After traveling 3,000 miles to attend the first New England Brew Summit in Portland on Friday, fifth-generation Oregon hops farmer Blake Crosby was glad he made the trip.
“It was fun. It really exceeded expectations,” said Crosby, hanging out on the back patio of The Thirsty Pig in the Old Port after the summit. His family opened The Hop Yard in Gorham five years ago to supply local breweries – and business is looking up.
“We were just talking about how New England might be the fastest growing market for craft beer,” said Peter Busque, who runs the Gorham operation.
That certainly jibes with the explosion of craft brewers in Maine in recent years.
The all-day summit, which drew more than 450 people from 13 states, had workshops and speakers, organizers said. It was held at the University of Southern Maine, which recently partnered with the Maine Brewers’ Guild on a new quality control lab.
“The industry is growing at such a rate right now, and brewers can’t keep up with demand,” said Sean Sullivan, the executive director of the Maine Brewers’ Guild. “Truly, this is kind of a golden age for craft beer.”
Maine has seen the number of breweries more than double in five years. There were 34 Maine breweries in 2011 and there are 71 now, Sullivan said. The craft beer industry employs 1,500 people in the state and brings in about $432 million in sales, the guild said.
Maine ranked sixth nationally in 2014 for the number of breweries per capita. Portland has a dozen breweries and is often cited as one of the meccas of beer tourism, along with cities such as Portland, Oregon, and Asheville, North Carolina.
The growth in Maine reflects a similar boom nationwide. The number of U.S. breweries has doubled from 2,033 in 2011 to about 4,200 now, according to the Colorado-based Brewers Association.
Friday’s event drew at least two members of Maine’s congressional delegation.
“To even have this event five years ago would have been unthinkable,” Sen. Angus King told attendees. “Small breweries are winning and the big guys are noticing. Passion is the real heart of any enterprise and it’s your commitment that is building the infrastructure to carry the industry forward.”
Rep. Chellie Pingree said the boom was helping smaller towns, too.
“We’re seeing breweries opening in rural areas, repurposing old buildings and barns, and supporting another Maine industry – agriculture,” she said.
The summit was a chance to meet other players in the industry, and simply “take a breath,” said Sullivan, the guild director.
“Today was about pressing the pause button and getting them all together,” he said. “This industry is going gangbusters and the question is how do we sustain that growth. It’s quality. It’s quality over quantity.”
That was the message from keynote speaker Dick Cantwell, who co-founded Seattle’s Elysian Brewing Co., then left the company in 2014 when his partners agreed to sell to Anheuser-Busch.
“The craft brewing industry is only as strong as the worst beer we serve,” said Cantwell, the association’s quality ambassador. “As the industry matures, it’s important that we strive to the highest standards. Consumers can be lazy about revising opinions, so the future of craft beer lies in maintaining a tradition of integrity and a commitment to quality that reflects well on all breweries.”
Andy Geaghan, the head brewer at Geaghan Brothers Brewing in Bangor, said the summit was “fantastic.”
“To be honest, there were some trade secrets that were shared,” he said. “We got together and learned some things together. … It’s about being the best that we can be.”
He and seven fellow brewers from Geaghan Brothers were “debriefing” after the summit with pints of Geaghan Brothers brews at the Little Tap House.
He laughed when it was pointed out that all the brewers at the table had beards.
“Well, shaving gets in the way of making great beer sometimes!” he said, raising his glass.