Customers enjoy beers at Bissell Brothers Brewing Co.’s Portland taproom in 2016, the year it opened on Thompson’s Point. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Peter Bissell recalls the early days of the brewery he co-founded with his brother, operating out of Industrial Way in 2015. They offered a few beers out of what was essentially a garage stall. They were the kinds of hazy, hoppy ales that would come to dominate the industry in coming years. Augmenting the scene were food trucks – an emergent trend of its own that, like New England IPAs, have become normalized – an ideal partner for young bootstrap breweries hoping to keep customers around for more than a pint or two. It was a collaborative relationship that benefitted both.

“I look back very fondly on this time,” Bissell said. “The energy was palpable, we all knew we were onto something, and there was a convivial and triumphant atmosphere felt all around.”

Many of those food trucks would transition to brick-and-mortar businesses themselves, and Bissell Brothers would relocate to a spacious new address at Thompson’s Point in 2016 – a far cry from serving beer out of a busted-up fridge retrofitted with taps. Today, the brewery is poised to expand further at Thompson’s Point, having already added a second location in the brothers’ hometown of Milo (in 2018) as well as kitchens at both locations.

A food and beer pairing from a Bissell Brothers multi-course beer dinner last year. Photo courtesy of Bissell Brothers

It is a trajectory that illustrates much of the development of Maine craft beer over the last decade. The number of breweries in the state has grown nearly sixfold since a 2012 law enabled them to sell draft beer directly to customers; thanks to that change, newly minted breweries could get instant cashflow while enjoying much higher margins on each ounce sold – profits that could be plowed right back into the brewery’s growth.

The results have been an astonishing array of beers and an abundance of places in which to enjoy them, spilled statewide. While the craft beer industry retains its reputation for collaborative geniality, it has also become increasingly competitive given all this growth – exacerbated by the social and economic disruptions of the world-historical event that was (and perhaps still is) the COVID pandemic.

Many breweries – particularly those that emerged on the backs of the taproom models and hazy IPAs – have established second or third locations as a response to this increasingly competitive landscape. Of course, this isn’t a new intervention; both Gritty McDuff’s and Sea Dog Brewing Co. had multiple locations by the mid-1990s. But that was also a time when there was a mere fraction of the breweries we have today. While there is a much broader appetite for good beer, there is only so much beer that can be packed onto retail shelf space and hooked up to draft lines. As Ed Stebbins, co-founder of Gritty’s, told me in 2021, “There simply are not enough shelves in the retail stores and not enough taps in the off-premise locations (i.e. bars and restaurants) for craft brewers to grow their businesses. The easiest way to solve this problem is to open up another tasting room in the hope of selling more beer.”


“If breweries find themselves in greater competition for customers in their area, opening multiple satellite locations to pour draft beer seems like a slam dunk,” Bissell observed. “I can see why other companies would look to ‘play Catan’ as an industry colleague once described it. If you get the right space, with a local population devoid of other options you can offer, draft beer sales are one of the best profit margins around.”

Detroit-style pizza is now part of the experience of visiting Foundation Brewing in Portland. Photo courtesy of Foundation

Those higher margins are particularly precious in the wake of COVID-related economic disruptions that have included higher interest rates and inflation. John Bonney, co-founder of Foundation Brewing Co. said, “We came out of the pandemic, and we’re just starting to understand how that’s changed people’s behaviors, how customers are going to approach us … There have certainly been changes in the economics that impact both breweries and consumers … (and) discretionary spending is a little more challenging.”

Craft beer sales were basically flat in 2022, according to the Brewers Association, the national trade group for craft beer. What growth there was (7%) came from sales at brewery taprooms and brewpubs. Seventy-five percent of that growth came from locations opened in 2018 or later. Bart Watson, the chief economist for the Brewers Association, projects brewery openings and closings to become “more balanced” in the coming years. Writing in The New Brewer, Watson says this is “not a sign of a collapsing market or bubble bursting, but the realization of a longer trend toward a more mature market.”

“The craft beer industry has been on this hyper growth trajectory for a number of years, and the success rate has been nearly 100%,” Sean Sullivan, the recently departed executive director of the Maine Brewers’ Guild, told the Press Herald in March. “That’s totally unusual in any sort of economic market. Where we’re at now, I think we’re getting to a more mature market for craft breweries. Which is to say I expect to see some closings, I expect to see some breweries expanding and buying old brewery space.”

Another response to this “mature” marketplace has been the readoption of the brewpub model. In the last five years, many breweries have built kitchens in their breweries, essentially bringing the food trucks in-house. Having multiple locations allows existing breweries to expand their taproom footprint geographically; possessing a kitchen enables them to keep customers at each brewery longer, expanding that footprint temporally.

When Bissell Brothers moved into Thompson’s Point, the adjacent space was occupied first by Big J’s Chicken Shack, then Locally Sauced (which had previously been a food truck that frequented the old brewery at Industrial Way). When COVID shut things down for a time, the brewery took a strategic step back and identified a trend: their on-premise can sales had decreased over time, while on-premise draft sales had risen. At the same time, they were offered the adjacent kitchen space. And so they decided to step into the food game, aligning their menu with their beer program.


“We are able to tie food and drink together with purpose,” Bissell said, “and execute immersive events where customers eat and drink speciality offerings highlighting different cultures and traditions” – including events like Kӧlsch Day and Feast of the Seven Fishes.

They repeated this at their second location in Milo, where they also run their own kitchen. “Rather than look to opening more locations, we are seeking to double and triple down on the immersive experiences we can offer at our two existing production facilities,” Bissell explained.

These “immersive experiences” speak to the role that the brewery taproom plays as a core part of a brewery’s identity, as a three-dimensional branding device that speaks directly to their drinkers. Foundation’s John Bonney emphasizes this point when assessing our current landscape.

“For most of the breweries in Maine, the tasting room is so important, having people experience your place, your products, and what you’re about. This is the best way for people to know you.”

And just as Bissell Brothers continues to expand even further at Thompson’s Point, Foundation has also reinvested in where they already are. Last summer, they added a new pizza kitchen to their taproom – in the space previously occupied by their old neighbors, Bissell Brothers, at Industrial Way.

What do these trends – toward multiple locations and in-house restaurants – auger for the future of Maine beer? Will all breweries need two or three locations to stay alive? Might established breweries from the Portland area colonize markets further afield, crowding out potential new breweries and homogenizing the beer experience? And how might these changes impact perceptions of “local” beer?

Bissell and Bonney seem unmoved by my fears, and it occurs to me that I am doing something akin to anticipating the road ahead by looking through the rearview mirror.

“This remains an exuberant industry,” Bissell explained. “Not everyone will ultimately find success, but for those that do, success will take different forms and be reached in many different ways … There are many different paths forward for the many different types of breweries, types of brewery owner, and types of beer customer that now exist in our ecosystem. I personally love watching and being inspired by the myriad ways people go about this.”

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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