BRUNSWICK — Caitlin Mance and Jacob Georgeson approached the Norumbega Cidery booth at the Crystal Spring farmers market on a late May morning, wearing the telltale expressions of uncertain but curious shoppers. Noah Fralich, the owner of the New Gloucester hard cider house, had the perfect icebreaker. “Would you like to try some cider?” Fralich asked.

That might seem like an obvious sales pitch for a market vendor to make to a potential customer, but it’s a brand-new phenomenon in Maine. A new law that went into effect in November 2017 made it legal for vendors of Maine-made alcoholic beverages to offer samples at farmers markets.

Fralich started doing tastings over the winter at Brunswick’s Winter Market, but most vendors of wine, beer, hard cider and distilled spirits are just starting to feel their way into the new program, which is not only overseen by Maine’s Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations but had its origins in that department.

“We initiated a change in the law at the bureau,” said Tim Poulin, deputy director of the Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations. It was a matter of fairness, he said. Before the passage of the law, which was sponsored by Rep. Craig Hickman (D-Winthrop), vendors of Maine-made wine, cider and beer could sell at approved farmers markets, but distillers of hard alcohol (spirits), even the ones who specialized in Maine-grown ingredients, like grains or potatoes, weren’t allowed. “Spirits are often maligned,” Poulin said. “Alcohol is alcohol is our opinion.”

No one had been allowed to do tastings. “Now everyone could sell and everyone can taste,” Poulin added.

Hickman said the bureau asked him to propose the legislation, and he was happy to oblige. “They knew I was a farmer,” Hickman said. “People can’t taste the wine or the beer, that is not good for the vendors.”

When Leigh Hallett, the executive director of the Maine Federation of Farmers Markets, heard about the proposed legislation, she wrote to her board of directors, none of them vintners or distillers. “They wrote back, ‘Oh my God, yes.’ They were overwhelmingly in favor.”

They too wanted to level the playing field. A farmer can hand a prospective customer a carrot. “And then they can see how wonderful it is and become lifelong customers,” Hallett said. Why not allow the same opportunity to a maker of a homegrown whiskey?

Compostable sample cups sit atop cans of hard cider from Norumbega Cidery at the Crystal Spring farmers market in Brunswick over Memorial Day weekend. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

WANT A TASTE?

Norumbega is one of only seven wineries to have already been approved in the state for tastings at farmers markets. (There are roughly two dozen total in Maine, and hard cider is included in the winery category.) One brewery has also been approved as well as two distilleries. Poulin said eight more applications are pending approval.

So far, being able to offer a taste has definitely been good for Fralich. Witness his dwindling stock. With Mance and Georgeson at his booth, Fralich gestured to the few options on the table, apologetically. “We are down to it a little.”

The market was in its last half-hour and he had only three four-packs left, including one assorted, with cans of his “Classic” hard cider, “Berry Medley” (made with Wyman’s fruit, including blueberry) and a honey hard cider called “Cyser.” Mance wanted to try the Cyser, but Fralich didn’t have an extra can left to sample. He offered the Classic instead.

He poured the liquid into clear plastic cups with a green line on them to mark an ounce pour. Mance and Georgeson, who were up from Watertown, Massachusetts, for the weekend, sipped, nodded and quickly opted to buy a four-pack. She held up the cup. “Recycling?” Fralich told her the cups are biodegradable – he puts them in his Garbage to Garden bin – and off the couple went, equipped for their Maine getaway with some hard cider made in nearby New Gloucester.

Scenes like this are still unusual as the law makes its way through the permitting process. Only eight of Maine’s 135 markets have been approved as hosts for alcohol vendors for the 2018 season. The state requires the market to get approval from the municipality where it is located, then submit an application to the Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages to host the vendor. At least six other vendors must sell farm or food products at the market. Only after that process can an alcohol vendor make his or her own application to the bureau.

“We’ve gotten off to a slow start,” said Colin Kolmar, the sales manager for Wiggly Bridge, a distiller in York. “There have been quite a few bureaucratic hurdles to jump over.” Kolmar started the process of applying to farmers markets in January, something he now says he wished he’d started even earlier. Using a list from the Maine Federation of Farmers Markets of markets that had been permitted to sell alcohol, he thought it would be easy to create a list of potential markets. “But 100 percent of those permits had either lapsed or were about to expire,” he said. (Farmers markets have to apply annually to the Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages.)

Part of the bureaucracy has to do with the way farmers markets are administered individually within municipalities. There’s no set way to run a farmers market. Some of the markets he wanted to apply to were already full. Others weren’t interested; Falmouth vetoed his request based on sales of hard spirits not being directly referenced in the town bylaws, he said. “When we suggested amending to include hard spirits, they said it was a process that would take months,” he said.

Ultimately, Wiggly Bridges settled on four markets: York, close to the distillery; Waldoboro, for its Midcoast location; Cumberland; and Boothbay, for its dense concentration of tourists. “We missed the first two weeks at Cumberland because of paperwork,” Kolmar said. He’s still waiting for permits to do tastings at the markets in Waldoboro and York.

“It just seems needlessly complicated,” Kolmar said.

The Crystal Spring farmers market in Brunswick on a recent Saturday. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

TWO TIMES A MONTH

The law has another complication. When Hickman first proposed it, vendors were allowed only six tastings a year. The bill was rewritten to allow vendors to offer tastings at two markets a month.

“They also want all the dates upfront,” Fralich said. “Which is a little weird. I just went for the second and fourth Saturday of the month.”

The twice-a-month provision can be confusing for customers. “There is no rationale for it,” Fralich said. “On weeks we are not sampling, you have people say, ‘Can I try one?’ ” If customers are from out of state, as Mance and Georgeson were, they may not be able to come back the next week. Already Fralich has found “if people are able to taste it, there is much more likelihood that they will buy it.”

Kolmar doesn’t have much to go on, but in the two markets in Boothbay he’s done already, he saw a marked difference in sales between the market where he could offer tastings (“pretty good sales”) and the one where he couldn’t. “We did not break even.”

“I think it did owe to the ability to taste before you buy,” Kolmar said, “because it is a fairly significant price commitment.”

The smaller bottles of Wiggly Bridge spirits, including whiskey, vodka and rum, are 375 ml and cost about $25. “Our most expensive is 750 ml of bourbon, which is $53,” Kolmar said.

One of the owners of Wiggly Bridge, David Woods, said his original vision after the law passed was to have a van that roamed the state’s markets five days a week. As they’ve traveled the steep learning curve to land permits for markets, he’s put that plan aside. “We’ve had to jump through more hoops than they had at Toys R Us,” he said.

But Wiggly Bridge is committed to the market tasting program for the 2018 season. “Then we will evaluate it,” Woods said. “Until we do a white paper on it, I am not going to know what to suggest to the state.”

Sample cups and empty cans of hard cider from Norumbega Cidery after the market closed. Norumbega is among the seven wineries, one brewery and two distilleries now approved in the state for tastings at farmers markets. More applications are pending approval. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

Ian Michaud of Portland-based distiller and beer maker Liquid Riot Bottling Co. testified on behalf of Hickman’s bill. He and his brother Eric are from Yarmouth and have a booth at the Yarmouth Farmers’ Market, which opens for the season on June 7. This will be their third summer at the market. In the past, they’ve sold out products like the Herbie, a dry hops session ale – named for the famed Yarmouth elm that was cut down in 2010 – taste unseen, as it were. But, Michaud said, customers “constantly request to try the beer.” Craft beers exhibit so much variety that being able to sample them is key, he said.

He argued against the limitations of the original bill. “The initial six times a year was crazy,” Michaud said. Twice a month is better, but “our ultimate push is to change it.”

Hickman said he’s open to revisiting the twice a month limit. “It was a start,” Hickman said. “I am a small business owner, and I want Maine small businesses to thrive.”

EARLY BIRD GETS THE (TEQUILA) WORM?

For now though, customers are still adjusting to getting their first taste of alcohol at Maine farmers markets. A woman who picked up a sample of Norumbega cider from Fralich started to wander off with it, and he asked her to stay close by (tasters are allowed to walk around the market with their cups, but not to leave). “Otherwise somebody might get mad at me,” he told her.

“Oh, is there alcohol in it?” she asked. “I was thinking because you were here?”

It’s true that morning market might not seem like exactly the spot for a tipple. Fralich said it usually takes until 9 a.m., a half-hour after the market in Brunswick opens, for anyone to ask for a sample. (Customers are limited to six samples per market.) Kolmar is already used to the jokes about it being “a little early for me.”

“Almost everybody says that,” Kolmar said. “Even the people who do partake eventually. Then they say, ‘When in Rome!’ ”

But the samples are small. David Woods said Wiggly Bridge is pouring “a smidgen” (about a quarter-ounce). But, he added, “If you like spirits, I don’t know of a time of day that it is not enjoyable.”

Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at:

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