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Portland Reborn, Part 3: I Pledge Allegiance to My Beer

We visit Bissell Brothers Brewing as people wait in line for the release of their IPA Swish. Craft beer in Portland is all about brand loyalty... and the 'cool' factor.

PORTLAND, Maine — In the third installment of Portland Reborn, we turn our attention to beer – in particular, craft beer. According to the Maine Brewers' Guild, craft beer contributes $260 million to the Maine economy.  

There are more than 100 breweries in the state, and about 20 of them are in Portland. That makes the city No. 1 in the country in terms of microbreweries per capita.

We hope you're thirsty, because there’s a whole lot of craft beer being brewed in Portland. And, the industry shows no signs of slowing down.

It’s a Saturday morning in March, and just like every other Saturday there’s a line outside Bissell Brothers Brewing at Thompson's Point in Portland.  This morning, they’re releasing their latest batch of Swish. That's an IPA, or India Pale Ale.

Seamus Carey and his cousin drove all up the way from Everett, Massachusetts, to get a good spot in line.

"What in the world are you driving that far for just to stand in line for beer?" we ask him. Carey answers, "Have you ever had Swish?" Lee says he has. Is it worth it? I guess so, but that’s up to you because you’re standing here.

"Yeah, it’s worth it for me man," Carey says. "Absolutely."

Lee asks, have you done this before or is this the first time you stood in line? "Not the first time. Not the first time," Carey says. "Won’t be the last either."

Quite a few of the people here are from out of state, and they don’t seem to mind waiting at all. In fact, they’re downright giddy, because when the taproom opens at 11 a.m. they’re guaranteed their favorite beer. It’s quite a bit more expensive than your basic suds from one of the big industrial producers, but that does not seem to be an issue.

Peter Bissell and his brother Noah opened their first location just five years ago. Like like so many other local breweries, their growth has been meteoric.

Why? There are several reasons: Just like small restaurants, it’s relatively cheap to get started, and like restaurants they’re using local ingredients. So, it's farm-to-flask. A huge part of the popularity of craft beer is that the whole scene is so undeniably cool. Drinkers don’t just want to quench their thirst. They want an experience.

"Once people begin to see that you know that what was available for most of the past century wasn’t the limit as to what this beverage could be flavor-wise and experience-wise, I think that opened the floodgates for the sort of cultural impact it has now," Peter Bissell says. "It started with a beer and it’s still all about the beer."

Tasting rooms like this one add to the experience, because the beer is brewed right here. And unlike most bartenders in regular bars, these bartenders know absolutely everything about their product. So you can learn while you drink. What a great combo!

They make and can IPAs and lagers here, plus stouts, wheats and sours, too. Many of their brews have quite a bit more alcohol in them than a can of Budweiser. There’s cool packaging and a cool logo. They are looking for, and getting, brand loyalty. It's like you’ll only drink Swish from Bissell like you’ll only wear a swoosh from Nike.

Everyone has tasting rooms: Rising Tide, Austin Street, Liquid Riot, Sea Dog. Their beers are served in bars too. Just about every bar in Portland serves Allagash, which is one of the granddaddies of the local craft brew scene.

Peter Bissell says he welcomes the competition, because it brings more people to Portland. He also thinks it’ll force his people to keep working hard and improving their product. He’s thrilled to be riding (and fueling) the craft beer wave in Portland, and he tips his hat to the people who got the ball rolling nearly 30 years ago.

"I like to think we helped shape that as much as one company can," Bissell says, "but, you know, this is a group effort, and we’re standing on the shoulders of giants."

Among those giants is Bruce Forsley of Shipyard Brewing.

NEXT: Portland Reborn, Part 4: From Hops to 'Hopspitality'