Otterslide, an American IPA, is Lost Valley Brewing Co.’s No. 1-selling beer. By pure chance, brewer Darren Finnegan bought equipment to start canning one month before the start of the pandemic. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

AUBURN — Darren Finnegan bought Lost Valley Brewing Co.’s first canning equipment a month before the pandemic. Thrilled by the timing, he spent three months canning beer in the morning and driving it to customers’ homes in the afternoon.

Feb. 18 will mark three years that Darren Finnegan has been brewing beer at Lost Valley in Auburn. “I thought I knew it all,” Finnegan said about stepping up from brewing in the basement of his Auburn home to owning Lost Valley Brewing. “I could make a good five-gallon batch at home. Now I have to make a 90-gallon batch at one time and it needs to be the exact same as the last batch.” Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Birchwood Brewing Co. in Gray added a kitchen and became a restaurant just so staff could let people indoors this winter.

At Steam Mill Brewing in Bethel, if customers were going to stay outside because of the governor’s directives, they were going to do it in style. “We’re like, well, we’re just going to rock the outside,” co-owner James Kimball said. “Every table has propane heaters, we did fire pits. People are coming in after skiing and they’re in their ski gear anyway — you build a fire pit and it’s not that bad, even when it’s 25 degrees out.”

Maine’s craft beer scene had been on fire for the past decade, adding as many as 18 breweries in one year, according to the Maine Brewers Guild, and more than doubling market share of all beer sold in the state to better than 14%.

Then came COVID-19. It’s too early to know the full damage on Maine’s industry in 2020, though Guild Executive Director Sean Sullivan knows of at least three new breweries licensed last year and three closures, one of which will reopen under new owners.

But the challenges of the pandemic inspired plenty of examples of deft maneuvering, and there are early signs of optimism for 2021.

Baxter Brewing Co. brought the craft brew industry to Lewiston-Auburn in a big way when it opened in 2011.

Bear Bones Beer opened in 2016, making a splash in what had been a vacant former department store storefront on Lisbon Street in Lewiston, now closed during the pandemic. Lost Valley Brewing Co. followed suit in 2018 — only the second brewery operating out of a ski resort base lodge in the country — and Side By Each Brewing Co. opened the next year on Minot Avenue in Auburn.

More have poured into surrounding towns and counties. Where Baxter opened with the 16th brewery license in Maine, the state now boasts more than 145.

Steam Mill Brewing founders Scott Fraser and Brent Angedine had been brewing out of a garage for decades when they decided to open in 2018, Kimball said.

After Angedine died in a car accident, Kimball, Fraser’s cousin-in-law, who had years in hospitality and helped out at the brewery, became co-owner.

With a 12-seat taproom, “we’re so small, we’re not going to be in Hannaford,” said Kimball, and they don’t want to be. “We’re a very high-touch taproom. When you come here, you’re getting one of the owners. You’re getting a brewer that’s serving you.”

Steam Mill released its first cans last week. In a weird way, the pandemic’s helped business, he said.

“A lot of people bought houses here in the pandemic, everyone from Boston to New York to everywhere, to get out of the city, so we feel we want to give them what they’re used to in the city back home … in a small-town vibe,” Kimball said. “When you make something and people come in to enjoy what you’ve made, that’s exciting to see. Taking feedback and making changes, or maybe you nailed it out of the park.”

‘THE DARKEST DAYS’

Side By Each Brewing Co. co-owner/brewer Ben Low poses at the Auburn brewery last week. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Co-founder Ben Low at Side By Each Brewing Co. in Auburn said that when they launched with Community Supported Brewing — prepaying, like a farm’s community-supported agriculture program, but for beer — they had “really no idea” how key it would be until the pandemic.

“That’s really helped keep us afloat,” he said.

The brewery and its indoor neighbor The Poutine Factory have tweaked hours. It’s recently expanded food offerings in the morning, much of it from Lewiston’s Italian Bakery, which bumped coffee sales.

Side By Each was built around selling growlers to order and having people hang out in its large taproom, where there are 15 of its beers on tap and 50 people can still fit inside, socially distanced. But if the pandemic looks to stretch beyond next fall, they’ll consider small-scale bottling, Low said.

“Profitability-wise, obviously it’s not great, but we’re kind of holding our own and I feel like we’ll be in good shape once things improve,” he said. “Even during the darkest days of the pandemic, seeing our customers every day and meeting new customers, hearing what they like and don’t like, seeing people connect with each other, that’s probably the best part of it.”

He also credited staff for sticking by them, “even though there was a while there they could have made more money going on unemployment, so that’s been huge, too.”

Andrew Sanborn, one of three owners of Birchwood Brewing, said the 2-year-old brewery is looking into packaging.

It brews English, American and German beers, hard cider and hard seltzer on “equipment built 100% by the owners” — they were fabricating for others before deciding to strike out on their own.

“There was a big hole between Portland and Auburn and we’re centrally located between the two, and Gray is a hub for a lot of traffic, so it was an easy choice for us (in first deciding to open),” he said. “We have plenty of challenges ahead of us left with COVID and all. With all the support we’ve had through COVID, we should be able to continue right through.”

‘WE STARTED CANNING EVERYTHING’

In the past 10 months, the Guild’s Sullivan said he’s seen an industry shift in sales away from kegged beer toward more packaging and cans to retailers, along with “curbside sales way up.”

An early estimate based on a survey found breweries here in Maine had collectively laid off or furloughed 650 people a month into the pandemic, but have since been able to hire several hundred back.

“Breweries in Maine, like many businesses, depend on summer tourism to give them cash flow to invest/sustain during winter months,” he said. “While we’ve expanded the season of tourism with growth in year-round beer tourists, still, numbers show many breweries did not get their summer sales, so the winter is going to be tough. State and federal aid and grant programs have been critical and helpful for many to stay afloat. At the same time, people are still drinking beer and the Maine brewing industry is here to stay. Our collaborative spirit and work is going to allow us to reinforce our foundation in these times to ensure long-term success.”

Joel Alex’s Blue Ox Malthouse in Lisbon Falls is one of the two largest craft floor malting operations in North America, works with dozens of Maine farms and has an interesting perspective on the craft beer industry: Eighty percent of his malted grains go to Maine customers.

In the first half of 2020, he noticed many, particularly those with distribution deals, sticking to popular brands. In the second half of the year, there was more playing around with new recipes and flavors.

Ben Low rinses out the dregs from a Mash Lauter Tun after brewing a batch of Snow Daze Imperial Stout at Side By Each Brewing Co. in Auburn. The mash, including some ingredients from Maine, foreground, are sent off to a dairy where it is fed to their cows and in turn they supply the brewery with milk. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

“People that were already in distribution and had the capacity to quickly ramp up actually were doing potentially even more than they were doing the previous year in terms of volume,” Alex said.

More small brewers, too, looked into distribution, but they found that the extra time, costs and vendor pricing didn’t always benefit the bottom line.

“A lot of those businesses and those smaller breweries, their business models were built around taproom sales, so they’ve really had to pivot,” he said. “It’s not as high a margin. It definitely can be a lot more challenging. And a lot of what craft beer is, and what makes it so special, are those community connections and being a place for the community to gather. Being together is harder right now.”

That said, he’s seeing a “little uptick” in winter orders over last fall and seeing more positives on the horizon.

“I think everyone is optimistic that 2021 is going to be a better year than 2020 was,” Alex said. “There is some optimism we’ll be at a good place if we can get through this winter.”

Finnegan at Lost Valley initially worried when the ski season was cut short three weeks last year by the pandemic: “I thought it was going to be terrible.”

Then he marveled at the luck of just having ordered his new equipment.

“The world came to a crashing halt and we started canning everything,” he said. “I made a couple posts on social media outlets and said, ‘Beer delivery to your home if you’re interested (and at least 21) and here’s what I have!’ The response was overwhelming, it was awesome. The community really is very supportive of what we’re doing here, whatever it is.”

This winter, up to 100 people are allowed in the lodge, and some are still enjoying one of the five or six craft brews on tap on the patio.

When Finnegan looked at his logs this week, he’d brewed 220 barrels in 2020 compared to 89 in 2019.

“I feel optimistic. I feel like we’ve made it through the hardest time,” he said. “Even during the pandemic we had growth.”

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