s quite impressive.
I talked with Jay Riley; co-owner of the Maine Brewers Festival, Jay purchased the event 5 years ago when the previous owners were ready to move on. Having lived and gone to school in the area and of course being a fan of Maine craft beer he took the opportunity to become not only a fan but a supporter and promoter of Maine beer. Jay described the event as a place where “high quality and good taste intersect with local business”, I think that was the perfect description, with 14 Maine craft breweries showcasing high quality, flavorful beer in a wide array of styles, side by side with local food vendors and 3 local bands entertaining the crowd.
The Maine brewers festival is one of the largest single day brewfests in the country, with two sessions bringing in around 5000 people for the day, an event this size takes a small army to put it on, over 300 volunteers make it all possible. The City of Portland also plays a huge role, being very accommodating and working with the event organizers and of course allowing them to use the Portland Expo. I was lucky enough to be invited into the Gritty’s booth to chat with Thomas Wilson who does Marketing for Gritty’s. Gritty’s is the original Maine brewpub; they opened in July of 1988 and will be celebrating their 25th Anniversary in 2013. Thomas discussed the fact that the Maine Brewers Festival only has Maine brewers, “it talks to the quality and quantity of Maine breweries, to support a festival all on our own”, I completely agree with that statement, having attended many brewfests that bring in breweries from around the country and around the world, not to say there is anything wrong with that, I just personally feel when you attend the Maine Brewers Festival, you should be drinking a Maine made beer.
Like I said before, I was fortunate enough to get into the event early so I decided not to let the opportunity pass me by and took it all in. I walked around snapping photos of the booths and tap handles, figured out the floor plan, started putting together a plan of attack, because knowing where all the brewers are located makes things much easier once the lines form and you’ve had a couple samples. One thing I noticed that stood out to me was the atmosphere, with 45 minutes until doors opened everyone was calm, it was like watching a well-oiled machine, and if there were hiccups they weren’t visible.
At 1pm the doors opened and the fun began, people started filling the Portland Expo, tickets and sample glasses in hand, by the rinsing stations there were “Pour List” available. This bright green piece of paper included all the event information, a list of brewers and what they had available for sample as well as a map with all the booths for quick reference, and golf pencils for those of us that like to mark down what we had with a few tasting notes. At this point I made my way to a brewer that I knew would have a long line, with a spot secured in line at the Allagash booth and 30 minutes until the taps opened I had plenty of time to people watch. Groups were pretty easy to spot, with brightly colored matching shirts so they could find each other, they would gather and break off into smaller groups again, like watching a small team have a huddle to discuss strategy then break away. The crowds at these events are always very diverse with a broad age range which is nice to see, in the end everyone is there for the same reason, the beer. As 1:30pm neared some announcements were made and the question was asked, by show of hands, for how many of you is this your first Maine Brewers Festival? Looking across the crowd and seeing a couple hundred hands in the air is confirmation that the Maine beer scene is alive and growing, and next year those same people will be there but the friend they brought with them will be raising their hand. With 10 second left on the scoreboard the crowd counted it down to zero and the beer started flowing.
The music was nice, I’ve attended a few festivals that have live music but they are not usually such a prominent fixture, with a full stage set up and 3 local bands you could hear the music wherever you were. The first band up was the Zach Jones Band, followed by Dirigo and then the Mallet Brothers finished the session. There was a wide variety of food options available, which is always good at a beer fest because you never know when that 11% ABV sample of Curieux from Allagash is going to sneak up on you. There were hotdogs, French fries, Italian sausages, Pretzels from Logic Pretzels, Cupcakes from Love Cupcakes, Portland Pie co. had pizza by the slice and Hella good Taco’s had a booth as well.
The crowd at this festival was really good, at an event with long lines and alcohol in the mix there is always the possibility you’ll run into trouble. I found the people attending the Maine Brewers Festival to be very kind and courteous. If someone bumped into you, which is bound to happen in a crowd, they were quick to apologize and excuse themselves. For the most part everyone seemed to be enjoying in moderation, taking breaks to enjoy what the food vendors had to offer and drinking water. I don’t usually like being in a crowd but when everyone is in good spirits and having fun, music is playing and quality craft beer is just at the end of the line, it’s a good time.
I can’t close this Blog post out without bragging about the beer I had, there was a lot to choose from. I started the Festival off with a Curieux by Allagash Brewing company, moved from there to a Freestyle #8 by Oxbow Brewing Company, Hayride by Baxter Brewing Co., Double Old Thumper by Shipyard Brewing Co., I then got two samples from Sheepscot Brewing , their Oysterman Stout and Damariscotta Double Brown, both were excellent. I then worked my way through the crowd over to Rising Tide and had a Daymark while I chatted with Co-owner and head brewer Nathan Sanborn. I grabbed a sample of Impact Pale ale from Run of the Mill Brewing and jumped back in line for an Allagash Black. I stopped in at D.L Geary’s brewing for a Cask Scotch Ale that was 8%ABV and incredibly smooth. Couldn’t miss a Black Fly Stout at Gritty McDuff’s booth. Then it happened, 1 ticket left, a glance at the scoreboard (yes they had the time running down on the scoreboard) and I knew the game was about over. I made my move, with 20 second left on the clock I stood face to face with Kai Adams, Vice President and Brewmaster at Sebago Brewing Company, dropped a ticket in the bucket and asked for a Frye’s Leap IPA. As the clock ran out I was tipping back that final sample, I had hit the buzzer beater, brewfest over, and the crowd went wild.
Maine Brewers Festival