David Geary was in his late 30s, recently unemployed as a medical-supplies salesman, and unenthusiastic about sending out résumés. So he turned to beer.
Specifically, David and wife Karen filed incorporation papers with the State of Maine in October 1983 for the D.L. Geary Brewing Co. in Portland. The following winter, David Geary left New England for old England, and Scotland as well, to learn the brewing trade.
Peter Maxwell Stuart, the 20th laird of Traquair, had planted the brewery idea in Geary’s mind during a visit to Portland. Stuart himself had revived his family’s brewery in Innerleithen in 1965, creating in Traquair House what Michael Jackson described in his World Guide to Beer as “the most Scottish of breweries.”
Geary worked there and at other British breweries, with Stuart’s letters of introduction easing the way. When he returned to the States, he and Karen began raising money. In a year and a half, they amassed $300,000, including from the doctors who had been David’s clients.
Everyone seemed to like the idea of a local brewery making beer with traditional ingredients and in traditional ways. Aside from the odd Samuel Adams Boston Lager six-pack, there just wasn’t much of that kind of beer in Maine in 1984 and 1985. (A contract beer, called Portland Lager, which was made in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and shipped east, would come and go quickly in 1986.)
Soon, the Gearys had enough money to build a space in an industrial park in Portland’s more rugged reaches and to hire Alan Pugsley, an English biochemist who was then one of the top brewing consultants in North America.
Pugsley would go on to co-found the Shipyard Brewing Co., also in Portland, but at the time he was best-known for helping to popularize the so-called Ringwood yeast, from a brewery in England, which was used to make clear, crisp English ales. Under the Gearys’ direction, Pugsley set about developing just that sort of ale for the new brewery’s flagship.
In autumn 1986, it was finally time for a taste. Pugsley poured David Geary a sample of the new ale. Geary closed his eyes and took a sip.
“Ah,” he said, smiling. “D.L. Geary’s Pale Ale.”
The Gearys, who would eventually divorce (Karen died in 2013), sold their first batches of that pale ale during the second week of December 1986. D.L. Geary’s lineup would expand to some 10 beers, including seasonals, and it scored its biggest early distributive coup when the supermarket chains Hannaford and Shaws agreed in 1987 to start carrying its wares.
The brewery did not distribute outside of the Northeast until 1990, an initial regional focus that helped it survive and thrive while hurriedly expanded operations faltered or failed. It still occupies the same, albeit twice-enlarged, location in Portland, now a true Valhalla of American beer, with myriad breweries, brewpubs and beer-centric bars following in D.L. Geary’s wake.
That wake is now long enough to make the brewery the oldest independently owned one on the East Coast making small batches of beer with traditional ingredients. Aside from perhaps Bell’s Brewery in Michigan, which began life as a homebrewing-supply shop, D.L. Geary’s is the oldest such brewery east of the Rocky Mountains.
Hard to believe, yes—but, again, there just wasn’t that much 30 years ago of the kind of beer David and Karen Geary wanted to make. Not in Maine, not anywhere.
Tom Acitelli is the author of The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution. His new book is a history of American fine wine called American Wine: A Coming-of-Age Story. Reach him on Twitter @tomacitelli.