Talking pubs, Prohibition, and pints with Josh Christie, author of the new book Maine Beer: Brewing in Vacationland.
Interview by Brian Kevin
Yarmouth’s Josh Christie has been chronicling Maine’s beer scene on his blog (brewsandbooks.com) since 2008. A contributor to the Portland Phoenix and Portland Press Herald, Christie is out this summer with Maine Beer: Brewing in Vacationland, a taproom-by-taproom guide to forty-ish breweries and brewpubs operating around the state, plus a look at Maine’s brewing history. We talked with Christie about the yeast Down East.
So did you start off drinking amazing microbrews, or were you crushing cans of Natty Light in college like the rest of us?
When I left for college at the University of Maine–Farmington, it was no beer-drinking at all for me. Then I started dating my now-wife, whose family is German, so that certainly helped in the beer department.
You were corrupted by Oktoberfest?
I actually didn’t fall in love with German beer. Between my sophomore and junior years, we went to Germany, and of all the places to go, we ended up in an Irish bar in Berlin. I had Smithwick’s and Guinness, and that’s when I came to love beer.
Among beer geeks, the West Coast is often considered the birthplace of American craft brewing, but you point out that Maine isn’t exactly a newcomer.
There’s no question that Maine, especially Portland, has always had this huge beer culture. When Geary’s started in 1986, it was one of the first dozen or so craft breweries in the country, and one reason it was able to succeed was that there were bars in Portland willing to put it on tap, specifically Three Dollar Deweys and The Great Lost Bear. Even then, these bars had a combination of imported beers and early microbrews. So even before our first brewery, there was a craft-beer culture fermenting here, and early breweries like Geary’s, Gritty McDuff’s (1988), and Bar Harbor Brewing Company (1990) were all able to tap into that.
That’s a lot of beer puns in one sentence.
Oh yeah, I use them all in the book.
You describe the Temperance movement’s early foothold in Maine and tricks like medicinal loopholes that kept folks brewing. How much of this did you know before your research?
Almost none of it. I knew that the crusaders of Prohibition hit Maine hard and early, but I didn’t know there were successful brewers in Portland in the mid-1800s or that students at Bowdoin College were brewing beer in their basements during Prohibition.
Well, we seem to be drinking again.
Maine has gone from the first state in the nation to have total prohibition to now brewing some its very best beer. I think specifically of Marshall Wharf’s Cant Dog Imperial IPA, anything from Allagash, and Maine Beer Company’s Lunch IPA. Beers like these can compete with anything brewed elsewhere in the country.
Part of the gist of the book seems to be that beer fans need to seek out these brews.
In Maine, a lot of great brewers just serve their local communities. That’s awesome, but it also means that many people who think about Maine’s beer scene and live in Portland haven’t tasted a lot of it. One of my favorite breweries is Oak Pond Brewing in Skowhegan, which is unique in that it brews mostly lagers instead of ales. The farthest they distribute is Augusta. You may not think of Skowhegan as an urbane town, but folks there have been getting this great local beer since Oak Pond opened in 1996.
With all these local brewers, are we reaching peak microbrew?
There are two things that worry me about the future of craft beer. One is a bubble that may burst at some point, and the other is succession planning. I worry that many of these great breweries will get to a point when they either have to sell to one of the big conglomerates or else disappear.
Wouldn’t that closure make room for the next brewer to come along?
Sure, sometimes. If Maine has eleven English-style breweries instead of a dozen, that’s not a dramatic loss. But beer is in this weird place where it’s both a consumable and an art object. There are styles of German beer, for example, that have completely disappeared. If a brewery closes, and it had been doing something really unique, then that’s a cultural loss.
So the next time I’m out having suds, I should tell my wife that I’m just supporting local business?
Yeah, and what’s great about Maine’s small breweries is that if you’re really a fan, you can go in there, see the brewers, meet the staff. How do you not fall in love with these people who are so passionate about their products?
Brian Kevin is an occasional contributor to Outside, Sierra, and the Fodor’s series of travel guidebook.