Dan Kleban, co-owner of Maine Beer Co., poses for a portrait in the brewery. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Dan Kleban is living every home brewer’s dream: He’s built a profitable craft brewery that’s got national influence, and he’s using that money and influence to make the world a better place.

Kleban, 42, co-founded Maine Beer Co. with his brother, David, in 2009. (Dan oversees the brewing and regulatory aspects of the company, while David focuses on business and design.) Last year, after a decade in business, they built a 7,000-square-foot tasting room next to their 30,000-square-foot production brewery at 525 Route 1 in Freeport. The company motto, which appears on every 16.9-ounce bottle of beer, is “Do What’s Right.” That philosophy applies both to their employees – all make at least $18 an hour ($6 above Maine’s minimum wage) and get 100 percent of their health insurance covered – and the environment, which the brothers have championed since they launched their company. They donate money to nearly 30 environmental nonprofits, from Maine Audubon to the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund. (A Maine Beer Co. porter is named after King Titus, a critically endangered silverback gorilla that Fossey studied and who was the subject of a documentary film.) To date, the company has donated more than $600,000 to environmental causes, and if things stay on track, Kleban expects that figure to reach $1 million in the next two years.

Kleban, a native of Michigan who moved to Maine in 1999, lives in Freeport with his wife, Beth, and their 8-year-old twins, Maddy and Ollie (MO, a pale ale, is named for them). He has served on the boards of the Wolfe’s Neck Center for Agriculture and the Environment and the Maine Brewers’ Guild, and was recently named chairman of the board of the Brewers Association, a national trade association that represents more than 8,000 small American brewers. He is also on the board of Friends of Katahdin Woods & Waters. And yes, Maine’s newest national monument also has an eponymous Maine Beer Co. brew, an India pale ale called, simply, Woods & Waters.

Kleban recently took some time out of his busy travel schedule to speak with us about his career and the state of the craft beer industry in Maine.

Q:  You’ve been on the board of the Brewers Association since 2015. You’re now chair, and Jason Perkins, the brewmaster at Allagash Brewing Co., has just been appointed to the board. What does it say about Maine that we now have two people on this national board?

A: Well, also, don’t forget that the chairman two chairpersons ago was Rob Tod of Allagash. And then Jason Perkins also got elected, so it’s an extremely strong presence we’ve had of Mainers representing the craft brew industry. It says a lot about not only the reputation Maine has for making quality beer, but also speaks to the level of respect that our industry has for folks like Rob and Jason and myself, as people who are willing to get involved in the industry above and beyond just our own business interests, people who have a passion for the entire industry and want to see everybody succeed.

Q: You do a lot of traveling. What is Maine’s reputation in the rest of the country among beer drinkers?

A: It’s fair to say that Maine stacks up at the top of the list in terms of the reputation of our craft beer scene. That’s not just the businesses themselves, but the quality of the beer we make and the innovation that breweries in Maine are undertaking that’s really pushing the needle, whether it was Allagash and the Belgian beer styles or it’s some of the newer breweries and the New England IPA styles. Maine is really looked up to as a standard bearer for the craft beer community, not just in the United States but across the world, and that’s pretty remarkable for a state with a little over a million people. The fact that a small New England state can hold its own is a testament in large part to the long legacy and craft beer tradition that we have in Maine.

Q: I remember when Maine didn’t allow breweries to have tasting rooms. What remains to be done to support the craft beer movement here?

A: (The tasting rooms were) one of the biggest legislative achievements that we’ve accomplished. Without that reform, it’s safe to say that of the 100-plus breweries we have today, 80 to 90 percent of them would not exist. They simply couldn’t. That whole business model of being able to sell your own beer at your own establishment created a model that allowed small neighborhood breweries in all parts of the state – in Aroostook County, in Washington County – to pop up.

And it’s not just our breweries. We’ve created a market for barley-growing up in Aroostook County, for malthouses that process that barley in Aroostook County and Lisbon. So there are these other kinds of cottage industries that are popping up and support our industry, and that’s not to mention tourism. We have people coming up to Maine just to visit breweries. That wasn’t the case 10 years ago, so we have a really good foundation for our industry from a regulatory standpoint. There are always things that can be tweaked and improved upon. Our current governor has made it a plank of her economic development plan to really highlight craft breweries like we highlight lobsters and blueberries and all the things that we produce here, really having craft beer be a part of that conversation to drive not only tourists but to drive investment in this state.

Maine Beer Co. – and its solar panels – are located just off Interstate 295 in Freeport. Photo courtesy of Maine Beer Co.

Q: People often ask me if we have a restaurant bubble in Portland, and is it going to burst? Similarly, is a correction coming in the craft beer market? Can Maine sustain 150 breweries?

A: The craft beer industry is not going to atrophy. It’s not going to go backwards. But it certainly is not going to continue – it’s impossible – to grow at the rate that it has grown. So it will level off, and yes, you’re going to see some brewery members leave for a host of reasons, but you’ll also see some new ones pop up. Also remember, for context, we’re kind of at that point in terms of breweries per capita where we were pre-Prohibition. There used to be neighborhood breweries all over the United States. That was a normal thing. Americans of a different generation wouldn’t think anything of the amount of breweries we have.

Q: Speaking of growth, I read an interview you did with the Boston Globe in 2011, and at the time you were brewing 1,200 barrels a year: “Despite the demand for the beer, the Klebans don’t expect to expand much more,” the article said. “Kleban said the company’s ultimate goal is to brew 3,000 to 5,000 barrels a year and no more. ‘People tell us we won’t be able to stop, ‘ he said, ‘but I’m going to prove them wrong.’ ” Aren’t you now brewing 20,000 barrels a year?

A: Yeah, about 27,000.

Q: What happened?
A: One, I was wrong. (Laughs) Two, I have learned over the years to never say ‘never.’ In 2011, it was impossible for us to conceive of the kind of growth that we would be fortunate enough to have and that the whole industry would have. No brewery back then saw the massive growth that the industry was about to undergo. So I’m sure there were a lot of brewery owners in 2009, 2010, 2011 who were saying when they were brewing 1,000 barrels if they could get to 3,000 that would be ‘Holy smokes, we made it.’ But that is a quote that I’m happy to be wrong about. (Laughs)

Our original business plan was written in 2008 at the height of the financial collapse and the Great Recession, when production breweries were not opening in Maine. So to us, the fact that we were writing a business plan that thought that maybe within three to five years we’d get to 3,000 barrels, that was almost pie-in-the-sky stuff. Of course in hindsight, obviously the industry changed. People liked our beer. And I think that our business model, which is really built on a foundation of social and environmental responsibility and commitment to treating employees right, has really bolstered our reputation and led to some of the popularity that was hard to anticipate.

The new tasting room at Maine Beer Co. in Freeport touts the company’s donations to 1 percent for the Planet. Photo courtesy of Maine Beer Co.

Q: Yes, I know you’ve honed in on supporting environmental groups. What was the genesis of that?

A: This goes back to late 2008 and early 2009, when we were writing up and finishing our business plan. The economic environment was collapsing around us. People were losing their homes, losing their jobs. I lost my job as an attorney as a direct result of Wall Street collapsing. I was a home brewer, and I thought ‘yeah, I would love to start a brewery and make that my career,’ but what was really more important to us was that we create a business model that shows that businesses – small main street businesses, large Fortune 500 companies – don’t have to be destructive. They don’t have to squeeze employees, or externalize costs onto the environment in order to have a healthy bottom line. We believed that if you led with your values, if you put the interests of the environment and your employees and your community first, that would drive people to your business, and it would actually make your business more successful, which kind of flips the traditional MBA business school thinking on its head.

It was driven by a personal commitment to protecting our natural environment, but it was also driven by the fact that 10 years ago, it was clear to us that we as businesses and as human beings needed to start taking seriously this thing called climate change. And if we didn’t, business was going to suffer, especially the beer business. We rely on agricultural products. Agricultural products are extremely sensitive to changes in climate. And so we wanted to put that out there and wear it on our sleeve and show that by joining 1 perent for the Planet that we were serious about this. Even in year one, we were donating 1 percent of our sales, even when we weren’t generating a profit, nor were we paying ourselves. The beauty of the 1 percent pledge is that as we have grown, the check that we write to our environmental, nonprofit partners has grown to the point where now it’s in the $150,000 to $200,000 a year range.

Q: In the very competitive world of craft beer, Maine Beer Co. doesn’t can its product or commission fancy can art to attract customers. Why not?

A: I don’t see us ever moving away from the artistic aesthetic of our branding. But never say never. The bottle has become kind of iconic to our brand – the shape of it, the look of it, the feel of it.

Q: A more personal question: You must drink a lot of beer, given your occupation. Do you drink beer every day? How do you keep from developing a beer belly?

A: No, not quite every day. A lot of hard work, a lot of exercise. You do have to watch yourself. It requires some discipline, some exercise, but if you do that, you get to enjoy the fruits of your labor. That said, I’m not going to say I haven’t gained any weight in the past 10 years. (Laughs)

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