Tradition done right
A super-traditional English-style brewery in the heart of Maine, Geary's remains a favourite of locals and international beer lovers alike.
Words and photos: Richard Croasdale
Thursday 23 May 2019
This article is from
Maine, New England
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A curious common trait among Maine’s breweries is the respect they have for the traditional brewing styles of Europe. This is undoubtedly in large part thanks to the influence of Geary’s, the nation’s first craft brewery east of the Mississippi, and its authentic, obsessively true-to-style English techniques and beers.
The brewery’s story begins in the early 1980s, when medical supplies salesman David Geary was a regular at the legendary port-side bar $3 Dewey’s. He was a great fan of the English ales the pub served and, through a mutual friendship with the landlord there, had the good fortune to meet the Laird of Traquair, Peter Maxwell Stewart, who was visiting from Scotland. An avid beer-lover himself, Peter had re-established the old brewery within Traquair house in the mid-1960s, and invited David over to the UK to learn his craft.
David’s wife Karen was hugely supportive of the idea and, as soon as he had left his job and jumped on the plane, was already hitting the phone to raise the finance and lay the groundwork for their new brewery business.
His time in the UK was, to say the least, instructive. After his internship at Traquair House, David did stints at a number of other successful British breweries, most notably Ringwood, where he met Peter Austin and Alan Pugsley, both giants of traditional English micro-brewing. The former created the distinctive Peter Austin Brick Kettle Brewing System, and passed his knowledge on to the latter, who David Geary was able to persuade to return to America with him.
Not only was this great news for Geary’s – whose original Austin Brewing System is still serving it well – but also for the course of the US craft brewing revolution, as Alan went on to help set up Gritty McDuff’s, Shipyard and countless other pioneering breweries across the states, in the same traditional UK model.
With the skills and the right equipment in place, David Geary now just needed some beers. His first was a true-to-style English pale ale, which was a great success and remains the brewery’s flagship beer. Another well-known brand across New England is Geary’s Hampshire Special Ale; with its bold ‘HSA’ branding, the locals quickly dubbed it ‘Holy Shit Ale’ on account of its 7% alcohol content (which was scandalously strong at the time).
Fast forward to the 2010s and Geary’s remains one of Maine’s most beloved breweries, with volumes still high and its influence felt everywhere. But the market had changed, with new customers, new trends and, above all, an explosion of new breweries. David sensed it was time to pass on his stewardship of the brand he’d created, and found the perfect pair to continue his legacy in Robin and Alan Lapoint.
“Perception is so important,” observes Robin. “I have so much faith and passion in the heritage beers; they’re excellent, award-winning and true-to-style, which is still absolutely the cornerstone of everything we do. But there was this huge movement toward IPAs and all these different international styles. That became difficult to navigate for a traditional brewery, and when we came in we knew we had to preserve and steward this brand, but also to do something different. So we came straight in with two closed conicals to complement the traditional open-topped fermenters, as well as new yeast strains and modern recipes.
“The common factor though is that they’re true-to-style, because that’s the most important thing about this brand – that’s what people associate with us and we were never going to jeopardise that. We’re not going to put your 10 favourite donuts in your beer; there’s nothing wrong with that, and there are plenty of people doing it very well, but it’s not us.”
So Geary’s continues to innovate, and to please its fans old and new with more inventive styles. For example, it’s gaining something of a reputation for its experimental lagers; I sampled a sour raspberry lager called Razzle Dazzle while I was there, which was delicious, if admittedly a little incongruous in the snow. Its Windhold IPA and Summer Ale have proved highly successful, and given Geary’s a foot in the American-style craft camp.
The brewery is also engaging with the wider scene more effectively then ever before, with a popular tap room, live music and interaction with the other nearby breweries.
“David was a true innovator when he started in the ’80s – nobody here had seen anything like it – and we’re continuing that spirit of innovation for today’s craft beer scene,” says Robin. “It’s a big responsibility to continue developing a brewery like Geary’s, but we’re proud of what we’ve achieved and are having a lot of fun doing it!”
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