If you’re a beer traveler, Portland, OR, ranks high on your must-see list. But have you been to Portland, ME, America’s other beer Mecca? This port city on Casco Bay turns out a dazzling range of craft-brewed beer.
Recently, I made Portland my base of operations for a sightseeing tour of Maine’s coast. The timing was perfect: most of the tourists had gone home, but the summer sun had decided to extend its stay in northern New England.
My first stop was the historic Old Port, the home of Three Dollar Dewey’s (241 Commercial St.), where Maine’s beer renaissance began. This was a dream come true for the famed beer researcher, Alan Eames, who’s traveled to the ends of the Earth in search of exotic brews. Eames’s pub, with a menu emphasizing British ales, opened for business in 1981. It’s been credited with educating a generation of drinkers about good beer.
Three Dollar Dewey’s takes its name from the prostitutes who followed gold miners to the Klondike, as legend has it, with a menu of services reading “$1 Lookie, $2 Feelie, $3 Dewey.” But the pub’s atmosphere is more reminiscent of Yorkshire than the Yukon. Armed with the Boston Globe (there’s a rack full of reading material on the wall) and a big bowl of popcorn, I sat at the bar and savored some Maine microbrew. Most of the three dozen draft choices are brewed in the region; there are also blackboard specials, along with the “Irish Blacklist” of combination drinks made with Guinness.
Milestones in Maine Brewing
That evening, I boned up on Maine’s brewing history—while sampling the local product, of course. After Three Dollar Dewey’s got things rolling, the next milestone was a 1985 law making it easier for craft brewers to operate. There’s a bittersweet footnote to this story: pub owner Henry Cabot, who successfully lobbied for the law, never fulfilled his brewpub dream. But a year later, David and Karen Geary established the D. L. Geary Brewing Co. (38 Evergreen Dr.), the state’s first commercial brewery since Prohibition and the oldest micro east of the Rockies. Geary’s Pale Ale, with its trademark lobster on the label, soon became a beer icon.
The story of Maine beer wouldn’t be complete without Shipyard Brewing Co. (86 Newbury St.). In a little more than a decade, it has grown from a brewpub in Kennebunk to one of the East’s biggest craft breweries; its beer can be found in 25 states. Shipyard’s range includes 12 English-style ales; among them are Old Thumper Extra Special Ale, created by British brewing legend Peter Austin; Battleground Ale, a wheat beer with Civil War generals on the label; and Prelude Special Ale, a porter/Scottish ale hybrid honoring Portland’s own Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Even as breweries proliferated in the area, many locals sensed that something was missing. Their numbers included brew master Rob Tod, who found lots of British ale and German lager but nothing resembling the abbey ales of Belgium. In 1995, he addressed that problem by starting the Allagash Brewing Co. (100 Industrial Way). Tod’s flagship product, Allagash White, proved so popular that he added a dubbel and trippel, a Grand Cru, and the bottle-conditioned Reserve Ales. Allagash has been warmly received in communities throughout America; it’s even available in—you guessed it—Portland, OR.
The next morning, I returned to the Old Port for another history lesson at Maine’s first post-Prohibition brewpub, Gritty McDuff’s Brewing Co. (396 Fore St.). Gritty’s opened in time for Christmas in 1988 and has expanded since then. The front entrance leads to a copper-topped bar, behind which are rows of mugs belonging to those lucky enough to be admitted to Gritty’s Mug Club. Adjoining the bar are two rooms decorated with breweriana and rugby images, along with what’s been called an anatomically interesting mural of mythological revelers. The upstairs offers a sweatshirt-and-jeans environment, a perfect place to get comfy during a nor’easter. But on pleasant afternoons—like the day I dropped in—the cobblestoned patio in back is the place to be.
Gritty’s ales are brewed with a centuries-old yeast culture developed by monks in the north of England. Year-round selections include McDuff’s Best Bitter, Original Pub Style pale ale, and Black Fly Stout; the most popular seasonal is Halloween Ale, an extra special bitter.
Sampling the Old Port
It’s easy to make a night of it in the Old Port. One popular destination is Brian Borù (57 Center St.). Named for the legendary king who united Ireland, it offers live music and, of course, craic—an Irish word that roughly translates into English as good-natured blarney. The king himself has a story to tell. A while back, someone abducted his statue, leaving it for dead. He’s back home again, but the bar’s owners still wonder why the thieves ignored their stash of Irish whisky.
Also in the neighborhood is one of three bistros operated by the fast-growing Sebago Brewing Co. (164 Middle St.). Its year-round beers, brewed in nearby Gorham, include Frye’s Leap IPA, Boathouse Brown Ale, and Lake Trout Stout. Sebago offers a late-night menu, making it a favorite haunt of Portland’s night owls.
On my way out of town, I made one final stop, visiting the legendary Great Lost Bear (540 Forest Ave.). It’s easy for folks “from away” to miss, but worth looking for. Being a first-time visitor, I walked around and drank in the decor. The entire contents of a Sunday flea market are nailed to the walls: stuffed animal heads, posters for classic (and not-so-classic) movies, amusement park memorabilia, and photos of long-forgotten politicians. And judging from the lights strung around the bar, every day is Christmas at the Bear. Souvenirs are on offer, including the widely traveled “Support Your Right to Arm Bears” bumper stickers.
The Bear, which recently celebrated its silver anniversary, has evolved along with Maine’s beer industry. Its beer selection has grown to 53, including three hand pulls, and most of the state’s microbreweries are represented. That’s the good news. The even better news is that the menu is constantly updated to reflect seasonal selections. At the bar, rows of tap handles bristle above a sign reading “Caveat Emptor”—a warning that’s hardly necessary given the quality of what’s on tap. And, since I hadn’t used up my 15 minutes of fame, I planted myself in front of the Bear Cam, called my friends, and said “Cheers!” to the world.