The Maine attraction

Richard Croasdale finds his spiritual home in the pine tree state


I don’t mind saying that I’ve never felt more at home in the US than I did in Portland. The food, the booze, the landscape, the people – it seems like a city with its heart and its head in the right places. With a population of around 67,000, it’s a shade smaller than Rugby, while the entire state of Maine has about as many residents as Edinburgh, and I didn’t meet a single Portlandian (Portlander, Portlandite?) who didn’t jump to give me their tips for how to best spend my time in their city.

This sense of intimacy is reinforced by the geography of Portland’s downtown district, centred around the old ports of the peninsula. Wander along the front and explore the wharfs that jut like long fingers into the bay, playing host to everything from million-pound yachts to rusting fishing boats. Everything is walkable, and presents an extremely dense area of high quality eating, drinking and shopping. Although you’d be missing out on some real gems elsewhere in the city, you could conceivably spend weeks just exploring this three square mile area.

Despite having a clutch of bona-fide ‘first-wave’ craft breweries – Geary’s, Allagash, Sebago, Shipyard – it’s only in the past eight or so years that the scene really took off here, and evolved into one of the US’ most exciting. I ask the brewers why this was, and the answer is universal: a change in the law in 2011, to allow breweries to sell and serve their beers on-site. This led to an explosion of taprooms, gave access to tiny start-up breweries with no existing commercial relationships.

Of course, there are lots of cities in the US producing great beer now. But what I believe makes Portland so special is the culture of beer appreciation here. First of all, it runs deep. Elsewhere in the US, you’ll often find there’s a real divide, with craft bars serving a predictably narrow crowd, and the majority of other pubs, bars and restaurants pouring primarily Miller, Bud, Coors and PBR. In Portland though, there’s much less of a distinction; while there are some phenomenally cool craft bars, they’re just part of the wider scene.

There’s a good chance any local’s dad grew up drinking Shipyard, and is excited about the latest fruity porridge-like brew from Bissell Brothers. Mums with young children will head along to the tasting rooms at Sebago or Austin Street. Mainstream restaurants will often have a permanent line of Allagash White and a rotating selection of seasonal local brews, because they don’t need to pander to the lowest common denominator. In short, it looks a lot like that hoary old vision of craft utopia: “One day, we’ll just call it all ‘beer’, yeah?...”

It goes without saying that the beer is really bloody good. Over the space of a week, I tried a few that weren’t to my taste, but really only two that I’d consider poor (both from a much-hyped brewery whose output was otherwise excellent). What’s perhaps surprising in this part of the world is that the taps aren’t dominated by haze; I actually only had a couple of all-out NEIPAs while I was there, the standout being Bissell Brothers’ phenomenal Substance. It’s far more common to find big-hitting IPAs in the mould of Maine Beer Co’s Lunch, which is accurately billed as an East Coast version of a West Coast IPA; bitter and resinous, with a hit of tropical fruit and citrus, balanced out by a subtle and complex malt profile.

The Belgian influence of local hero Allagash is also evident in those who have followed in its footsteps. Complex mixed and wild fermentation is common, saisons, tripels and goses abound, and barrel-ageing programmes are de rigeur for even the smallest outfit. British brewing tradition is also strongly represented, with breweries like Geary’s and Sebago turning out on-point interpretations of classic styles, and even doing some cask. In short then, far from the hazy monoculture I’d imagined.

Despite being a small city, there are nonetheless a few distinct hotspots developing. The row of units around Allagash and Geary’s in Riverton have long been seen as an incubator for new and growing breweries, with current inhabitants including Foundation, Definitive and Battery Steel. Within a block of Rising Tide on the north of the peninsula, you can find Urban Farm Fermentory, Lone Pine, Oxbow and (in its new brewery and tasting room) the excellent Austin Street. Throw in a few restaurant-standard food trucks (see page 29) and you have neighbourhoods that feel a lot like the Bermondsey beer mile but less… Bermondsey.

There’s much more to do than eat and drink though, from Maine’s abundance of winter sports activities, to checking out the region’s rich history. Take a bus out to explore the iconic Portland Head Light and its surrounding military fortifications, or a cheap ferry ride out to Peaks Island and the other islets in Casco Bay.

In the following pages, we’ll meet the breweries in this month’s Beer52 box, give our picks of the city’s best restaurants and take you on one of the best and most diverse bar tours you’ll find anywhere in the states.

Picking the beers for this month’s box was a real challenge. If you’re in Portland, here are some other favourites that we really recommend you seek out...

Oxbow - FPA

Brewing IPA with Belgian yeast isn’t a new trick, but this is knock-out example. Lovely and dry, but still balanced and flavourful, without excessive yeasty esters.

Austin Street - Glitter 'n' Grit

A gose with dragonfruit and blood orange. As fresh as it gets, with gentle salty sourness topped by floral and zesty fruit notes. Brewed as a one-off for International Women’s Day 2019, but I sense it won’t be gone for long…

Allagash - Pick your own

When your staple is as reliably delicious as Allagash White, you’re not going to go far wrong, but this really is something special. A sour red ale aged in an oak foeder with lactobacillus and pediococcus for two years, before being loaded with fresh local raspberries, cherries, strawberries and blueberries for a further three months. Long waves of complex sourness underpin a full-on berry assault, with zingy raspberry leading the charge.

Maine Beer Company - Lunch

One of those beers that takes something stylistically fairly simple and absolutely knocks it out the park. Anyone who says East Coast brewers can’t do balance needs to shut their mouth, then open it again to drink some of this strong, delicious IPA in which everything is turned up to 11.

Bissel Brothers - Substance

You can’t go to New England without sinking some Tropicana, right? This is the still-divisive New England IPA style done right; soft, low bitterness, semi-sweet malt paired with bright, fruity hop character (expect grapefruit zest, mango and passionfruit, alongside an unexpected dank note) and a rich mouthfeel. I can’t emphasise enough how completely different these beers are when drunk super-fresh. They really don’t travel well.

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