The Franciscan Friar Behind One of Maine’s Coolest Taprooms
A true beer bro is finds his calling in Bucksport.
By Joel Crabtree
Photographed by Gabe Souza
Late one night this past January, at the white-clapboard friary on a wooded hillside in Bucksport, Brother Donald Paul felt so unwell — swollen ankles, hand pain, shortness of breath — that he went to the hospital. A week later, he came out of quadruple bypass surgery at Eastern Maine Medical Center. And just six weeks after that, he was back to doing what he loves, brewing beer at Friars’ Brewhouse Tap Room.
Brother Don, as he’s known around Bucksport, is one of three members of the Franciscan Brothers of St. Elizabeth of Hungary, an Episcopalian subset. He grew up as Donald Martel a few hours away, in Biddeford. Before donning friar’s robes, he studied culinary arts and music and got a part-time music-teaching job at Holy Angels School in Lynn, Massachusetts. There, he hit it off with principal Ken Soucy, now Brother Kenneth Leo. “[Brother Don] was an outgoing, loud, talkative, take-the-bull-by-the-horns kind of guy,” Brother Kenneth says. “Well, they say opposites attract. We ended up becoming best friends.”
When the school closed, in the mid-’90s, the duo headed to Maine, planning to build a religious retreat. Instead, they took vows and founded the friary. Since then, they’ve held public Sunday services twice a month, added one other member, and, for 19 years, run a bakery in Bangor.
Last year, when they closed the bakery, the Bangor Daily News lamented the loss of its heaping sandwiches, church-music soundtrack, and loyal lunch crowd of lawyers, priests, families, and college students. But Brother Don’s interests had already started to wander in 2010, when a home-brewing supply shop opened across the street. “Brother Don took to it really quickly, and his beer was great,” says Zeth Lundy, then owner of the supply shop. “He would bring over beers that he had brewed, and we would drink them with him and critique them.” By 2013, Brother Don was selling bottles through retailers around the state, and in April of last year, the brothers opened the taproom, with hopes that it too would become a community hub.
Friars’ Brewhouse Tap Room, open Tuesday through Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., keeps four beers on tap, usually the Whoopie Pie Porter, a Belgian dubbel, and two rotating options.
Then, nine months in, Brother Don had his heart attack. “The response we got from the folks in Bucksport was unbelievable,” he says. People donated money toward medical expenses, helped keep the monastery shoveled out, and dropped off food. “You would be amazed at how much ministry goes on here,” he says, sitting at a taproom table with a view of the Penobscot River. “And when I say ministry, I don’t necessarily mean in the religious sense. Sometimes it’s just human contact.”
Brother Don says the friars view creating a gathering place in the former mill town as fundamental to their mission, and because they operate under a vow of poverty (and nonprofit status), proceeds from the brewery all go into running it and the monastery. As the brewmaster, he focuses on styles from Belgium and Germany, where religious orders have been producing beer since the Middle Ages. In the early fall, the seasonal specialty is a classic German-style Oktoberfest lager, and this time of year, Brother Don brews a boozy, holiday-spiced St. Nicholas Ale, following in the Belgian tradition of winter belly warmers. The only beer that doesn’t fit the mold happens to be the brewery’s bestseller, the Whoopie Pie Porter, an opaque, chocolaty, roasty sipper (and a smart bit of Maine-y branding).
Brother Don still bakes too. The taproom has a full food menu that includes sandwiches on his house-made baguette. “Water, grain, yeast. You put them together one way, you get beer. Put them together another way, you get bread,” he notes. “Which essentially means every loaf of bread is wasted beer.”