By Will Grunewald
Photographed by Dave Waddell
From our January 2023 issue
Ever since opening in Portland, in 2013, Bissell Brothers has made some of the finest, most sought-after beers in Maine, most of them hazy IPAs, from the ubiquitous Substance to the limited-release Swish, a rare perfect 100 on the review site BeerAdvocate. In 2018, the namesake brothers, Peter and Noah, opened a second outpost in an old snowmobile shop in their small Piscataquis County hometown of Milo, with all the same beers but none of the long, jostling lines typical of the Portland flagship. One recent afternoon, I strolled up to the bar in Milo, admired the dozen shiny tap handles plus a fridge full of interesting cans and bottles, and ordered meatloaf.
Meatloaf, to be clear, is not the name of a beer. Rather, it was several thick slabs of finely ground pork and beef, glazed with tomato gastrique and garnished with crispy bits of fried onion, resting on a hillock of a sweet and earthy parsnip-potato puree. A side of roasted peas and carrots was topped with a blackened sprig of rosemary, and satiny gravy pooled all about. If a better meatloaf is out there, I’ve yet to meet it, and so attractively was it plated that if a server in black vest and bowtie laid that exact entrée on a white tablecloth in some fancy restaurant, I wouldn’t bat an eye if it cost $30. Instead, a buzzer I’d been given at the bar went off, and I grabbed the food at a window, pulled a fork and a knife from the utensil holder, and went back to my picnic table. The dish cost $16 — nowadays the price of a mediocre cheeseburger at any old place.
A decade ago, a new state law allowed breweries to start selling pours on-site without also needing to offer food service. Rid of a dependence on distribution and growler sales, scrappy startup breweries took off. And for many brewers, it was somewhat a point of pride to channel all their energies into making good beer, undistracted by the demands of running a brewpub. Lately, though, something funny has been happening: brewers who came up in those heady, earlier, food-free days of Maine’s beer boom — at Oxbow, Rising Tide, Maine Beer Company, Bissell — have reconsidered the brewpub model, and newer entrants are increasingly likely to include non-liquid sustenance in their business plans.
Bissell Brothers Three Rivers (the proper name of the Milo location) added its own food program last spring. Joe Robbins runs the kitchen, and his menu ranges from chefy to pubby. There’s herb-crusted pork tenderloin with wild rice, pork jus, and apple compote on the one hand, fried mozzarella with tomato sauce on the other. It bears noting, though, that the mozzarella is hand-pulled in-house, using milk from a small farm in Jackson, and seemingly nothing on the menu lacks creativity. Navajo Tacos, for instance, comprise ground bison, from a farm in Eustis, topped with iceberg and tomato tossed in crema, all folded into fry bread, a chewy, crispy-edge flatbread thought to have originated with the Navajo, using government rations on a 300-mile forced relocation march in the mid-1800s.
Robbins, who grew up in Old Town, is a member of the Penobscot Nation, and he likes to scatter his menu with eclectic indigenous influences. The Iroquois call corn, beans, and squash the Three Sisters, a trio of crops foundational to their agriculture, and for his Three Sisters Succotash, Robbins sautés lima beans, corn, and butternut squash with butter and fermented honey, then plates that vegetable medley with a schmear of raspberry wojapi, a Lakota fruit preserve, and crowns it with a poached duck egg. “Dynamic” is not a word I’ve associated with succotash before, but it certainly applies here. The interplay of so many textures and flavors leaves no bite quite the same as the next.
There was lots more I’d have liked to try: poutine with Pineland Farms cheese curds, chicken and waffles with buffalo whipped cream, a tamale sandwich. But portions are ample and there were just two of us at the table, so I only ordered one other dish, a fried-chicken sandwich with a piquant mix of barbecue, buffalo, and Italian-herbed cheddar sauces. I had a couple of beers too, of course, and they were excellent. They did not, however, steal the show.