If you’ve ever been tempted to drink maple syrup right out of the bottle, Maine’s maple producers and craft brewers have teamed up to create a delicious – and more dignified – adult alternative: maple beer.

Some of these beers are meant to be reminiscent of a pancake breakfast, complete with a cup of hot coffee, since locally roasted coffee is sometimes added to the brew.

Dunn Family Maple in Buxton sold syrup to Island Dog Brewing in South Portland that became a key ingredient in the brewery’s maple porter. Merrifield Farm joined forces with Lone Pine Brewing, both in Gorham, to produce a maple syrup beer that is a homage to Maine Maple Sunday, which is being celebrated across the state today. The staff from Novare Res Bier Cafe in Portland lugged 250 pounds of maple sugar made by Strawberry Hill Farms in Skowhegan to Belgium, where they collaborated on two maple beers for craft beer fans around the world to consume. And Liquid Riot Brewing Co. in Portland is, for just the second time, planning to make a beer using maple sap from Hilltop Boilers in Newfield.

The marriage of maple syrup and craft beer is not new, but in the past two years or so, this culinary romance has heated up. Arnold Coombs of Coombs Family Farms in Vermont, who buys syrup from 3,000 small family farms across New England (20 percent of it from Maine), says he was selling syrup to Samuel Adams 15 years ago, but the maple-beer connection didn’t take off until more recently. “We’ve seen rapid growth in the past two to three years,” he said.

Liquid Riot’s Easy Like Sunday Morning is made with maple syrup from Strawberry Hill Farms and coffee from Speckled Ax Roasters. Courtesy of Liquid Riot Bottling Co.

Coombs said he now sells New England syrup to almost 180 breweries nationwide that are making maple beers, and he has “sampled a bunch just for fun.” One reason for the sudden interest, he said, is the maple industry is rapidly expanding, so it needs more markets for its products. Nationally, maple syrup production has more than doubled in the past decade, although growth has been slower in Maine, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 2018, U.S. production totaled 4.16 million gallons of syrup, up from 1.9 million gallons 10 years earlier.

The rise in production has been attributed to several factors, including better technology, more taps and greater consumer demand for natural ingredients. The food industry, Coombs said, is trending toward “clean labels,” so anytime an out-of-favor sweetener like corn syrup can be replaced with one considered more wholesome, like maple syrup, it’s a good marketing move.

At the same time, the number of craft breweries in the United States is escalating – Maine ranks third nationally in the number of craft breweries per capita, according to the nonprofit Brewers Association – and “you’re just seeing a wild amount of creativity there,” Coombs said.

POPULAR CONCOCTIONS

Maple syrup is not added to beer to sweeten it.

“It’s more for the flavor,” said Greg Abbot, head brewer at Liquid Riot Bottling Co. in Portland, which produces a brunch beer called Easy Like Sunday Morning, an imperial oatmeal stout made with Maine maple syrup from Strawberry Hill Farms and Guatemalan coffee from Speckled Ax Roasters in Portland. “The sugars end up fermented by the yeast, so what you’re left with is essentially aroma and flavor, no sweetness.”

Maple is most often used in darker beers like stouts, which provide complementary hints of chocolate and coffee, but it can also work in lagers or pale ales, which showcase the maple flavor, Abbot said.

Brewers can boost the maple flavor by aging the beer in bourbon barrels, as Norway Brewing Co. does with its Belgian Tripel-style beer made with syrup from Pie Tree Orchard in Sweden. Following that up with keg or bottle conditioning with maple syrup “helps to lock in that flavor,” said Charlie Melhus, co-founder and head brewer. Melhus, who makes another maple beer called Ms. Maplepants, said he likes using maple syrup because “it’s indigenous to the area, and it’s a part of the Maine brand.” When he sells in other states, or internationally, “that’s the kind of beer we expect to do really well.”

Lone Pine brewer Danielle Curtis adds maple syrup from Merrifield Farms to the boil kettle for Maple Sunday Brown Ale. Courtesy of Lone Pine

The maple-beer collaboration that has perhaps gotten the most attention in Maine is the partnership between Merrifield Farm and Lone Pine Brewing. In 2017, Lone Pine co-owners John Paul and Tom Madden decided to make a beer that would celebrate their memories of attending Maine Maple Sunday pancake breakfasts as children. The beer, named Maple Sunday, attracted a new audience of casual beer drinkers who were more apt to go to a farmers market than a taproom, Paul said. The following year, they doubled production, but it still wasn’t enough.

“Last year, there were so many people who came to the tasting room who missed out,” Paul said, “and they weren’t just coming from down the street, they were coming from all parts of Maine.”

This year, Lone Pine quadrupled production, and the goal is to have Maple Sunday available throughout March and distributed statewide. The brewery also makes a brown ale called Samara Brown with Merrifield Farm syrup and Bard Coffee.

Lyle Merrifield, owner of Merrifield Farm and president of the Maine Maple Producers Association, says Lone Pine buys about 15 percent of his maple syrup. The collaboration, he said, “is pushing us to make more syrup all the time.”

Merrifield said most bulk syrup produced in Maine leaves the state, shipped off in trailer trucks to other parts of the country. The collaborations that syrup producers are forging with craft brewers in Maine, he said, are “a good thing because syrup stays in state and producers are making a little more per pound on it.”

How much more per pound, he said, depends on the year and how well the season is going – maybe 10 to 20 cents? That’s not a lot, but maple producers say they do it mostly for the cross-marketing benefits, such as selling their syrup and other maple products in the brewers’ tasting rooms. And every can of beer is like a little advertisement for their syrup.

Island Dog “came to me, and it works for me,” said Scott Dunn, owner of Dunn Family Farms. “They advertise for me, and I advertise for them. We get each other’s followings.”

No organization tracks how many maple producers are working with craft brewers, but Merrifield said the number is growing.

“I think it’s a good way to promote maple,” said Jeremy Steeves, owner of Strawberry Hill Farms, who has worked with several brewers, including Bunker Brewing Co. in Portland, Bigelow Brewing Co. and Oak Pond Brewing Co. in Skowhegan, and Atlantic Brewing Co. in Bar Harbor. “Honestly, they don’t use a lot of syrup. It’s a small market, but I’m not complaining.”

BREWERS ALSO TRYING SUGAR OR SAP

Syrup isn’t the only maple product turning up in local beers. When the brewers at Novare Res Bier Cafe decided to create some maple beers to celebrate the business’ 10th anniversary, they asked brewers in Belgium to collaborate. Stevens of Strawberry Hill Farms suggested using maple sugar, essentially condensed syrup, to avoid heavy – and costly – shipments of maple syrup across the ocean. They started with a beer at the De La Senne brewery in Brussels that is usually made with Belgian candy sugar or Belgian beet sugar and swapped in the maple sugar, using it both to brew and bottle condition in order “to capture all the maple aroma,” said Shahin Khojastehzad, general manager of Novare Res.

Shahin Khojastehzad, left, and Eric Michaud of Novare Res Bier Cafe crush grain in the gristmill at De La Senne, a brewery in Brussels. Novare Res created maple beers using maple sugar to celebrate the business’ 10th anniversary. Photo by Yvan De Baets

Novare Res bought about a third of the 800 gallons brewed, and the rest was sold around the world. Khojastehzad and his staff also worked with the brewers at the De Struise brewery in Veterlyn, Belgium, to make 1,300 gallons of a Belgian Tripel from Maine oats, Maine maple sugar and Belgian-roasted coffee; it was aged in bourbon barrels. Again, Khojastehzad brought some of the beer back to Maine, and the rest went to bars around the world, including parts of Africa. He still gets a kick when a bottle shows up on social media from Russia, Tokyo or South America. He once got a text message from friends who were drinking the De Struise beer “in a tiny beer bar in Spain.”

“We really wanted to represent Maine agricultural products,” Khojastehzad said. “The first thing that came to our mind was maple syrup.”

Maple sap, the clear sugar-filed liquid that is boiled to make sap, is also being used to make beer in Maine. In 2016, Liquid Riot’s Abbot and Bryant from Hilltop Boilers made their first run at brewing a maple sap beer, and this year they’ve decided to have another go.

The label from a maple beer brewed in Brussels in collaboration with Novare Res Bier Cafe. “We really wanted to represent Maine agricultural products,” Shahin Khojastehzad says. Photo courtesy of Novare Res Bier Cafe

“At first I was a little hesitant, quite truthfully,” Bryant said. “I’ve never had a sip of beer in my life, and I’m 49.” (Bryant doesn’t drink, mostly because of his religious faith, but he doesn’t begrudge anyone else the pleasure.)

Bryant harvested the 350 gallons of sap that Abbot needed and quickly hauled it into Portland.

“The problem is the sap spoils quickly once it’s out of the tree,” he said. “It’s just like drinking spoiled milk. It’s not something that can sit around for three or four days.”

Sap isn’t worth a lot of money – maybe 40 to 60 cents a gallon compared to the $33.70 average price per gallon for Maine maple syrup – but Bryant wanted to try the beer project anyway. “I guess we were just totally intrigued by the idea,” he said.

Abbot said he knew he wouldn’t get the same flavors of caramelization that come with reducing sap to syrup.

“Really, what you’re getting is a little bit of woodsy flavor and just a hint of maple,” he said.

The duo will be trying again in early April. And, even if Bryant doesn’t sample the results himself, they hope to have something worth drinking.

 

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