High-tech brewing and creative cooking generate a buzz at Aroostook County’s only brewpub
By Joe Ricchio
Driving a northern stretch of Route 1 in the dead of winter, past empty intersections in Houlton and Mars Hill and Presque Isle, I started to ask myself where the heck everyone was. When I pulled into the parking lot at Northern Maine Brewing Company, I found my answer. Outside, I jockeyed with cars and snowmobiles for a spot. Inside, I navigated a swarm of people just to reach the host stand. A party of one, I was told, would be a bit of wait.
Photographs by Michael D. Wilson
Just then, someone got up from the bar, and I snagged the seat. In an instant, the smiling, whirling bartender set a glass of Maine Logger in front of me. The pilsner-style lager (logger lager, haha) was a touch more full-flavored than your typical Euro pilsner but still bright and refreshing. It went down easily — and quickly — and I ordered an amber ale next, slightly sweeter, with a warming effect in the belly.
Between sips, I eyed the brewing equipment, partitioned from the restaurant by a brick wall and panels of glass. Breweries all look alike to me — shiny configurations of tanks and pipes — but this one works quite unusually, as chef and owner Joseph Gervais later explained. It’s a highly automated system that lets his brew team monitor and control processes remotely. The Austrian engineers behind it have installed similar setups in 35 countries, but this is the only one in the U.S. The über-precise system produces impeccably clean, consistent beers, which suits the approach at Northern Maine Brewing: No crazy hop bombs or puckering sours or syrup-thick stouts here, just restrained, approachable takes on various styles, from light to dark.
The menu, at first glance, reads like pub grub, but appetizers arrived with nuanced touches I hadn’t expected. The beer batter that encased a deep-fried lobster tail had an airy, tempura-like quality, and brown butter in the accompanying hollandaise sauce lent a toasty, earthy dimension. Before an order of maple habanero chicken wings met the fryer, they were brined and smoked to create layers of flavor.
Among main courses, a sandwich called the sugar shack special — a nod to the Maine syrup biz — comprised a heap of smoked, maple-brined pastrami on a French roll with maple slaw, sharp cheddar, and candied, maple-cured bacon. A rib-eye steak was dry-rubbed with ten spices, coarsely ground so that they rehydrated during the marinating process and infused the meat with a complex Middle Eastern flair.
22 Main St., Caribou. 207-492-2185
Starters $7–$13, entrées $13-–$27.
Not a beer drinker? The bar has a full lineup of cocktails and a selection of West Coast, European, and South American wines.
Check out the Black Fly Brewfest, in Houlton, for pours from NMBC and dozens more Maine breweries. May 19.
Gervais, who opened Northern Maine Brewing two years ago, says he’s able to source about 90 percent of kitchen ingredients from local farms, working with growers to feature whatever is in good supply. Even for brewing, he buys from Aroostook Hops, a family-run farm in nearby Westfield, and from Maine Malt House, just down the way, in Mapleton. “When I say I serve trout that was swimming this morning or tomatoes picked a few hours before,” he says, “I mean it.”
The kitchen’s thoughtful sourcing and creative technique mean prices a bit higher than at the average brewpub (or at most other Aroostook eateries), but local diners seem to understand that you get what you pay for — the night I visited, the place stayed busy right up till close. Sure, there isn’t a lot of local competition at this level of cooking, but were Gervais’s place in Rockland or Portland or Bangor, I bet it would still have an overflowing parking lot — and maybe even a waitlist for a party of one.