Baxter Brewing Co. employees work on the canning line last week at the Lewiston brewery, which has nearly doubled in size over the past decade. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

LEWISTON — The little craft brewery that started with eight employees, two beers and ambitious plans in a former cotton cleaning mill turned out its first can 10 years ago this week.

When Luke Livingston opened Baxter Brewing Co.’s doors as Maine’s 16th licensed brewery, it marked an early entry into what would become the state’s booming craft brew industry.

In 2021, Baxter is distributed in five states, has 10 beers in its pub and beat back against a pandemic with more boots on the ground.

The brewery’s biggest release yet is planned for later this year and President Jenn Lever has her eyes on the next 10.

In the next decade, she’d love to expand into the mill next door. Double the number of employees. And get ahead of the industry by becoming food safe certified.

Brian DeVinney, the company’s new director of sales, said he’s happy with Baxter’s distribution reach and brand awareness.

“The Maine aspect absolutely is a sales tool for us, something we can utilize especially out of state with the craft beer reputation that Maine brings to the table in the rest of the country,” he said. “The infrastructure is there, so now we’ve got to fill those tanks and sell some beer.”

BREWING MILESTONES

Baxter Brewing Co. President Jenn Lever in The Pub at Baxter, which has 10 of its beers on tap. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Baxter, making an early, attention-catching decision to can its beer for environmental reasons, started manufacturing out of 7,400 square feet in the Mill No. 1 Wing of the Bates Mill Complex. It’s nearly doubled in size since.

It brewed 5,040 barrels in 2011, according to Lever, becoming the first craft brewery in Maine to hit that volume in year one.

In 2018, it hit another first: the first brewery in Maine to upgrade to a counter pressure filler, a canning line investment of more than $250,000 that reduces the dissolved oxygen levels and lengthens shelf stability.

In 2019, another first: brewing the 100,000th barrel of best-selling Stowaway, “the most IPA of any singular Maine craft IPA, so that was definitely a huge accolade for us, a huge accomplishment,” she said.

Prepandemic, 2020 had been poised for big things.

“Our rebrand party was on Feb. 29 last year, so we launched this brand new brand and look and feel and swag,” Lever said. “We changed every style of beer except for Stowaway (and MHT,) and Einstein was reformulated to be Staycation Land. Every single can in our lineup changed.”

New cans gave the brand a more cohesive look and new styles allowed Baxter to shake things up in its popular variety packs.

“We felt it could do better with a different lineup,” she said. Even absent the usual festivals and marketing splash, by the end of the year, “in every single instance where we made a change, it outperformed what it replaced. That’s one of many accomplishments for us in 2020.”

Like so many industries, though, the early days of the pandemic “hurt a lot,” DeVinney said, “because (prepandemic) we did skew very heavily toward draft, toward bars and restaurants. Fortunately we’ve been able to combat that with much stronger sales in the off-premise trades, retail stores. It’s a testament to Jenn and the production team, too, because we were able to kind of pivot production from 25% almost being kegs to a much larger percentage being cans and packaged now.”

Baxter brewed 17,000 barrels of beer last year, according to Lever. At its worst during 2020, the number of cases sold was down just over 20%.

“We closed that gap to finish down 7% overall, but within Maine (it was) less than 4%,” she said. “The last six months of the year, once we had the sales team out there in Maine, we were up in our home state and overall as a brewery. A lot of hard work definitely went into making that happen. I’m excited to redefine what’s possible in 2021.”

‘DROPPING KNOWLEDGE’

Twenty-three people work at Baxter and another 10 at The Pub at Baxter. The historic mill buildings that house both were completed in 1852 and were originally “picker houses” where raw cotton starts to be cleaned of debris, according to developer Tom Platz, who has both shepherded the complex’s restoration and owns Baxter Brewing Co.

Cordell Parker loads cans on the line at Baxter Brewing Co. in Lewiston. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

“I think Baxter has been a great addition to the community, both as an employer as well as a community advocate,” Platz said. “It is great to see the employees live and work in this region and get involved in the community. Baxter makes a point of supporting local charities and teaming with local events and causes.”

Livingston, who like Lever, grew up in Auburn, founded the brewery in 2010 and received its license the next year. He retired from Baxter in 2019 and helped start a new consulting firm.

Forbes’ magazine recognized Livingston as one of its 30 Under 30 in 2011, predicting he’d be “shaping American consumption for decades to come.”

“I’m obviously always going to take a ton of pride in having laid the groundwork for (Baxter),” Livingston said. “But more importantly, I’m proud of all of my friends and colleagues at Baxter — past, present and future — for their hard work and what they have/do/will accomplish. So many people have and do play an even bigger role in bringing a great idea I had more than 10 years ago to fruition.”

Its opening also had an undeniable impact on the craft brew industry to come.

“Not only was I told during my time at Baxter and on the Maine Brewers Guild board of directors, pretty consistently that our early success and early vision paved the way for many others in the state — for instance, the proliferation of canned craft beer in the state that came after our launch — but many of Maine’s most popular brewers, like Foundation and Bissell Brothers, trained on our brew deck,” Livingston said.

Side By Each Brewing Co. was opened in 2019 in Auburn by two former Baxter employees. Ben Low, Baxter’s former director of brewing operations, said Side By Each and Baxter have collaborated since.

“The more the merrier,” he said. “For evidence of that, you only have to look as far as Portland. A rising tide lifts all boats, for sure.”

Darren Finnegan, brewer and co-owner of Lost Valley Brewing Co., said a relationship with Baxter started with it sponsoring ski events at the resort. Finnegan had home brewed for 20 years and worked in sales before opening in 2018.

“They’ve helped me out a lot dropping knowledge here and there,” Finnegan said. “I buy my grain and hops from them. They’re a huge part of why we’re able to grow the way we did. Here’s the funny thing: I thought I knew everything the moment I started this, so I was just naive enough to think I could pull this off. I just did not know how much I didn’t even know.”

HAZE-Y FUTURE

Baxter Brewing Co. quality director Merritt Waldron checks the pH level in a sample of the company’s most popular beer, Stowaway IPA. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Lever said the addition of Merritt Waldron in a new quality director position just over a year ago is one way the brewery is looking to the future.

“Our aspirations are to be one of the first breweries in New England to be food safe certified,” she said. “Right now that’s not a requirement for our industry, but between (striving for) that and the process progress we’ve been able to make with (Waldron) on board, it’s been really fun. We call it him and I geeking out over food safety.”

Should that certification someday become an industry norm, “it changes who will take you on as a partner, whether they’ll have you on their shelves or their tap lines,” she said.

Waldron described the job as being in charge of all measurements at the brewery, including, yes, sensory and taste.

“I think it’s kind of cool to be able to be reliable in each beer that you have,” he said. “You know when you pick up Baxter, it’s going to be good. … Once things settle down and people get vaccinated, it will be nice to have Lewiston, Maine, be a hub just as much as Portland is a hub (for craft brew) and have people come back to the mill, people working in the mills, people visiting, having a good time at our pub to try all our beers.”

Lever’s hope for this year is a bold launch with the year-round Coastal Haze IPA and continuing to work with a team she’s been grateful for.

“(It’s) our biggest bet by introducing a product we intend to be at least 50% of Stowaway’s volumes in its first year,” Lever said. “If we can stick to our guns, do what we do well and communicate well, and take the opportunity to make sure our team is healthy and happy, I think that will translate to some major successes in 2021.”

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