PORTLAND, Maine — Mainers could claim to live in the craft beer capital of the East Coast, maybe the U.S., and they'd have an argument.
As of July, 167 breweries operated in Maine.
On July 1, 1995, a legend was created near the dawn of the industry.
Allagash Brewing Company Founder Rob Tod returned from a trip to Belgium and concocted a Belgian-style witbier of his own.
He brought his creation to the Great Lost Bear bar on Forest Avenue in Portland that July afternoon. Manager Mike Dickson was there and recalled the moment coming around 4 p.m.
He's watched his bar and his city transform since then.
"We were just getting involved with the microbrew surge," Dickson recalled, as he sat in the very spot he said Tod poured the fateful pint. "This is 20-plus years ago where we couldn’t fill any of these taps like we could today with local brews. They were the frontrunners as far as establishing a local brew. The rest is history."
Karri Diomede helped bring Allagash to the rest of New England. It’s gone much further than that since ‘95.
She explained that Allagash is now the 23rd largest craft brewery in the United States, producing 115,000 barrels of beer each year that is shipped to 20 states and Washington, DC; as far away as California and Florida. At the top of each yellow can label — just below the rim — "From Maine, with love" is printed in deep blue letters.
While Allagash was early to the game, Geary's began producing English-style beers in 1986. Shipyard Brewing opened shop just before Allagash in 1994.
Maine Brewers' Guild Executive Director Sean Sullivan credited all three with being trailblazers in the craft.
"When Geary’s and Shipyard started brewing British Ale, that was kind of a tried and true style of beer elsewhere that they brought over and was approachable for your average beer drinker," he remarked.
"When Allagash brought White to the table, that was completely out there. And that kind of sense of putting yourself out there, of innovation, is really what's been driving the craft beer industry over the past 15-20, even 25-30 years in America."
They were trailblazers then. Now, Portland and Maine have a beer for every taste.
Sullivan met NEWS CENTER Maine at Foundation Brewing, one in a collection of breweries that have sprouted along the Industrial Way suburb, where Allagash has operated since its inception. He bought a flight and described the diversity at just that one brewery at that one time.
"We have a seltzer lemonade. We have a pale ale. We have a milk stout. We have a fruited Berliner Weiss," he pointed to the tray of small sample glasses.
"Rob and the folks at Allagash deserve a lot of credit for being willing to put something completely new out there, which is just common these days and, frankly, expected by consumers," he continued. "Even if they go to the same brewery they were at a week ago, they expect a new beer on draft that they can try."
With the Fourth of July being celebrated three days after Allagash White's anniversary each year, it’s appropriate to remember the freedom Maine brewers hold dear.
Every brewery in Maine is independent — all 167 and counting.
Cheers from Maine, with love.