I find myself in Belfast, Maine three or four times a year, but almost always during the winter for a trip to the Belfast Curling Club, this past weekend we decided to head down and check things out when it’s warmer and people are actually out and about. Naturally a family trip would include a stop at a brewery right? I got in touch with David Carlson at Marshall Wharf Brewing and arranged a tour for the afternoon while my wife and kids went exploring.
If you’ve never been to Belfast the brewery is located right on the water, you drive down Main Street past all the shops, at the bottom of the hill you’ll find yourself facing the public boat landing, hang a left onto front street and between the pub and a gift shop you’ll find 3 Tides and Marshall Wharf Brewing tucked in on the water.
The driveway and parking are pretty limited, but there is free public parking within walking distance back up the hill, the driveway at the brewery now has a public walking path that cuts directly through it giving access to the footbridge that crosses the Passagassawakeag River down beyond the Front Street Shipyard and cuts through Heritage Park in the other direction. 3 Tides is the building farthest left, the cedar shingled structure has a stairway that leads up a floor, there is outdoor deck seating on top as well as ground level seating if you prefer to be near the fire or the bocce court. The Bar at 3 Tides is small, there is a row of booth seating along the wall, the bar itself is angled and curved and full of character and definitely the only bar I’ve ever seen with a kitchen connected to it, if you call the small cooktop at the far end a kitchen. Food is limited here, Tapas and a small seafood selection but with plenty of dining option in Belfast it’s no surprise that 3 Tides and Marshall Wharf brewing is more focused on the drinks.
Back outside moving from left to right is a heavy steel gate with the 3 tides logo cut into it; the building beside it holds the brewing operation. The window at ground level on the left of the building looks into the brewhouse, to the right is the tasting room. The tasting room is small, limited seating inside and out, a place to order samples, fill growlers and even order a quick bite of food. Since the new walking path was installed the tasting room has added some food options and house made root beer making the tasting room a little more of a family friendly place to visit.
When I arrived I didn’t need to say much as they were expecting me, the tasting room staff poured me a 9oz glass of Deep Purple Rauchbier while I waited for David. I had barely enough time to take a photo of my beer and David appeared around the corner with a five gallon pail full of live lobster, “Grab your drink and follow me” he said, turning and heading back into the hallway he had emerged from. Straight, left, right, left and out the back door into the lower patio area of 3 Tides and the lower bar, I noticed a pot of boiling water about to be loaded with the lobsters for the day and realized quickly this wouldn’t be the average brewery tour.
Over a pot of boiling lobster David explained to me the history of Marshall Wharf Brewing, how it wasn’t ever his intention to start a brewery and that 3 Tides was originally opened as a smoke-free martini bar and it wasn’t until they realized that the Lobstermen who were selling them their catch on the dock didn’t want a martini when they bellied up to the bar, they wanted a beer and later when tourists new to Maine visited they wanted to sit on the deck with a lobster and a locally brewed beer. A lull in the action at the lobster pot freed David up to show me the brewhouse. Just inside the steel gate with the 3 Tides logo is a small rollup bay door which opens up into a small brewhouse, far right is a 7 barrel mash tun, hot liquor tank, a small platform separates that equipment from the brew kettle, this system was originally used by the Belfast Bay Brewery before they went quiet. There are two fermentation vessels against the wall directly in front of the bay door to the left of the kettle a third smaller vessel is visible to your left tucked in and David mentioned more that were out of sight. The grain mill is located above the brewhouse allowing crushed grain to be directed down into the mash tun. Like many breweries around Maine, Marshall Wharf is set up in an existing building and the layout of the structure dictates the arrangement and size of the equipment.
Out the bay door and back over to the lobster pot, David emptied the finished lobsters onto a stainless tray next to the basin sink to cool and we stepped in to the canning area. Small is the key word here, to the right the hallway back to the tasting room, directly in front an area for the finished canned beer, to the left is a small filling machine. For anyone who has ever visited a large brewery that cans or seen a video of the automated canning machines that fill the can on a conveyor, pick it up and spin on the top then spit it out onto another conveyor, this is not that. Marshall Wharf uses a manual filling machine that does two of their 16oz cans at a time, next to the filler the lids are put on one at a time then the finished can is set aside, this two person operation can turn out 1500 cans in a ten hour day when things are going good. Comparatively, Baxter Brewing Company in Lewiston who cans all of their beers and are semi-automated can package 240BBL in a 12 hour shift, the percentage of Kegs and cans are based on orders but occasionally they package the entire 240BBL in cans and that ends up being over 79,000 cans of Baxter Beer or another way to look at it is 6500 cans/hour versus Marshall Wharfs 150 cans/ hour.
In the back there were some oak barrels and a door that led to a narrow pathway that I didn’t dare walk through, both sides were lined with pallets of black, Marshall Wharf aluminum cans from floor to ceiling that David told me he had to cut the back wall of the building out with chainsaw to get in. That completed the tour, I’m assuming if I’d braved the narrow passageway or dug around a bit more I’d have found brite tanks and kegs but maybe that’s for another day.
Marshall Wharf Brewing does not conduct tours for the public, which is understandable considering the layout of the space and the fact that more than 3 people would be a crowded tour. Maybe one of the more interesting brewery tours I’ve ever been on, every brewery seems to have its own character and charm but very few have had a layout like this one and I don’t think I’ve ever stepped out the back of a brewery to see yacht’s worth hundreds of thousands of dollars cruising by or one that has a live lobster tank that recirculates freshly pumped sea water for the locally harvest lobsters that were purchased on the Wharf that connects to the brewery.
Before I left, David had one more treat in store, Sea Belt, a Scottish ale brewed with dried Maine sugar kelp seaweed. I was excited; I had heard about his beer and was looking forward to checking it out if I could find it, I guess the brewery is as good a place as any to find it. Roasty, smooth, a touch briny, it was excellent. On Wednesday July 16,2014 Sea Belt, as well as “Forty-Five” the 9% ABV Cream Ale that releases every year on David’s birthday (and yes the name changes every year) will be released at 3 Tides, these beers will most likely only be available at the brewery for the time being. Also for fans of the Marshall Wharf cans, Wrecking Ball, their Baltic Porter brewed with cold pressed coffee and their Oyster Stout are slated to be released sometime this winter.
Belfast has a lot to offer and I hope to get the family back down more in the summer, I have to extend a special thanks to David Carlson for taking the time out of his busy schedule to show me around and talk beer and to my wife who is more than supportive, allowing me to cut out some time from our family outings to sample beer and play in breweries.