The Kennebec Valley Region
See why this Central Maine nook is the new hot bed for craft beer and tourism.
The cities of Augusta, Hallowell and Gardiner lie along the shore of the mighty Kennebec River, just shy of an hour, by car, north of Portland. Though the three cities have been through some hard times in the past decades, their economies were once thriving. Industries like quarrying, ice harvesting and shipbuilding, among many others, allowed the people who lived there to prosper. Like many Maine towns and cities that set up mills and factories on the state’s rivers, competition and advanced technologies eventually brought the closing of those businesses.
And those communities languished. But things are turning around. And among the most exciting categories of rejuvenation is the new growth of brewpubs and other businesses associated with the food and beverage industry. Yes, ice harvesting is gone, but beer, wine and spirits are flowing through this trinity of Maine towns as strongly as the Kennebec current.
Depending on which direction you’re starting from if you’re taking a day trip to this region, begin at one end and work your way up or down the two-lane state road that connects the three cities. In fact, if you want some exercise and a dose of nature, park your car and walk the length of the Kennebec Rail Trail, a paved walking and biking path that runs from Gardiner all the way up to Augusta, along the river. Watch water birds duck and wing their way along the Kennebec and the occasional kayakers glide over the water while you work your way to 10,000 steps. Dip into the businesses that are now keeping the visitors and residents filled with great food and drink, get back on the trail and keep walking.
Two friends decided to start brewing beer seriously and that is how Two Gramps Brewing got its start. Garnering rave reviews from its happy customers, this brewpub brings to Gardiner its first brewery, possibly in history, but at least since Prohibition ended. With eight taps of regulars and some rotation, Two Gramps hits all of the notes. For IPA lovers there’s Jax Buck Double IPA, crafted with quality grain grown at Bucks Farm in Mapleton, Maine (IBU 66 ABV 7.7%). If you’re new at trying craft beer, a “gateway” brew could be Sun Up Ale, an American Pale Ale, (IBU 34 ABV 4.8%) which they tout as their “lightest, refreshing lager with a crisp taste.” What are you going to have with those beers? Burgers are their specialty, but you can graze their appetizer menu with a few different renditions of Tater Tots. Salads, a signature seafood “burger” and other umami-loves-beer items are also there for the choosing. [Note: Two Gramps Brewing is now Blind Pig Tavern]
A few doors down is Mainiac Brewing Supply. If you’re not yet a home brewer, owner Rick McCormick will tell you: “If you can make a box of macaroni and cheese, you can brew a batch of beer.” His store contains every ingredient for a delicious, crisp golden pale ale or a hoppy, hazy New England IPA. And with summer advancing, those luscious styles are a must for the buttery lobster rolls, piping hot steamers and other fish plucked from the Atlantic. Okay, let’s not forget beer styles that go with blue-cheese burgers and even mustard-covered Fenway Franks. [Note: Rick recently closed Mainiac Brewing Supply in order to open Jokers & Rogues Brewing]
Bateau Brewing, at 149 Water Street in Gardiner, is well worth a visit to sample their brews and see how they recently transformed a 19th century mercantile building on Water Street into a 21st century craft brewery and tasting room.
Back on the road, head a bit north to Farmingdale, which sits snug between Gardiner and Hallowell. There, you’ll find the Cobbossee Beverage Shop with its many offerings in wine, beer, local coffee and local meats/eggs. The shop boasts the biggest selection of beers and wines in the area with special attention to the various Maine craft breweries. Organized by beer types and by the various brewers, you can easily find your new favorite. Step into their walk-in, chilled “beer cave,” and take your pick of six-packs, four-packs, or whatever your heart desires. Owners Ed and Deb will be happy to guide you to your new favorite wine or beer and their customer service will have you back on a regular basis (or maybe it is their new beagle pup, Bates that keeps you coming back).
Soldier on to Hallowell, where you can do some antiquing and book browsing, eat some ice cream by the river, or dip into The Liberal Cup for house-made brews and pub food. Celebrating its 18th year, owner Geoff Houghton opened this brewpub because he’d fallen in love with the country pubs he had visited as a teen in England. All the food is house-made and their up-to-date website posts the menu each day. Try the beer-cheddar soup, then move on to entrées such as Drunken Pot Roast or Not Your Momma’s Meatloaf. Eight taps feature “approachable session ales,” with a few stronger exceptions. And 20 ounce “pints” let you know why the name is the “Liberal” Cup. Liberal with the beer; ample portions of food.
If you’re doing the Rail Trail, keep walking northward to Maine’s capital, Augusta. Weekdays, the city is packed with traffic. But on weekends, Augusta is relatively quiet, allowing more elbow room at the bar at the Black and Tan Pub. Dying for Irish beer and filling food? Quench both appetite and thirst with a cold Guinness and some shepherd’s pie, a Scottish egg, Irish nachos (okay, you know you love those potato skins filled with cheese and toppings). They even have a kids’ menu here, and welcome families and groups. There are some local beers on tap, but the focus here is the Irish ambiance. Order from a menu of beers from Ireland, England and Scotland and tipple some of the 11 Irish whiskeys.
A short drive from Augusta is Monmouth, Maine and it’s worth the drive to welcome the relatively new Grateful Grain Brewpub. People are raving about The Experience, their New England IPA, “ a well-rounded, double dry-hopped New England Style IPA packed with five pounds of hops per barrel.” Open only on weekends (for now), the beers on tap in April were Camp Road, The Experience, Dragin Magick and Jacob’s Ladder. Check their Facebook page for updates of the beer menu. When they opened in December, 2017, they sold out of their beer in nine hours. With a rustic wood interior and live music on many weekends, the tasting rooms is very inviting. The owners encourage people to bring food in. With the way things go, though, some type of food will surely be on offer in the future.
The demise of mills and Prohibition dampened the industry in this region, but with the current and continuing popularity of craft beer and great food, the Kennebec Valley is booming once more.
Text: Kate Cone. Kate is the author of What’s Brewing in New England: A Guide to Brewpubs and Craft Breweries. She cooks with beer frequently at her home in Waterville, Maine.