October will be a busy month for craft beverage fans in central Maine.

This month alone, two microbrew pubs and a distillery tasting room will open, and a second distillery tasting room hosted its first event.

In the slice of Maine stretching from Monhegan Island in Lincoln County north through Somerset County, more than two dozen businesses that ferment, brew or distill have taken root in the last two decades, and the list will continue to grow.

“Five years ago, when I went in front of the Legislature and said if you care about Maine’s economy, you should care about the craft beverage industry, they laughed,” Sean Sullivan, executive director of the Maine Brewers’ Guild.

But in 2016, the statewide economic impact of beer brewers was nearly $228 million. Brewers sold more than $150 million worth of beer that same year, employed more than 1,600 people and indirectly supported the employment of 545 more people.

“Now that people have seen breweries can succeed outside of major metro areas, it’s inspired others to open a craft beverage business,” Sullivan said.

Bruce Olson, who owns Tree Spirits of Maine in Oakland, is the president of the Maine Winery Guild and a member of the Maine Distiller’s Guild. By his count, Maine has about a dozen distilleries, 22 wineries that are members of the Winery Guild and 10 to 15 operations producing hard cider.

“If I was 40,” said Olson, 63, “this would be the funnest thing in the world. There’s tremendous growth in the industry.”

STARTING OUT

When Geoff Houghton opened the Liberal Cup in Hallowell in 2000, he had an open field in Kennebec County.

While a couple other breweries had been established in the region, the craft brewing industry wasn’t well developed in Maine, and not many people were familiar with pubs, which Houghton considers to be a bridge between bars and restaurants.

When he was starting out, Houghton faced the hurdle that early adopters face regardless of industry — no one lines up to hand out money to the first one out of the gate. Brew pubs were then unknown territory.

“It was hard to get anyone to invest in me or give me a loan when I started,” Houghton said. He was in business for a decade before he could secure financing.

“Now, the minute you mention you want to do this, people are willing to invest,” he said.

That investment and interest has been slow to come to the Kennebec Valley area, but it’s coming. Since 2014, more than a half-dozen craft beverage companies have opened their doors in the region.

It’s worth noting that the craft beverage business is growing in a state that started placing restrictions on selling alcoholic beverages as early as the 1840s and waited for a year after Prohibition was lifted to lift its own ban on the sale of alcoholic beverages.

The irony is not lost on the people who are fueling the growth in craft beverages, but they don’t dwell on it.

What’s driving them is desire to build something themselves. For some, it’s the natural progression of a hobby. For others, it’s passion or exploration.

In Newcastle, Matt Page and Topher Mallory, the partners behind Split Rock Distillery, the state’s only certified craft organic distillery, started their company with a simple question: What would it take to make bourbon?

“It takes a tremendous amount of time to navigate federal, state and local requirements,” Page said. “And capital and self-determination.”

Lynn Chadwick, at Doom Forest Distillery, started experimenting when she found she was allergic to nearly every drink she tried. The result is Chadwick’s Maple Craft Spirits.

Later this month, Chadwick will open a tasting room at the Pittston distillery to augment the tastings they put on at locations across Maine.

For Joe and Kristy Gould at Two Gramps Brewing, the planets aligned in the right way in Gardiner — interest, opportunity and location coincided. The result is what they call a nanobrewery (smaller than a microbrewery) and restaurant. The space, with its exposed brick and rumors that a speakeasy might have operated on site, was ideal, Kristy Gould said; it overlooks the pocket park between it and the Johnson Hall Performing Arts Center. It jump-started an idea that Joe Gould had to return to the restaurant business after years away from it. He also had developed a love of craft brewing.

The result is Two Gramps Brewing, which opens Oct. 27.

Four days later, Cushnoc Brewing Co. will open its doors at 243 Water St., in Augusta.

Four partners — Tobias Parkhurst, Chris Geerlings, Casey Hynes and James Bass — banded together to bring Augusta its first microbrewery. Along with its selection of beers, the restaurant will serve wood-fired pizza and is expected to become one of the businesses that draws people to the city’s downtown.

Sebago Lake Distillery opened the tasting room at its Gardiner distillery for the first time earlier this month and has plans to open for special events only until next spring.

For Houghton, the evolution of the industry in region is coming full circle even as it delivers some bitter with the sweet.

When he opened, anyone wanting to sell beer by the pint had to have a restaurant, so he opened his pub. Tasting rooms are a fairly recent change, and they allow beverage makers to sell their product where they make it. He might have done that, if the option had been open to him, he said.

Now, as the field of competition expands, there is a cost. Every time a new place opens, he said, he takes a pay cut. And in one instance, he has taken a staff cut; Hynes was his manager before moving to Cushnoc Brewing.

But the flip side is that with more businesses comes more awareness.

“I had to do a lot of converting at first,” he said. “Now they have other churches to go to.”

LOCAL GOODS

Consumer desire is what drives growth in this sector.

“Maine is one of those places that has a reputation for a certain amount of quality and a certain amount of interest in the craft beverage movement, and it’s come to the Kennebec Valley,” Patrick Wright said. “It’s a huge part of our consumer economy, and states have begun to become more sophisticated and recognize the craft of that industry.”

As Gardiner’s economic development coordinator and executive director of Gardiner Main Street, Wright has been working with city officials to develop a food hub in Gardiner. The craft beverage sector is part of that, he said.

The effect of the expansion is not restricted to the choices consumers have to choose from.

“We’re just about the last manufacturing base,” Houghton said. “We contribute a lot to Maine’s tax base. We’re helpful to the state and we employ a lot of people.”

Part of the industry’s growth comes from a desire to consume local products. For Olson and Tree Spirits, which is both a winery and a distillery, the vast majority of his ingredients come from less than 8 miles away from his business.

Making small batches allows producers to be careful and make a good product that people are willing to pay a little more for, he said. And it’s different from what customers can find on the shelves of the local grocery story.

Sullivan said the growth in the industry means new markets for established agriculture businesses. Potato farmers who plant barley as a rotation crop now have customers for that grain.

“That sense of pride that comes from working from ingredients from the land is a story that people like to get behind,” Sullivan said, noting that millions of dollars are going into the agricultural economy as a result.

And in some cases, a brewery is a catalyst that can help revive a struggling downtown.

Local residents who normally might not drink a craft beer will try one, and like how it tastes, he said, They know by buying that beer, they are supporting a friend. The brewery is a place where their kid can get a job. At an open mic night, local musicians can play.

“All of a sudden,” he said, “it’s not an urban hipster phenomenon.”

The alliances that have grown up in the industry also help in offering a structure to reach more people. Some businesses opt not to distribute beyond what they can sell themselves. While Chadwick’s Maple Craft Spirits are distributed widely in Maine and to other states, the Goulds, at Two Gramps, say they plan on selling what they make at the brew pub.

Olson, who doesn’t distribute outside the state, said he opted not to join the winery guild at first because he didn’t see the value.

“We finally joined and got a huge amount of business,” he said. During the summer, more than half his business comes from out-of-state tourists.

It turns out that Oakland, rather than being on the fringes of where people would go to seek out wine, is a prime stopping place for vacationers in the Belgrade Lakes region heading to the coast, and for tourists heading home from Acadia National Park.

“We’re five minutes off (Interstate) 95, and it doesn’t hurt that we have a bathroom,” he said.

Having that structure helps to drive business in other ways.

Matthew Swan, owner of Farmington’s Tumbledown Brewery, said people who travel to visit breweries are more likely to go to regions where a number of them are located.

Maine is one of the top destinations for beer tourism, Sullivan said, and craft beer is one of the top five drivers of business to Maine.

“It’s attracting a new demographic and creating pockets of cool for younger people,” he said. “And by younger people, I mean people over 21.”

While some of these operations will sell their beverages only through their own restaurant or tasting room, others are distributing across Maine and into other states. Sullivan expects the state’s craft beverages to go farther. Earlier this year, a “beer box” with 50 taps for Maine beers was shipped to Iceland via Eimskip, the Icelandic shipping company that docks regularly in Portland, as part of promotion that would bring beers from Iceland and other countries to Maine.

“Maine has an incredible opportunity to export, and we’re aggressively exploring those opportunities.”

Jessica Lowell — 621-5632

[email protected]

Twitter: @JLowellKJ

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