The drab gray building at 1 Industrial Way looks nothing like a tourist destination. But the brewers at Battery Steele Brewing are betting looks are deceiving.
Standing on a sawdust-covered concrete floor, brewery co-founders Jacob Condon and Shane Noble showed off their 1,500-square-foot space last week. They pointed out the beer boiler that used to belong to Bissell Brothers Brewing, which moved out of the building last spring. Before that the boiler belonged to Maine Beer Co., which moved out of the building in 2013.
The hand-me-downs are a way of life at 1 Industrial Way. The building on the western edge of Portland has been the home of seven breweries in the past seven years, with Battery Steele planning to open in February. With two other breweries already operating in the building and craft beer stalwart Allagash across the street, an industrial part of the Riverton neighborhood once pocked with auto body shops has turned into an unlikely tourist destination.
Condon and Noble said they contacted the owner of the building and had to lobby him to let them rent a bay.
“We weren’t really willing to take no for an answer,” Noble said.
“It’s extremely important to be here. It seems like it wiped away a lot of liabilities by being here,” Condon said.
By virtue of its location, Battery Steele could potentially have hundreds of visitors every day. Allagash, the second-largest brewery in the state, estimates 100,000 people will visit its site this year.
Across the street at 1 Industrial Way, Foundation Brewing is making some of the top-rated beer in the state and has grown rapidly since opening in 2014. Austin Street Brewing has been expanding and taking over taps throughout Portland. On weekends there are food trucks parked in front of the breweries and groups of people walking between locations.
The Maine Brew Bus brings about 5,500 people a year into the Riverside area as part of its tours, and General Manager Don Littlefield says it has become a top destination for out-of-state visitors.
“There’s a vitality and excitement that happens out there on a Saturday afternoon with food trucks, sometimes live music and a new release,” Littlefield said. “(That area is) really quite unique from what I’ve heard when I’ve talked to other people in New England. It doesn’t happen in that condensed of an area.
“It’s not the rockbound coast of Maine. It’s not what you’d prototypically think of, like the cobblestones and brick of Portland, for sure. But tens of thousands of people are traveling there for the experience.”
Sean Sullivan, the executive director of the Maine Brewers’ Guild, says his group has talked with the city about renaming the street in front of Allagash “Industriale Way or IndustriALE Way.” The address is just part of a burgeoning scene that is promoted on the state’s tourism website, visitmaine.com.
The guild prints about 75,000 beer trail maps a year, which feature information on almost every Maine brewery. Visitors can get their maps stamped at each brewery they visit and earn a reward from the guild. The guild receives a dozen or so maps every week with stamps from at least 10 brewery visits, Sullivan said.
“(Beer tourism is) bringing a younger demographic of visitors to Maine that I think wasn’t visiting before and it’s also giving people that have visited Maine for a long time another way to experience this state,” Sullivan said.
THE LAW AND THE DRAW
Allagash brewmaster Jason Perkins laughs when he talks about the thousands of visitors that sometimes clog the area. Allagash didn’t have much of a gift shop until a few years ago, when it expanded its brewery. The building across the street used to have auto body shops and an industrial gas supply company.
“For really the first 10 to 15 years, you couldn’t get anyone to come out here,” Perkins said. “We’ve been out here for 21-plus years and it used to be we might get a couple visitors a week. We had a little teeny store. We technically did tours but we didn’t have a tour staff. Someone would knock on the door and you’d drop what you were doing and show them around. It’s crazy how different it is. Now, especially on the weekends, it’s just so vibrant. People are everywhere. It’s just awesome.”
It was anything but a hoppy neighborhood when Don St. Jean bought the building at 1 Industrial Way 10 or 12 years ago. He spent a few years fixing up the building and trying to get his renters to clean up their spaces.
Then, on a fall day, St. Jean saw a young couple roll up in a taxi and walk into Allagash. Twenty minutes later, another cab dropped another couple off at Allagash. Ten minutes later a senior living bus pulled up to Allagash.
“So some lights started coming on. I wondered what was going on,” St. Jean said. “I said, ‘I’ve gotta get some of that.’ ”
About that time, Maine Beer Co. was looking for industrial space to start its business. Co-founder Dan Kleban said he wasn’t looking for a busy tourism scene; he was looking for a building with floor drains already built in. When he and brother David Kleban found St. Jean’s building with multiple auto repair shops that had drains, they signed a lease.
“It was fortuitous that it was across the street from Allagash and around the corner from Geary’s. But that was just pure happenstance,” Dan Kleban said. “I think it’s awesome that community has created this micro-tourism economy out there in Riverside. It’s really cool.”
‘IT’S REALLY SOMETHING PHENOMENAL’
The brewers can thank state lawmakers, in part, for the brisk business. State law changed in 2013 to allow breweries to operate tasting rooms. Before, visitors had to take a tour or be given beer samples for free. After the law changed, breweries were able to charge for their beer and patrons were able to drink without taking a tour.
Nearly four years after the law changed, the Riverton neighborhood has been transformed. There is a steady stream of Ubers and taxis coming into the neighborhood on weekends, the brewers say.
“People are definitely planning vacations around visiting Maine breweries,” Dan Kleban said. “Maine certainly draws people from around the world for a lot of reasons, most of which have nothing to do with breweries. But the economic impact we have, purely in terms of driving people here from away to experience our craft beer and food, it’s hard to overestimate. It’s really something phenomenal.”
Battery Steele is counting on that popularity. It’s a part of its business plan, actually. While Austin Street opened in 2014 with a tiny system that could brew 31 gallons of beer at a time, Battery Steele will make at least 310 gallons per batch, with the capability of producing at least double that amount every week.
It’s a big bet on being able to sell a lot of beer very quickly.
Condon says it’s a bold move, but they’re confident because they have a built-in market.
“We’ve definitely lucked out because there’s already a lot of hype around Portland beer now,” Condon said. “It’s not like when Maine Beer Co. started up. The scene wasn’t what it is right now. We’re coming in amid a surge of popularity.”
St. Jean, the owner of the building, says that increasing popularity has resulted in a swell of phone calls from would-be brewers who want to rent space in his building.
“I get at least a call a month, maybe two, for breweries,” St. Jean said. “That industry is attracted to that area. And I’m not giving the credit to myself at all. Allagash was the draw, and the fact that we had some amenities the brewers wanted – particularly the size of the units and the floor drains. It’s a big deal for the brewers to be in there.”