Renovation is underway for a new Mason's Brewing Co. pub in Machias, set to open in 2024.

Boon or Bust: The Business of Brewing

As the common business saying goes, “If you are not growing, you’re dying.” While that seems a bit extreme, companies sometimes fear a downward trend if their business slows down. Conversely, growing too fast can bring forth new challenges, making it a gamble.

Breweries all over Maine are making the leap in expanding operations. Moderation Brewing is planning on moving into a historic fire station in downtown Brunswick. Bigelow Brewing Co. will be expanding into a revitalized mill complex in Skowhegan. And Freeport-based Stars and Stripes Brewing Co. added a location down in Portland last year.

Ed Stebbins, owner and brewmaster of Gritty McDuff’s Brewing Co. has seen this brewing boon play out over the last 35 years. In 1988, he opened his first pub in Portland and later expanded locations to Freeport and Auburn. “The brewing scene and industry has changed dramatically,” he said. “We opened our Freeport brewpub in 1995, and we were the only brewery in town then.” For perspective, fewer than 10 breweries existed in Maine then, as opposed to the 165 licensed Maine breweries since 2022, according to the Maine Brewers Guild.

Freeport is now home to not only two more production breweries (Maine Beer Co. and Stars and Stripes Brewing Co.) but also three new satellite taprooms from other breweries such as Mast Landing (Westbrook), Brickyard Hollow (Yarmouth), and Good Fire (Portland). Stebbins thinks it’s great not just for the summer visitors, but also for Freeport’s year-round population. “It’s a very competitive market for craft beer in that town!” said Stebbins.

Photo courtesy Mason’s Brewing Co.

Auburn is another town with a thirsty, self-sustaining population year-round, and its craft beer market is only getting more competitive. Mason’s Brewing Co. will be expanding beyond their home base in Brewer and in 2025, plans to open another taproom in downtown Auburn along the banks of the Androscoggin River. “We are leasing the basement space of a newly constructed building that will seat around 150 people,” said owner Chris Morley.

At first, they considered that location for distilling operations, but instead, decided to distill spirits in Bangor, just across the Penobscot River from their flagship location in Brewer. “The riverfront will work well for us, and I like the Auburn region,” said Morley. “The market is competitive, but not super saturated.”

In addition to Auburn, Mason’s will be putting down roots in the Downeast region in Machias in the former Bluebird Ranch Family Restaurant. Unlike modern-day Freeport or even Auburn, Machias does not have a competitive craft beer scene. “In early 2024, we’ll open a 150-seat restaurant also on the waterfront,” said Morley. “We’re excited to bring our beer to the area and get involved in the community.”

As with any industry, market trends and economic factors are always evolving, making breweries adjust the way they do business. Lately, trends indicate that craft beer sales are down whereas liquor and hard seltzers are up. However, there’s no consistent method that all brewers are embracing. Each brewery’s situation is unique.

In some cases, breweries are making other beverages to adjust. “Traditional craft drinkers are migrating to other things, such as RTDs,” said Morley, referring to “Ready-to-Drink” beverages, mostly in the form of canned cocktails.  Mason’s will be releasing a gin-based RTD in the spring, from the gin they distill in Bangor.

In other cases, less is more, prompting breweries to either scale back production or downsize operations. Banded Brewing recently closed its Portland taproom, prioritizing its base location in Biddeford. While Banded did not respond to comment, they did post on Instagram their appreciation and love for their patrons and staff for that location.

Gritty McDuff’s has also prioritized their current brew pub locations over distribution or expansion. In 2018, Gritty’s decided to cease distribution to “off-premise accounts,” so that their beer wasn’t available in stores or other places. “While this decision was initially very tough on our cash flow, in the long run, it has really paid off,” said Stebbins. “We feel that the quality of the beer we brew is better and more consistent and we are able to brew many different beer styles in-house. When we were selling our beers to distributors, we did not have as much creative freedom as we do now.” At the same time they decided not to sell to distributors, there had been some talk of another pub opening; however, those plans have not come to fruition. “The pandemic and its effect on the labor market in Maine has really affected our future plans for expansion,” said Stebbins. “At the moment, we don’t have any plans to expand beyond our three locations.”

Overall, we all want all of our breweries to succeed. Whether it is visiting a new tasting location or revisiting the original taproom, one thing is certain: Maine breweries need us to keep drinking the fruits of their labor.

— Story by J.G. Breerwood, who teaches English and Creative Writing at Lewiston High School, and published his first novel, Sinking Dixie, in 2020. 

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