From the road, Oak Pond Brewing Company looks like it could be any other barn amid the cows and cornfields of central Maine. The sign out front is diminutive to the point of unreadable when glimpsed from a moving car. But that unassuming converted chicken barn in Skowhegan is where 70-year-old Nancy Chandler has been making batches of beer every week for almost two decades.
The brewery opened in 1996, and Nancy Chandler and her husband, Don, bought the place in 2003, when Don, a laid-off industrial engineer, was having trouble finding work in the area. Initially, it was his idea. “I said, ‘I don’t know anything about running a brewery, do you?’” Nancy recalls. “Little did I know 20 years later I’d still be sitting here.”
Although neither of them had ever brewed, Don quickly understood how the equipment worked, thanks to his engineering background, and he taught himself and Nancy the brewing process. As the couple raised their two sons, Nancy kept her job as a physical therapist — she has a doctorate in the field, and for 16 years, she ran the program for training physical-therapy assistants at Kennebec Valley Community College — and she helped with the weekly brew day, doing everything from hauling 50-pound bags of malt to capping bottles by hand. Oak Pond’s focus on traditional English-, German-, and Czech-style ales and lagers earned the brewery a strong local following, with neighbors stopping by for growler fills and a cadre of local restaurants and mom-and-pop groceries carrying their lineup. Nowadays, they get a steady stream of beer tourists for tours and tastings too, although they’re the rare small brewery that still emphasizes distribution over in-house pours.
Since Oak Pond started pouring, some 140 breweries have opened in Maine.
“Have we ever thrown out a bad batch of beer?” Nancy asks her son Adam, who became head brewer after Don passed away in 2013. He sits at a desk beside hers.
“Dad threw one away once and you cried,” he says.
“I did cry,” Nancy admits. “It was a nut brown. But that was the only one.”
Nancy, short and blonde, still trades in her lime-green crocs for tall rubber boots on brew days, bringing her deep knowledge of how to fine-tune the 14-barrel brew system. She also knows which drafts her regulars want as soon as they walk through the door. Adam says her work ethic hasn’t waned a bit. “She’s a real bulldozer at making sure things are done and done correctly,” he says.
Generally, Nancy says, first-time visitors “go right to him and start asking him questions. I usually step in and say, ‘Oh, I’ve got to tell you something: I’m the most experienced female brewer in the state, and I’m the boss.’ And I think that makes an impact on people, especially the women.”
Nancy still enjoys the brewing process from start to finish — except all the cleaning — but she says the real reason she continues brewing is for Don, whom she met at a fencing bout way back when they lived in upstate New York (both were avid fencers, although she “beat the socks off him every time”). “I don’t get much of a salary, but that’s not why I do it. It’s to just keep this going, because my husband started this, and he’s right there,” she says, pointing to a nearby framed photo of him smiling back at her.