Red bricks and golden ales
In its striking former fabric mill home, Baxter Brewing is one of the region's brightest rising stars
Words and photos: Richard Croasdale
Thursday 23 May 2019
This article is from
Maine, New England
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Lewiston is a community around 40 minutes north of Portland. A former industrial town, the drive in is marked by huge redbrick textile mills – of a style familiar to anyone who’s spent time in similar parts of the UK – and numerous Catholic churches. Much more than Portland, Lewiston feels like somewhere that people live and work normal, often manual jobs. It’s also home to Baxter Brewing Co, one of Maine’s brightest brewing stars and the largest brewery in this month’s Beer52 box.
It is in one of these grand old redbrick mills that Baxter began brewing back in January 2011, under the leadership its canny and quick-witted founder and president, Luke Livingston. The building itself makes quite an impression, as the smartness of the renovated taproom entrance stands in sharp contrast to the nearly derelict section of the mill immediately next to it.
Luke has always had a crystal clear vision for the kind of brewery he wanted to run, and the type of beer he wanted to brew. In 2009, having been a beer blogger for several years, Luke decided in a carpe diem moment to leave his full-time job as a college career adviser, after his mother passed away. His father, a business consultant, worked with him to put together the commercial rationale for his new venture.
“When we were working on that business plan, I could see a Cumberland Farms gas station from my apartment,” recalls Luke. “More than 50% of the beer that’s sold in this state is sold in a chain store of some kind. But the only beer available in those places at the time was very similar – mostly English styles and Allagash. Now, everything I was getting for the blog was from the west coast-style breweries, and I couldn’t understand why they were so hard to buy locally. So, my idea was to make an American west coast style of beer that you could buy anywhere, even in a gas station, and take anywhere because it’s sold in a can.”
This simple idea, which may seem obvious with hindsight, made Luke the first brewer to be listed in Forbes’ ’30-under-30’ list and Baxter the most commercially successful young brewery in Maine. Last year, it brewed 16,000 barrels and sold its beers all through the eight contiguous states between Maine and New York. This year, it’s expanding even further, opening up export routes to Canada and the UK.
The beers themselves are meticulous, from the brewing to the packaging, now orchestrated by head brewer Andrew Sheffield, an alumnus of New Belgium and Oskar Blues. Since joining a few years ago, Andrew has raised Baxter’s game even higher, using his experience to implement that kind of techniques and quality control processes one would normally only find in a national or international setup.
“There’s a lot of glow around new small breweries which deliberately limit the availability of their beers,” says Andrew. “But the people we’re selling to can’t do business that way. Hannaford (the major regional convenience chain) isn’t going to say ‘yeah if we’re out of stock for a while, that’ll be so cool’. Building up the infrastructure to reliably meet demand makes you a good business partner to your out of state customers. People see us as a very reliable brand, with good availability and constant quality.”
I’d hate to give the impression that Baxter is simply a ‘safe pair of hands’, selling tediously reliable beer, because in reality it’s so much more than that. While drinkability and balance are its watch-words, there’s a thoughtful twist to every one of Baxter’s brews and the two cans in this month’s Beer52 box are great examples of this.
Luke says: “When we first brewed Ein Stein back in 2017, nobody was really interested in craft lager, but we like a challenge and wanted to create something true-to-style, but which would still surprise people. We settled a Munich-style helles. A lot of classic helles are very malty, which is great, but after a couple you kind of get sweetness fatigue, so we came up with something that sits between a helles and a pils. Something that’s rich and flavourful, but still refreshing and crushable”
Of the 20 draft lines in Baxter’s taproom, Ein Stein is by far its best-selling beer, shifting more the double the volume of it’s nearest rival, and almost as much as all of Baxter’s hop-forward styles combined.
The other beer going out to members is Per Diem, a ‘prohibition-style’ porter. This has real historical roots, having travelled over from the UK with workers during the industrial revolution. Known at the time as a New England Porter (lending strength to the argument that there’s nothing new under the sun), Baxter has come up with its own interpretation; somewhat lower in bitterness and higher in carbonation than a classic British porter, with a wonderful soft mouthfeel and figs and prunes on the palate.
The striking artwork on this beer shows smiling mill workers leaving Baxter’s historical home, having received their daily ‘per diem’ beer allowance. The mill is iconic sight that has become an important part of the brewery’s identity, as well as a cool spot for welcoming guests.
Dating back to the mid-19th century, Bates textile mill was for a time the largest employer in Maine, with around 6000 workers, mostly Irish and French-Canadian from Quebec. The Irish, working on the mill construction, and the Quebecoise, on the textile manufacturing side, had to be kept separate at all times to stem the frequent fights that would otherwise break out. To this day, the interior of the building is covered in stencilled shamrocks and fleurs-de-lis, indicating whose turf you’re in.
The history of the place is scattered everywhere. In one unoccupied area, we come across stacks of intricate printing screens, once used to apply patterns to the mill’s famous bedspreads. In another, we open a door to the former infirmary; a thoroughly eerie series of tiny rooms, sterile while paint peeling from the doors and inexplicable ironwork scarring the walls.
“The whole place is deeply haunted, of course,” says Luke. “I don’t believe in any of that bullshit, so I’m not giving you the tourist pitch. But this whole complex has a full-time security detail – big, tough, quiet guys – and they’re all definite about it, quite matter-of fact, because they’ve all seen things that have convinced them it’s haunted as shit.”
The taproom is in the large space that was the mill’s bleachery, and many of the original features are still intact, including the sluices that were used to dump bleach directly into the Androscoggin River (which, funnily enough, was once the second most polluted in the whole country, but is now teeming with fish again). It took Luke’s team a full year to rip out the old equipment, repoint the beautiful brickwork and install the bar and seating. The effect is stunning though.
“There was so much great stuff in here among all the crap that we couldn’t just completely gut it. All of the ironwork you see, the wooden columns, the floor upstairs, is all original. Even the wood we used to build the bar-top and tables is reclaimed, so around 170 years old,” says Luke.
There are three small fermentation vessels by the bar (working, to the surprise of some guests), plus skeeball machines and – impressively – a beautiful old traction generator that was deemed both too difficult and too awesome to remove. Even empty, it’s really cool; when it fills up with happy customers from miles around, it’s one of the most atmospheric taprooms I’ve ever visited, and I’m happy to while away the rest of the afternoon chatting to the diverse crowd, until it’s time to head back down to Portland.
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