The co-founders of Fore River Brewing Co. – a trio of self-described blue-collar workers – show off their handiwork as they prepare their soon-to-open space in South Portland.

They point across the street. See that stump over there? It’s all that remains of a tree that produced the wood for the brewery’s floor and bar.

The brewery’s ceiling is made with planks of reclaimed wood. The fireplace was salvaged from a 200-year-old house. And the beer, of course, will be handmade.

When it opens, Fore River will be the newest player in Maine’s exploding and intensely local craft beer scene. As of 2014, the state had the sixth-most breweries per capita in the nation, according to the Brewers Association, a national group. In 2013 and 2014, nine new breweries and brewpubs opened in greater Portland alone. There are currently 52 breweries in the state, but that number is set to jump even higher in 2016, and existing breweries are expanding.

The swell can’t continue forever, but brewers and purveyors say there’s still room to grow in the state’s beer scene.

Before opening Bier Cellar, a Portland bottle shop, Greg Norton was a stockbroker and worked at a hedge fund. He understands markets and saturation points. Has Portland reached its? Is there danger of a beer bubble?


“No. I’ve seen real bubbles. The tech bubble, the housing bubble, those were built on fake valuations and obfuscation and overzealous selling,” Norton said. “(Brewery) growth rates will probably slow at some point as the market gets more saturated, but there’s nothing to indicate there’s any reason people would turn their back on quality beer.”

The co-founders of Fore River Brewing think Norton is right. Alex Anastasoff, John LeGassey and T.J. Hansen say they will offer an array of quality beers in their taproom, which is being converted from what was once an office and storage area for a lawn care company. Anastasoff owned both Greater Portland Tree Co. and Lawn Enforcement. Eager to try something new, he offered the space as the brewery’s home when his buddies started talking about making craft beer.

“Between us, our conversation has been we don’t have to be wildly successful,” Anastasoff said. “I’ve been in a business for 15 years. I’m tired of being focused on business 100 percent of the time. I jumped at the opportunity to work with these guys and do something we love to do. If we broke even, we’d be happy.”

That sentiment is part of what has driven the flow of new breweries in Maine.


Also driving the expansion is an evolution in beer drinkers’ tastes toward craft beers.


What’s so different about craft beer as compared to Budweiser and Coors? The simple answer is taste. There are only four primary ingredients in beer: malt, hops, water and yeast. While macro breweries like Budweiser and Coors aren’t adventurous for the palate, craft breweries will push the boundaries, using more hops or more malt for tastier beer. They also make different styles of beers, such as stouts, porters and India pale ales, whereas macro beers are mostly pilsners.

The Brewers Association, a Colorado-based trade group, says craft beer sales rose 22 percent to $19.6 billion nationally in 2014 over the year before. Craft accounted for 11 percent of all beer sales last year. By comparison, in 2008 craft accounted for 6.3 percent of all beer sales.

Craft breweries produced 17.6 percent more beer last year, while volume for the entire industry nudged up 0.5 percent. Maine ranks 17th in the country for volume of beer produced.

Austin Street Brewery’s Will Fisher knows all those numbers. It’s not that people are drinking more beer, it’s that people’s tastebuds have changed.

“What I concentrate on is not necessarily the growth of craft, but the takeover of the beer market as a whole,” Fisher said. “The key number I am monitoring is the percent we’re taking from (macro) beers. It’s about bringing people into the scene.”


Bissell Brothers

Peter Bissell – who co-founded Portland’s Bissell Brothers Brewing Co. – is on the leading edge of Maine’s craft beer explosion. The brewery was founded in 2013 and is already producing “at least quadruple” the amount of beer it made less than two years ago, Bissell says.


People stand in line to buy cans of beer at the brewery and Bissell Brothers routinely runs out before closing every night.

Though his brewery has expanded aggressively, Peter Bissell isn’t worried about demand falling off.

“It’s silly,” Bissell said. “Are people going to wake up and say they don’t want to eat good food or drink good beer any more? It’s silly.”

There is, however, at least some cause for concern.

For years, Mainers have purchased beer because it was locally produced, said Chris Black, Nappi Distributors’ beer division vice president of sales. But as consumers have more choices, they’ll establish favorites based at least in part on quality.

“I don’t see a bubble,” Black said, “but I think there could be a shake-out in the beer scene. Quality is becoming a much bigger player in the scene. People are becoming much more savvy in what they’re drinking and quality might catch up to a couple of different breweries.”


You can’t brew bad beer and expect to grow.

Norton, from the Bier Cellar, says eight of his 10 best-selling beers this year are from local breweries.

“It seems like the meteoric rise may be slowing some and so now you think maybe you move into a maturation phase, that gold-rush mentality changes and you have to focus on quality,” Norton said.




The key, brewers and business people alike say, is finding your niche. Portland’s Allagash Brewing Co. has established itself nationally as one of the country’s pre-eminent producers of Belgian-style beers. Newcastle’s Oxbow Brewing Co. makes renowned farmhouse ales. Bissell Brothers has made its name producing popular, world-class India pale ales.

There are still underutilized styles that could be brewed in this state, Bissell says, but his brewery isn’t going to make them. Bissell Brothers makes hoppy beers. That’s their niche.


“The worst thing you can do is open a brewery that everybody thinks is OK,” Bissell said. “You have to elicit an emotional response. And going forward, you need to make some people happy. Some people are going to love you, but some people are going to hate you. But you have to stand for something.”

Seth Goodall, the Small Business Administration’s regional administrator for New England, agrees that breweries need to know their niche. What makes breweries unique is the barrier for entering the market is low, hence the proliferation of startups.

“Quite frankly, these are breweries that started in garages and basements,” Goodall said. “There’s not a lot of startup costs required at that level.”



Goodall says the expansion of craft breweries is happening throughout the region, not just in Maine.

“We’re still seeing a lot of deals getting done,” said Goodall, who lives in Richmond. “Banks are confident in these businesses because there’s a growth model.”

In Southern Maine, Austin Street, Bissell Brothers, Foundation, Gneiss, Funky Bow, Banded Horn and Liquid Riot all opened in the past three years and have expanded or started canning.


At Fore River Brewing, co-founders LeGassey, Hansen and Anastasoff are building their niche by hand. Even the granite is local. Anastasoff picked up loads of it when the old Veterans Memorial Bridge was torn down.

They aren’t worried about taking over the Maine beer scene. They make a smooth milk stout and put a red ale on the market because those beers aren’t generally available in Maine.

“I think there’s plenty of room for everybody,” Hansen said. “I think our beer is unique. We want to build a community where everybody will be able to come here and enjoy good beer.

“They don’t have to go across the bridge for that.”


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