I got my first real part-time job when I was 15 years old, in 1995, bussing tables at this crazy new restaurant concept called a brewpub. By then, the brewpub was already well on its way to remaking the American dining scene, but it was still a novel concept in my corner of cow-country Wisconsin: a casual place where the menu was nonetheless thoughtful and hip, where you could probably wear sandals but might also conceivably take a date, where grown-ups were drinking house-brewed beers and watching sports and being jocular, but which also had crayons for the kids and servers who occasionally busted out a chorus of “Happy Birthday.”
American brewpubs in the ’90s made upper-middlebrow dining fun again. The Brits, meanwhile, were coming to a similar place from the opposite direction: pubs (which had always been fun) were becoming gastropubs, noisy and convivial pint parlors with chef-driven kitchens turning out top-tier comfort food.
But like so many dreams of the ’90s, the brewpub phenomenon faded, co-opted and turned into mall chains. The term “gastropub” crossed the pond, flared up in the 2000s, and has since become passé. In Maine, where the whirligig growth of craft brewing has left no town unbeered, the trend is taprooms: rustic or industrial, intimate or huge, they’re suds-centric dens of beer geekdom where food, if offered, is secondary, where you’re as likely to be standing as seated. I like taprooms because I like drinking. But I miss brewpubs.
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From Top: The Butcher burger, with Irish cheddar, bone-marrow butter, and matchstick fries; mussels and frites in saison-miso broth; house-made duck bratwurst with bacon and red cabbage kimchi; Mason’s “Best Damn Pepperoni Pie,” with soppressata and goat ricotta; Strawberry lobster salad with pecans, watercress, and white chocolate dust.
So was I ever stoked to find Mason’s Brewing Company in Brewer, a 300-seat pub and eatery on the green bank of the Penobscot, with a laid-back, family-friendly vibe and a kitchen that handles pub chow as creatively and exactingly as the brewers handle beer. Opened in May 2016, Mason’s is the third professional act for 47-year-old Chris Morley, a former Bangor cop who went into mortgage lending, then was bit hard by the home-brewing bug. After years of gastronomic travel to West Coast taprooms and the beer halls of Europe, Morley spotted an abandoned riverfront parcel on Google Earth, approached the city of Brewer, and spent $3 million building Mason’s from the ground up. These days, he mostly runs the empire, having tapped Forrest Brown, a veteran of Bangor’s Geaghan Brothers Brewing, as head brewmaster and a pair of Blaze alums, Jake Bridges and Josh Bard, as manager and chef, respectively.
Bard is doing fun and delicious things with tavern fare. When I came in with a crew recently — pushing together two picnic tables on the covered patio, with its 180-degree view of the river — most of my pals got burgers. They were hefty and juicy. Mason’s ground beef comes from Maine Family Farms, a proprietary 80/20 lean-to-fat blend, with Bard and his staff choosing the cuts. I sampled a few bites of a burger called the Sweet Mess, which lived up to its name, with smoked gouda, maple syrup, bacon, and pickled apples leaking obscenely out the sides.
I ordered the duck bratwurst with beer mustard and bacon-and-cabbage kimchi — I believe I mentioned that I’m from Wisconsin? — and it was one of the finest brats I have ever inhaled. Bard grinds and cases his own duck breast, then boils the sausages in Mason’s Cousin Eddie Baltic Porter. My duckwurst was plump and smoothly textured, with a great beer-y kick and just enough nasal heat from the mustard and kimchi to keep one’s sinuses clear. The golden, house-cut fries piled up alongside were crisp and none too salty.
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Owner Chris Morley traveled extensively to find inspiration for his brewery and restaurant space. Mason’s long bar and barrels (and flags) are tributes to European beer halls and rathskellers.
On a follow-up visit a few days later, I orderd like less of a glutton. The mussels and frites, though listed on the menu under a heading of “Snacks,” is ample enough for an entrée. They came heaped in a saison-miso broth that was mellow and fragrant and delicious sopped up with the accompanying crostinis. A strawberry lobster salad was likewise surprisingly filling, with generous chunks of claw and knuckle meat, local greens and strawberries, and saison again, this time in the vinaigrette. Sandwiches and creative pizzas — made with dough from Bangor’s Dabesta Pizza Co. — round out a menu that Bard changes seasonally and that nicely balances adventure and familiarity.
Morley points to comfort-y Portland hotspots like Nosh and Duckfat as inspirations. “That kind of elevated approachability,” he says, “we wanted to bring some of that back here.”
Let it be said that Mason’s pours some terrific beers, particulary excelling at Belgian and German varieties. Morley says they can’t brew their Hipster Apocalypse, a piney and tropical American IPA, fast enough to keep up with demand. But like my beloved old brewpubs, it’s the scene that makes the place click, the lawyers-to-students-to-constuction-workers clientele, the kiddos playing cornhole and dogs chillaxing on the sunny patio, the tunes floating over the water from Bangor’s outdoor concert series. Perhaps the dream of the ’90s is alive in Brewer?