People who enjoy eating and drinking at Maine’s brew pubs may have Margaret Thatcher to thank.

Ed Stebbins was a teenager living in London, where his father was a banker, when Prime Minister Thatcher’s free-market policies began changing the beer industry. Suddenly, brew pubs – a concept virtually unknown in Maine at the time – opened up all around Stebbins.

“They were popping up like mushrooms after a rainstorm, sort of like what’s going on with brewers here in Maine right now,” said Stebbins, 51. “I was just turning 18 and I was fascinated. Then, in college, I spent some time at (a brew pub) in New York City and I fell in love with the idea of the brew pub,” where the beer is served right where it is brewed.

After college, in Maine, Stebbins met Richard Pfeffer, who had been intoxicated by the magic of the brew pub in other parts of the world. Together, they learned to brew beer from David Geary, who in 1986 began making Maine’s first craft beer since Prohibition.

In 1988, Stebbins and Pfeffer took what Geary had taught them and opened what’s recognized as Maine’s first true brew pub, Gritty McDuff’s on Fore Street in Portland.

Today, 25 years later, “Gritty’s” has pubs in Portland, Freeport and Auburn, and about 180 employees. It sells beer throughout the Northeast, and is a local landmark for Mainers and beer tourists from all over.

Observers say Gritty McDuff’s success and style played a big role in helping Maine’s brew scene take off and become the industry it is today.

Portland has become a city filled with craft beer bars, gastropubs and brew pubs. Gritty’s is now just one of many, but it remains the bar that people often think of first when they consider where to have a beer in Portland. It has not only survived an explosion of craft beer, it has thrived.

MAKING IMPACT ON STATE’S ECONOMY

Maine’s craft beer industry has grown from two commercial brewers in 1988 to 48 today, including 15 brew pubs, according to the Maine Brewers’ Guild. In 2012, the national Brewers Association ranked Maine fifth in the country for the number of craft breweries per capita. And at least 10 of Maine’s 48 brewers have opened in the past year or so – since the Brewers Association’s rankings came out, said Sean Sullivan, director of the Maine Brewers’ Guild.

Just this week, the Brewers Association issued a report that listed Maine fourth in the nation for the economic impact that craft brewers have on the state’s economy. The ranking is based on how much money the industry contributes to the economy per capita, based on the population of people 21 and older.

“Gritty’s was really important in building the scene, in the sense that they helped make Maine a welcoming place for other craft brewers,” said Josh Christie, author of “Maine Beer: Brewing in Vacationland,” a history of Maine beer-making. “There’s a whole generation of people here in Maine who have grown up thinking of Gritty’s as their father’s beer. They don’t remember a time when there was no local beer.”

During the lunch hour Wednesday, the crowd at Gritty’s original Portland location included businessmen in suits and ties, holiday shoppers and a few kids.

Larry Malone of Cape Elizabeth sat at the bar having a Reuben sandwich and a Pub Style pale ale, while taking a break from Christmas shopping in the Old Port. In the early 1990s, he went to Gritty’s fairly regularly, and was even a member of its famous mug club. But he hadn’t been in the place for years when he tried to think of a place for a midday beer Wednesday.

“It’s absolutely the first place I think of if I’m down in the Old Port,” said Malone, 61.

As he spoke, hundreds of mugs belonging to mug club owners hung over his head. Each one has the owner’s number written in marker on the bottom.

Also at the brew pub Wednesday, sitting on a wooden bench at a long table against a brick wall, was 5-year-old Ben Largay of Gray. He was having a birthday lunch of macaroni and cheese with his dad, Tom Largay. The two had plans to go to the Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine.

“It’s definitely a place where you feel comfortable bringing the kids,” said Largay, 43.

THE MAKING OF TWO BEER BREWERS

Pfeffer, 49, and Stebbins say a big part of what they did in the early days was simply educating people about craft beer, and what it could be. Their early customers, like themselves, drank a lot of Budweiser in college and thought of Guinness stout and Bass Ale as exotic beers.

“When we started brewing in the restaurant, people didn’t believe we were brewing; they thought it was just for show,” said Stebbins. “They figured beer comes from Milwaukee and it comes in a can.”

Stebbins and Pfeffer say their location in the Old Port, a neighborhood where young, creative types lived in apartments above storefronts, was a big part of their success.

They give credit as well to Geary and one of his employees at the time, Alan Pugsley.

Pugsley, a native of Britain who worked as a brewer for Geary, helped Gritty’s get its start before he helped Fred Forsley start Federal Jack’s Brewpub in Kennebunk in 1992. Pugsley then became a co-owner, with Forsley, of Shipyard Brewing Co. in Portland, which opened in 1994.

Forsley, who still runs Shipyard today, said he basically got into the beer business because of Stebbins and Pfeffer.

“I was in real estate, and I was trying to get them to expand into this space in Kennebunk, but they didn’t want to,” said Forsley. “Instead, they introduced me to Alan Pugsley and they agreed to consult with me.”

Stebbins and Pfeffer had backgrounds that made them prepared to open a brew pub in Maine at a time when there were none.

For Stebbins, whose family was originally from Auburn, it began while he was living in London and watching brew pubs develop.

Pfeffer, whose father was a stockbroker, lived in Freeport before going to the University of Rochester (N.Y.) to study economics. He thought he’d “end up on Wall Street” but decided to travel the world after college.

In Hawaii, Pfeffer met someone who told him he should open a brew pub. “I didn’t know what it was, but I liked the idea of pubs,” he said.

When both men came back to Maine, they met through a mutual friend. They started talking about opening a brew pub. They called Geary and ended up apprenticing with him, and then secured financing with the help of friends and family members.

They won’t say how much it cost to start the brew pub, but it was twice as much as they thought it would be, and neither of their fathers thought it was a great investment.

“My father thought it was crazy,” said Stebbins.

“My father thought it was a great idea, but it was a little more risky of an investment than his firm would have advised,” said Pfeffer.

INSPIRATION FOR EXPANDING SCENE

During much of the 1990s, the Maine beer scene grew steadily, with other brew pubs and some breweries selling beyond Maine. Gritty McDuff’s expanded to Freeport in 1995 and to Auburn in 2005.

In the past five years, beer-making in Maine has begun to explode, with many “nanobreweries” brewing small batches of complex brews for beer tasters with increasingly sophisticated palates.

Even some of the newer brew pubs can connect themselves pretty directly with Gritty McDuff’s.

Geoff Houghton, who opened The Run of the Mill brew pub in Saco in 2008, came to Maine from Pennsylvania in 1989 to work as a brewer at Gritty’s. There were no brew pubs or craft brewers in his area, and he had heard about Geary’s brewery in Maine. He contacted Geary, who put him in touch with Stebbins and Pfeffer, who were getting busy enough to hire another brewer.

“Yeah, I’d say Geary and those guys (Stebbins and Pfeffer) were sort of the godfathers of Maine brewing, and today the scene is just so filled with talented people, very small outfits finding a niche for themselves,” said Houghton, who also runs The Liberal Cup brew pub in Hallowell. “The main reason I’m in Maine is because of Gritty McDuff’s.”

Stebbins and Pfeffer say they’ll keep looking for new beers to brew – they usually offer eight to 10 types at any one time – and new opportunities as Maine’s beer scene continues to grow and change.

“When four or five other brew pubs opened in the ’90s, we thought that was a boom, but the boom now makes that one look minuscule,” said Pfeffer. “Right now the business is so dynamic, and so crowded. For us, it’s about making sure we still do a good job and keep an eye out for the next opportunity.”

Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:

rrouthier@pressherald.com