Craft beer brewing is big business in Maine. The state had 52 craft breweries in 2014, ranking sixth per capita, according to the Brewers Association. The organization puts the economic impact of those breweries at $327 million, fourth per capita nationally.

Rob Tod never set out to be part of that phenomenon. Founder of Allagash Brewing Co., he graduated from Middlebury College with a degree in geology, then headed west to Colorado, where he skied, worked in construction, skied and worked at restaurants. And skied. Then, after returning to Vermont – where he planned to either become a cabinetmaker or go back to college for a master’s degree – Tod called a friend, looking for a job. The friend came through, and soon Tod was helping to wash kegs at Otter Creek Brewing in Middlebury.

July marked the 20th anniversary of Allagash Brewing Co., one of the area’s oldest craft breweries. The company started with a focus on Belgian-style beers. Today, Allagash Brewing has six year-round beers and seven seasonal releases and continually tries new flavors and styles. The company has 95 employees at its Portland brewery and hosts 60,000 people who tour the Industrial Way facility.

Q: Colorado has a strong craft brewery tradition. Did you drink premium beer when you were there?

A: I wasn’t drinking great beer back then – it was whatever I could afford. I was exposed to craft beer on a couple of occasions, but this was back in the ’90s and that beer wasn’t widespread. It wasn’t until I got to Otter Creek that I discovered that beer and I was blown away. When people try craft beers, a lot of them say, “Wow, wow. I didn’t know beer could taste like that.” That was me. That’s what motivates me about this business.

Q: What attracted you to beer brewing?

A: It combined everything I loved. It had a bit of science, biology and chemical reactions and it had a big creative component with recipe-writing and a mechanical component with pipes and wiring and valves. It wrapped up everything I loved in one nice package and on top of it all, it was beer.

Q: After 20 years, what keeps you motivated?

A: Innovation is a very big core value at Allagash – if anyone has an idea for a beer, they can talk to our brew master, and set up a run on our little brewing system. It’s giving people a new experience of beer every day. We have drinkers who drink our core beers year-round, but we’re always coming up with new flavors and aromas with beer.

Really just setting foot in that first craft brewery, Otter Creek, I could see the creativity. The new recipes, and people are always doing stuff with their hands, installing equipment and coming up with new techniques. I was inspired by the breadth of all of that stuff.

Q: I don’t think people often equate innovation with brewing beer – it’s such an old industry.

A: From day one, Allagash White was an innovative beer. At the time there were very few cloudy beers, Belgian beers, spiced beers. People would ask, “Why does it look so different, why does it taste different?” So at the time, it was a very innovative beer and that spirit of innovation has been around ever since day one. If we’re being innovative at the brewery, we’re learning and experimenting and trying new things and that keeps us motivated and engaged.

Q: Maine has dozens of craft breweries. Do you feel hemmed in by that competition?

A: I don’t feel hemmed in at all. To me it’s an exciting time in the business. Is it more competitive? Yes, but does it also push us to get better? Absolutely. Despite all the competition, we’re having our best year ever in Maine. We’re up well over 20 percent sales over last year and that’s after 20 years of being in business.

Q: Sounds pretty collegial.

A: The competition just enriches the experience for the beer drinkers. We’re bringing drinkers in for some of the startups and the startups are bringing drinkers in for us. Someone can spend an afternoon bouncing between the breweries. So, all these openings bring excitement and energy to the industry. And we’re more than happy to help. We’ve lent a hand to some of the smaller breweries and some will ask us to help them out with a problem. We’ve just upgraded our lab and said to other breweries, if there’s anything we can help you with, we’ll do it. All brewers are collectively better off if the beer is better.

Q: Why is having a lab important?

A: I’m not happy if we’re not always improving with quality and consistency. We keep setting the bar higher. We’ve worked up to four full-time people on QC (quality control) in the lab. QC is everyone’s job, but we have four people dedicated full-time to QC. They’re taking samples constantly to look at cell counts in the beer, the density of the beer, the pH of the beer and we have equipment now that will give us very precise readings. …. We are not growth-driven, just for the sake of growth, but as we’ve grown, we’re able to invest in better equipment. As long as we’re using that growth to reinvest in things were passionate about, we’ll believe in continued growth.

I look at it as a challenge, it excites me. We have innovative beers and we are continually releasing one-off beers and beers that we brew once a year. With our core beers like Allagash White, consistency is important and something we’ll always been working at. It’s light years from where it was 15 years ago, but there’s always room to improve.

Q: What’s in the brewery’s future?

A: In a lot of respects, it’s just to continue to focus on core values. It’s not a volume-driven goal, our goals are to give more back to the Maine community and a continued improvement on quality and consistency and to innovate, give people new experiences with beer and make Allagash a better place to work. Those are things that I really focus on. Hopefully, five years from now we’re doing better on all those fronts. The ways we do things change, but you adapt to those changes and continue to do a better job on all those fronts. That’s what gets us out of bed in the morning.


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