Part of the fun of writing this column is getting to observe the craft beer scene as an outsider. I don’t hobnob with brewers, pore over boring beer publications, or stand in lines for special releases. So attending the Maine Brewers’ Guild’s big beer festival this summer felt like gaining entrée to a secret society.
The event, dubbed Summer Session 2019, was held in late July at Fort Preble, behind Southern Maine Community College’s South Portland campus. The large crowd was mostly made up of members of the professional class, and I later found out that almost 40 percent of the tickets were purchased out-of-state. The gathering felt at first like a fantasyland conjured in one of those glossy magazines that purport to be about Maine. I figured that if I saw someone I knew, chances were good that they’d be working the festival, rather than attending it. Turns out I ran into two folks I knew: a workplace acquaintance from the front office and a good friend who’d been walking his dogs at Willard Beach and accidentally crashed the festivities.
Adding to the sense of unreality was the fact that though I was surrounded by a couple hundred people downing strong beers in a contained space, the vibe was pleasantly relaxed, and the attendees — with the exception of a few loud-talking, bearded beer bros — were remarkably mild-mannered. About half of them were women, which is more than one might expect at a beer festival. My sense of otherness was soon erased by the sense that I was part of this communal gathering, held amid scenic surroundings as the sun set on another balmy summer day.
Being a beer nerd, I came equipped with a checklist I’d compiled using the Excel spreadsheet posted on the Guild’s website. The spreadsheet listed all 60+ brewers and their 120+ brews, along with brief descriptions of each beer. A fellow festival-goer, spotting me staring at my list, pulled out his list and said, conspiratorially, “Glad to see I wasn’t the only one.”
Assuming that all the IPAs and sours wouldn’t appeal to me, I’d narrowed my list to the 30 or more lagers and darker ale styles. During the three hours of the event’s evening session, I managed to sample 20 different beers, many of which were new recipes and not ready for prime time (evidently that’s a thing with craft breweries?). At the VIP tent, where you paid more for the privilege of standing in line waiting to sample these questionable beers, my pours — a “blonde” stout, by Bangor Beer Co., aptly named Derailed, and Sebago Brewing’s Czech pilsner, Yellow On Friday — got dumped after a few sips. That said, the safari-like excitement of hunting down exotic brews made the experience worthwhile.
I was grateful that the festival brought beers from all over the state to my backyard. My top three picks all came from small breweries well beyond the Greater Portland area.
Laughing Loon Lager, by Oak Pond Brewery (Skowhegan). A perfect Munich Dünkle, Oak Pond’s Laughing Loon Lager was, hands down, the best beer of the evening. Sampled after imbibing a series of sub-par brews, this one practically jumped me. Its smooth taste and sleek texture made my eyes widen in a Holy cow, this one’s awesome! moment. If you want one of these, you’ll have to visit the brewery’s tap room or hit a store or pub in the Skowhegan area for a 22 oz. bottle — Oak Pond doesn’t yet distribute beyond their region. It’s well worth the trip to find this hidden gem.
Teleporter, by The Pour Farm (Union). Made with a mix of traditional porter hops (fuggles and East Kent golding), the fact there’s nothing “fancy” about this beer is a large part of its considerable appeal, and its low ABV makes it all the more drinkable. This nanobrewery is tucked up on Crawfordsburn Lane, off Route 131, so if you’re leaf-peeping in the Midcoast this fall, be sure to stop into The Pour Farm for a cold one.
Pemaquid Ale, by Sheepscot Valley Brewing Company (Whitefield). I’m a sucker for Scottish ales done right, and this one nails it. Sheepscot Valley’s Pemaquid Ale has the comforting balance of flavors and slightly bready feel that’ll make you want to sit around quoting Robert Burns all night. This tiny brewery does have some distribution in southern Maine, so keep an eye out for their bottles and growlers in local shops, and keep a copy of “Tam o’ Shanter” handy.