One of Portland's original craft breweries, which set the tone of cooperation and community which still pervades today
Words and photos: Richard Croasdale
Thursday 23 May 2019
This article is from
Maine, New England
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espite having a great restaurant and bar right in the heart of downtown Portland, Sebago’s brewery and bar is around a 20-minute drive north of the city. It’s well worth the visit though, for the taproom alone, which has the brewery’s full line-up of core and experimental beers, plus a menu of exceptional (and eye-wateringly calorific) pizzas from an authentic wood-fired pizza oven.
Founder Kai Adams is there to greet me with a warm clap on the back and a schooner of his flagship Frye’s Leap IPA – one of the first things he brewed when the brewery was established in 1998. Among the first of Portland’s handful of small brewers at the time, Sebago brought something quite different and undeniably important to the nascent scene. Whereas Allagash, Geary’s and Gritty’s were brewing according to European tradition, Sebago was arguably the first Maine brewery to be directly inspired by America’s home-grown craft pioneers, primarily in Colorado and the west coast.
Kai explains: “I’d learned to brew in Colorado and had worked in these small breweries there, where we’d made US-style IPAs using Sierra Nevada Chico yeast, northwest hops and American malts. Frye’s Leap was one of those original US IPAs, though it’s now considered a ‘west coast’ because it’s not hazy enough. Maine might be known for its hazy, juicy NEIPAs now, but it’s not always been that way and Frye’s Leap still makes up half our production.”
Sebago started out in Portland itself, but at the time customers there weren’t quite ready to engage with the more bitter US styles, so it moved its brewing operations out to its current location in Gorham; a six-acre plot on the oldest working farm in the state.
“Fast forward ten years though and people had really started to learn - really engaged. That was around the same time as the law around brewery taprooms changed, so you suddenly had this surge of interest in craft. We’d been selling directly to consumers already, because we had the separate restaurant and bar with its own liquor license. But the growth of the scene in general definitely still helped us too.”
Kai has watched Portland’s beer landscape change beyond recognition, particularly since 2011, with hundreds of new breweries and many more adventurous styles reaching an ever-more sophisticated local beer community. I’m interested to hear how Sebago has avoided falling behind or becoming complacent in its role as an elder statesman.
“That’s a good question, and there was a significant point where I think we could easily have fallen into that trap,” confirms Kai. “I was the brewmaster for years, until about 2007. But at that point, I was out doing sales, had a company to run, people to manage. I turned around one day and thought to myself ‘you’re not a brewmaster – this is stupid’.
“My brewers were so fired up and so passionate, and I’d become part of the old guard. It was hard, but I realised I needed to let go of the side of things, stop controlling the recipes. And as soon as I let that go and let the creativity happen, that’s when it started to change and we continued to be relevant. We have 225 employees at all different levels, so in every area of the business – from brewing and food to events – we listen to everyone and value their ideas.”
Sebago also remains proud of its classics though, and Kai believes that one of the brewery’s greatest strengths is its laser focus on consistency and quality.
“The whole industry here has seen more of a focus on core beers recently, which I think is a good rebalancing,” he says. “Experimentation is great, but nobody likes going out and risk-buying a six-pack of a new IPA that sucks. I’ve done that and been disappointed a lot. The breweries you have in the Beer52 box I must say are all really focus-driven. Breweries with a centrifuge, with a lab, with a sensory programme all make kick-ass beers, because they’ve seen the value of making that massive investment in the fundamentals.”
As president of the Maine Brewers’ Guild, Kai played a significant role in organising the Maine Beer Box – a pimped-out shipping container that tours the world promoting the state’s breweries at various beer festivals – which is how Beer52 first discovered many of the beers in this month’s subscription box (See page 83). He says all the breweries involved have been excited about exporting to the UK, and are pleased that Beer52 members will get to experience Maine beers the way they should be experienced.
“A lot of the time in Europe, the US beers you get aren’t really a great representation because they haven’t been handled properly,” he says. “I went into a pub in Paris recently to taste one of the American beers they had, and it was completely oxidised. That’s why all of us love this concept; everything is going onto refrigerated containers, we know there’s going to be a lot of care taken with it right up to the customer’s door. With these hoppy beers... 90 days is it man. If we’re not presenting that way, we’d rather not be there at all.”
Kai has to head off to chair a guild meeting, but kindly orders me a ‘three little pigs’ pizza – you can probably guess the theme of the toppings – and instructs the bartender to keep me lubricated. So I while away a pleasant hour before hopping on a bus back to Portland for my next tour.
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