We are nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic in Maine, and I’ve found that my memories have become something like a funhouse mirror: stretched in some ways, compressed in others, disorienting often. Things that happened in April of 2020 can seem like a decade ago; events from five years ago can seem to have happened last month. Amidst this churning purgatory, Maine beer has been – largely for the better – a consistent companion.

Thank the gods for that, for if memory serves (and I think that in this case it does), there was a time early on in this mess when I was quite worried about what the pandemic would do to Maine’s beerscape. (To be clear, I was concerned about other things as well). I drink Maine beer because so much of it is so good. I also drink it because it is made here. There is a comfort in knowing the faces of people brewing and serving these beers in tasting rooms. There is a pleasure in knowing that the beer comes from the tanks there in the brewery and that (increasingly) some of the ingredients have been produced here as well, by farmers in Gorham and Aroostook County, maltsters in Lisbon Falls. The prospects of collapse seemed quite real, and the costs of that were frightening indeed – even for someone whose investment is merely as a drinker.

An economic impact report on Maine’s craft beer industry for 2020 was recently released, providing some sense of what happened to Maine’s craft beer industry in that critical year, given the massive disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic. The study was undertaken by economists Andrew Crawley and Megan Bailey from the University of Maine, in partnership with the Maine Brewers’ Guild – a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the craft beer industry in Maine, representing over 150 breweries. That study was informed by a survey of guild members in April and May 2021, to which roughly half responded.

It wouldn’t take an academic study to know that COVID-19 greatly affected Maine’s beerscape, of course. But the study does reveal some of the ways breweries responded to the crisis and how the industry has changed since the last study, which examined data from 2017.

Twenty-nine percent of Maine breweries reported that the pandemic had a “large negative effect” on their business in 2020, while another 58% noted a “moderate negative effect.” Nearly two-thirds of breweries (63%) reported concerns about the pandemic’s impact on revenue, cash flow and finances. Roughly half (53%) worried about social distancing and restrictions on operations, as well as supply chain disruptions (47%). And just over one-third were anxious about labor market conditions (35%) and consumer confidence (34%).

Many brewery employees did lose their jobs – 58% of survey respondents furloughed workers in 2020. But there was some recovery on that front over the course of the year, particularly for smaller breweries (those with an annual production of under 10,000 barrels). Smaller breweries dropped from an average of 12 employees in January 2020 to eight in May, before recovering to 11 in December. Breweries producing over 10,000 barrels averaged 102 employees at the start of the year, a figure that dropped to 54 in May, before rebounding to 77 at year’s end.


In spite of these very real human costs, almost all of Maine’s breweries remained afloat, thanks in part to federal assistance programs, including the Paycheck Protection Program (used by 82% of breweries responding to the study), Economic Injury Disaster Loans (58%), and Small Business Administration Loan Forgiveness (49%). State or local government programs provided help to 57% of breweries responding to the survey.

Production was down over 2020 by roughly 11% since the last economic impact study in 2017, “some of which is attributable to the knock-on effects of the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to Sean Sullivan, the executive director of the Maine Brewers Guild. Even so, the majority of brewers continued operating either at full capacity (29% of respondents) or were “comfortably utilizing capacity with some flexibility to increase production” (30%). Only 15% reported “significantly under-utilizing capacity.” Even so, the direct economic impact statewide in 2020 was estimated to be roughly $168 million, with multiplier effects taking the total impact to about $261 million. Both are nearly the same as the estimates from the previous study, covering the year 2017.

Curiously, 9% of respondents reported that the pandemic had a “moderate positive effect” in 2020. According to Sullivan, this was a result of how people shopped during that period of the pandemic. In order to minimize exposure to the coronavirus, many bought their beer at grocery stores when shopping for other necessities. And so, some breweries on the shelves in those stores benefited.

Something to cheer about: After a tough pandemic 2020, things are looking better for Maine’s beer industry, according to a new study. Pair Srinrat/Shutterstock.com

In spite of the many challenges breweries faced in 2020, by spring of 2021 there was a broad sense of optimism. Over 90% of survey respondents anticipated growth by 2026, with over a quarter of breweries projecting growth of over 50%. This confidence is grounded in the fact that while the great majority of Mainers still drink beer made out-of-state, trends suggest that has been changing. In 2015, the market share for Maine-made beer was 9%; today, that percentage is 14%. Sullivan notes, “While this is impressive growth, it means that still 86% of beer sold in Maine is not made in Maine.” And that expansion can be shared broadly by Maine brewers. “Maine beer isn’t growing at the expense of other Maine beer,” Sullivan argues, “rather market share is being aggressively eroded from big corporate brewers.”

A significant source of that growth comes from smaller breweries. The number of licensed breweries in Maine has swelled from 114 in 2017 to over 150 today. In 2017, the largest five Maine breweries, by production, made nearly 40% of the beer sold in-state. That percentage had dropped to about 28% in 2021. “So not only is the market for Maine-brewed beer growing,” Sullivan notes, “but the share of sales is being more evenly distributed.”

While craft breweries have historically been concentrated in southern Maine, recent years have seen numerous breweries open in less populated areas further north, many located in areas previously under-served by local craft beer.


“Whole new segments of consumers are beginning to discover beer via an experience at a local brewery,” Sullivan says. “Many brewers have created welcoming spaces in their small community, where locals can meet up, families can hang out and where it’s still OK to strike up a conversation with a stranger. Post pandemic, we expect this to continue.”

Reflecting on the effects of the pandemic, Sullivan says, “Ultimately, while the industry is facing the same types of challenges that many industries are facing – increased costs, staffing shortages and slowed business on account of COVID – the pandemic has forced many brewers to learn how to run a more agile business, and in the long run, this resiliency will benefit our industry.”

The Maine Brewers’ Guild is looking for ways to strengthen the industry in the face of the pandemic and (hopefully) a post-pandemic landscape. The Guild is introducing an employee benefits plan that will help smaller breweries offer benefits to staff. It is also investing in education and quality control, as a partner with the QC2 Beer Testing and Research Lab at the University of Southern Maine. Maine brewers increasingly used the lab in 2021, which has enabled them to better refine recipes. And in March, the New England Brew Summit – an industry conference drawing brewers from around the region – returns as an in-person event in Portland to discuss what the past has meant and the future holds.

“We’ve spent the past 10 years building a collaborative community of brewers, service providers, vendors and beer fans in Maine,” Sullivan says of the guild. “This is a story of resilience, and it’s this same community which will help Maine brewers stand out in a crowded marketplace as we venture into this new economy.”

Thankfully, it is a marketplace that is more crowded than we might have expected in 2020.

Ben Lisle is an assistant professor of American Studies at Colby College. He lives among the breweries in Portland’s East Bayside, where he writes about cultural history, urban geography, and craft beer culture. Reach him on Twitter at @bdlisle.

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