Joe Durepos of Waterville had little experience drinking craft beer until last year, when he started following the Maine Beer Trail. Within three months, he had visited 30-35 breweries, including all the ones in York and Cumberland counties.

At Allagash Brewing Co., he sat and had a beer with a man who said he was from Virginia and worked for the FBI.

“He just randomly decided he was going to come up to Maine because he heard that Portland had good beer,” Durepos said.

That’s music to the ears of the Maine Brewers’ Guild, the nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting craft beer in Maine, which is now home to more than 130 breweries.

“One of our goals is to make Maine the biggest destination for beer in the country,” said Kai Adams, president of the guild and co-founder of Sebago Brewing Co.

The brewers’ guild has devised a number of strategies to reach this ambitious goal, from updating the Maine Beer Trail – a passport to Maine breweries that offer rewards to visitors – to participating in international events and spreading the word that Maine is a great place to relax and have a pint.

Their strategy is bolstered by the rise of tasting rooms, as well as the natural growth of the industry and its piggybacking on the state’s reputation as a leading food and restaurant destination. Many local breweries say they just had their best summers ever. And “there’s no question” the Maine Beer Trail had its hottest season yet, says Sean Sullivan, executive director of the Maine Brewers’ Guild.

“There is so much more beer tourism happening in Maine than ever before,” he said, “and it’s because in Maine, wherever you go, you can find a brewery. And we’re getting well known for making great beer.”

Ashley Eaton, Matt McAdam and Lydia Whiting enjoy a beer tasting at Liberty Craft Brewing, one of the stops on the Maine Beer Trail. The group calls itself the Maine Beerventures Crew, and its motto is: “Taking Maine one ex-berience at a time.”

Beer tourism, also known as a “beercation,” is growing nationally, according to the national Brewers’ Association’s 2017 year-end report, and states are increasingly touting breweries through beer trails and other promotions. In 2016, Travelocity.com published a “Beer Tourism Index,” and the Portland-South Portland-Biddeford metro area ranked No. 4 on its list of top places to take a beercation, in between Seattle and Colorado Springs. (The other Portland was No. 1.)

This year’s Summer Session Beer Festival, Maine’s biggest beer festival, took place July 28 and attracted 2,627 beer lovers from 38 states, up from 1,667 in 2015, when people from 25 states attended, according to the brewers’ guild, which sponsors the event. Over 2 percent of attendees were from other countries, marking the first time international beer fans showed up, Sullivan said.

Zach Poole, owner of the Maine Brew Bus, said from the end of May to the end of September, his company’s 13-passenger buses carried more than 3,000 people to Maine breweries, more than ever before. Eighty percent of the customers were from out of state.

When he started the company in 2012, the buses visited a half-dozen breweries; today 30 locations are on his roster. “We’re definitely busier than we’ve ever been, with more guests, more tour offerings, more breweries to visit,” Poole said, noting that one customer returned for his eighth ride.

Things have gotten so busy on the weekends that in the summer of 2017, Poole added boat tours – he calls them “brews cruises” – to the schedule, to accommodate larger groups. These tours cross Portland Harbor to visit Foulmouthed Brewing in South Portland, take a spin around the harbor, then return to the Old Port to visit another brewery.

The Maine Brew Bus – one way to tour some of the state’s breweries – carried more people from May through September than ever before, owner Zach Poole says.

The Maine Brew Bus also operates in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, but Poole says business is growing fastest in Maine. “People aren’t going (to Massachusetts) specifically for the beer and the food like they are coming to Portland,” he said. “They’re (in Massachusetts) for the history and sports and things like that.”

SOMETHING’S BREWING

Breweries credit a lot of their growth to the rise of tourist-friendly tasting rooms, which Maine legalized in 2012. “Since then, our industry growth has just been through the roof,” Adams said, with breweries springing up in all parts of the state, including rural areas.

The tasting room law allowed craft breweries to sell directly to consumers, bringing breweries higher profits and giving consumers more reasons to visit.

“We definitely had some of our busiest days ever this summer, year over year, just more people through in a day,” said Jill Perry, senior manager of retail operations and merchandise at Allagash Brewing Co., located in Portland’s mini-mecca of craft beer on Industrial Way. “It’s been unbelievable.”

Patrons stand in line to get cans and pours at the Bissell Brothers taproom at Thompson’s Point on Saturday.

Perry can’t separate out summer visitors, but the Maine Brewers Guild says June to September is the busiest time for beer tourism (and all tourism) in Maine. In 2010, Allagash welcomed 9,000 visitors. By last year, that number had skyrocketed to 150,000. Some of that growth can be attributed to the brewery’s location. There are now five other breweries in the immediate area, along with one distillery, so it’s a popular place for tourists to come and hit a number of breweries at once.

But Perry also credits the growth of the tasting room experience. Allagash has built three ever-larger tasting rooms, she says. The brewery saw a big jump in visitors from 22,000 to 40,000 from 2013 to 2014. Now that the number has hit 150,000, it’s leveling off, Perry said, but visitors stay longer, often spending an entire afternoon at Allagash and the adjacent breweries.

The newest Allagash tasting room has 17 beers on draft. Visitors can choose full or half pours, and if they get hungry, there’s always a food truck parked outside.

“There’s something a little more community-oriented about the tasting room model,” Perry said,” and more family-oriented than going to a bar.”

Sebago Brewing Co.’s four brew pubs, in Portland, Scarborough, Gorham and Kennebunk, set records this summer, Adams said. The number of visitors in July and August was up almost 15 percent over last summer. Customers aren’t being counted yet at the company’s new Destination Brewery in Gorham, Adams said, but he does know that the Maine Brew Bus brought more than 500 people for tours this summer.

“The reason we built our new brewery and tasting room was because of beer tourism,” he said.

The new brewery has – or will have, since it’s still evolving – plenty of bells and whistles to engage consumers, including outdoor activities, a restaurant with an open kitchen, cross-country skiing, an ice rink, and a place for passing snowmobilers to stop and have a beer. Adams said Sebago grew a quarter-acre of its own barley on the brewery site this year (with more to come). It’s being malted so the brewery can “make some cool estate beers.”

Five-year-old Bissell Brothers, located at Thompson’s Point in Portland, once had the largest tasting room in the state, able to hold 240 people, but taproom manager James Krams says with all the expansions elsewhere, he isn’t certain that’s still true. Bissell Brothers has one of the easiest taprooms for tourists to visit, since it’s just off I-295, and in July and August its parking lot is filled with cars from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont. Krams estimates that 60 percent of summer visitors are from out of state. Sales have been up about 10 percent over last year, he said.

Matt McAdam’s beer trail map has 32 stamps from craft breweries all over the state.

“It was definitely our busiest summer,” he said. “Thompson’s Point is coming into its own. More larger parties are showing up on summer days than ever before.”

Krams said summer tourists hop off I-295 to pick up a fresh four-pack or two to take with them to Sebago Lake or Acadia National Park.

Krams has also noticed that families visiting the tasting room are sticking around longer, enjoying two or three beers instead of leaving after one. “I think the taproom experience is as important as how good the beer is,” he said.

OH, THE PLACES YOU’LL GO

Joe Durepos says he quickly realized while traveling the Maine Beer Trail that “there are very few unique places as far as the beer itself. So a lot of places try to make their venues unique.”

Banded Brewing in Biddeford has old-school arcade games, for example, and he likes the ambience at Barreled Souls in Saco, where wooden barrels are used as tables and chairs.

Jennifer Dunne of Boston sips a beer at the Bissell Brothers taproom at Thompson’s Point on Saturday, while celebrating a friend’s bachelorette party.

Durepos started using a Maine Beer Trail map in September 2017, after a co-worker took him to Fore River Brewing in South Portland. He started by visiting breweries close to home, and originally planned to visit every brewery on the list. But then Durepos, who is a member of the Air National Guard, was deployed to Africa for a few months. By the time he returned, “a whole new slew of breweries had opened up.” Now he has given up on doing the entire trail and sticks to the places that are most interesting to him “just because it is so ever-growing.” (The trail is updated three times a year.)

“Since I’ve started,” Durepos said, “I’ve noticed the shift to barrel-aged beers and sours.”

So far his favorite breweries are Nonesuch River in Scarborough, where he’s a lifetime member of the mug club, and Gneiss in Limerick, because they make his two favorite stouts – and Gneiss is about 10 minutes from his house. Durepos, who knew next to nothing about craft beer a year ago, now considers himself a beer snob. There are some brews – cough, Bud Light, cough – that he will never again let cross his lips.

People like Durepos may not be from away, but they are also a part of beer tourism, exploring the nooks and crannies of the state, as more breweries are springing up in rural areas.

The Maine Beer Trail divides breweries into eight regions, and notes whether they have a tasting room, offer tours or serve food. Passport holders have a brewery employee sign and date their passport, and then the paper can be sent in for rewards. Ten breweries gets you a free hat, 20 a T-shirt. Those who make it to every brewery in the state get a “prize pack” full of brewery swag.

Beer lovers mailed in 345 Maine Beer Trail passports in 2010, the first year they were printed. The Maine Brewers Guild is still collecting passports from this year, but people are submitting more than a dozen per week, more than the guild has ever seen, Sullivan said.

“We’re getting a lot more people visiting every brewery in the state, which is crazy,” he added.

Sullivan estimates 600 people will “complete” Maine Beer Trail passports this year, meaning they visited 10 or more breweries. About half will be from Maine.

Sullivan said the guild plans to step up promotion of the Maine Beer Trail when it launches a new website in early November. The new version of the trail will allow people to plan a route tailored to their own needs, he said. Say you are going to Camden. The map will tell you which breweries are along your travel route, and which are open on the day you’re traveling.

Matt McAdam of Brunswick has visited 32 breweries all over the state, including in Bar Harbor, Ellsworth and Machias, mostly with his girlfriend.

“There are breweries popping up all over the place,” he said. “We got our maps two weeks later than a friend of ours, and there were new ones that were on ours and not on hers.”

The beer trail has taught McAdam, normally a fan of German-style wheat beers, that he does like some IPAs and hoppier beers, depending on who’s brewing them.

McAdam’s goal is to hit every brewery in the state by the end of next summer.

“It’s a great way to explore the state,” he said.

Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MeredithGoad

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