Dave Love, Maine Beer Co. maintenance specialist who had the idea for brewing an altbier, with brewer Paul Aho, who made it happen. Photos courtesy of Maine Beer Co.

The entrance to Maine Beer Co. is a black barn, a structure restrained and elegant – a photographic negative of the crisp, white labels on the brewery’s bottles.

Once through the barn, the visitor encounters a gleaming white tasting room, light and cheerful – the brewery’s branding writ large – and an appropriate setting to drink its signature bright, hop-forward pale ales.

But alongside Peeper, Lunch and Dinner, visitors will also encounter the cryptic beers of the Black Barn Program – numbered, but not named, as though they are top-secret prototypes. Like the eponymous building, these beers are eye-catchingly distinctive, and yet also expressive of the brewery’s beers as a whole: thoughtful, precise and engaging.

The Black Barn Program was created in the wake of the brewery’s massive 2018 expansion that produced the black barn itself, expanding the previous pilot program for developing new beers.

“It gives our brewers the chance to try out different recipes, styles, ingredients and processes,” said Anne Marisic, head of marketing and communication. Brewer Paul Aho heads the Black Barn Program, working on a 15-barrel brewhouse. He invites recipe suggestions from Maine Beer Co. staff. Most of the Black Barn Program beers are one-offs, only available on draft and in bottles at the Freeport tasting room. “But occasionally a recipe really resonates and undergoes further development to become a permanent brand,” Marisic said. Prince Percy Pilsner is an example of that.

One can hope that the most recent in the series – Black Barn No. 36, an altbier, released last week – might make its way into the permanent rotation. “Altbiers are not a style that is easy to find,” Marisic said, “so we hope to draw a little more attention to the style with this release, and turn people on to a type of beer they might not have tried before.”


Altbiers are the beer of Düsseldorf, and one of just a handful of indigenous German-style ales, alongside the kölsch from Cologne and hefeweizen of Bavaria, according to beer historian Horst Dornbusch. “Alt” means “old,” an allusion to the history of the style, which precedes the development of cold-fermented lager beers. It would gain its name when “new” styles of pale lager from Bohemia and Bavaria invaded the Rhineland aboard a growing network of railroad lines in the 1870s. Altbier shares something with its Rhineland cousin, kölsch, in that it uses top-fermenting yeast but is fermented at cooler temperatures than ales are typically, then cold-conditioned like a lager. This results in a smooth, clean-tasting, highly drinkable ale.

Dave Love, maintenance specialist at Maine Beer Co., approached Aho with the idea to brew an altbier. Love was a frequent homebrewer in his college years, and “altbier-ish beers were always my go-to,” he said. His favorite beer at the time was Long Trail’s Double Bag, a beer that shares some of the malt-forward characteristics of the traditional German style. But it weighs in at over 7% ABV, and Love wanted a beer he could “drink all day.” So he experimented with his own version, though “it was far from traditional.”

“My third-floor apartment rarely dipped below 75 degrees, and I had no means to keep the temperature low enough to properly cold condition,” he said. His recipe would have gotten him “kicked out of Düsseldorf in a heartbeat,” as he used some of the iconic British barley, Maris Otter, and a yeast strain typically used for British or American ales. Nevertheless, his affection for altbier-type beers remained, and the Black Barn Program made brewing a more authentic altbier a possibility.

Black Barn No. 36 is a German-style ale and recent release from Maine Beer Co.’s pilot program.

In brewing a “traditional style such as this,” Aho says, “we find it is best to keep things simple when it comes to grain and hop bills. The base malt for No. 36 is Floor Malted Bohemian Pilsner malt from Germany. The malt bill also includes Dark Munich malt from Wisconsin, which adds some color and flavor complexity. A touch of Belgian Debittered Black malt adds a bit more color. Malts are the star of the show for an altbier, and according to Aho, this combination renders notes of caramel, brown bread, cherry, prune and pine.

The hops – Perle and Spalter Select – play a supporting role here, a departure from what the brewery is best known for. “We were not looking for lots of hop aroma in this style,” Aho said, “so that we could let the malt really shine.”

The traditional Dusseldorf altbier-style yeast amplifies the sweet maltiness, while restraining hoppy bitterness. After fermentation, the beer is cold conditioned for three weeks, a schedule similar to the one they used for Black Barn No. 24, a kölsch-style ale released last summer. Like lagers, kölsches and altbier “take a little bit more time and patience to brew than typical ales,” Aho said.


While I’ve never been to the brewpubs of Düsseldorf, Black Barn No. 36 has me checking flights. It has a lovely toasty, nutty aroma. Its malty sweetness is checked by some spicy bitterness. Smooth-bodied and clean drinking, and at a very manageable 5.2% ABV, it is a beer for any season.

So too is its older sibling, Black Barn No. 35, which remains available on draft and in bottles at the brewery. This Irish Dry Stout (4.2%) explodes with chocolate flavor, backed by coffee, berry and tobacco notes.

Maine Beer Co. is best known, of course, for its hop-forward pale ales. And while many of the Black Barn Program offerings have experimented in that same vein, roughly two-thirds of these pilot beers have explored other styles. This year, that has included a Baltic porter, a Scottish ale, an India pale lager and a black ale. There will be two more Black Barn releases later this year – a blonde ale and a barleywine.

I delight at the sight of the black barn as a building, as a passageway to some of the best pale ales and IPAs on the planet. But it’s also a portal to a funhouse version of this beloved brewery’s beers – a playground of stylistic interpretations executed with care and skill, as we’ve come to expect from Maine Beer Co.

Ben Lisle is an assistant professor of American Studies at Colby College. He lives among the breweries in Portland’s East Bayside, where he writes about cultural history, urban geography, and craft beer culture. Reach him on Twitter at @bdlisle.

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