Allagash Brewing: Beer Geeks in Paradise
Just after four o’clock on a Thursday afternoon in the Allagash Brewing Company employee room, about a dozen men in flannel shirts, hoodies, beards, and some spectacles—self-described “beer geeks”—are holding a very serious chili competition. Among them are a handful of women who, other than the beards, are of similar appearance. The walls of the room are lined with crockpots, which are labeled according to their content: game, vegetarian, beef. In the middle of the room is a narrow table, upon which sit several brown bottles of craft beer I’ve never heard of, surrounded by glasses that are rimmed with froth and mostly empty. The fridge—this will seem like an arbitrary detail, but I can’t forget it—is adorned with a picture of Cher, beneath which is written “Cher’d Fridge.” Next to the Cher’d Fridge are plastic dispensers of nuts and Skittles. Dee Dee Germain, the communications director who, in Vans slip-ons and a pearl-button vintage cowboy shirt, has just walked me around the nearly 40,000 acre brewing facility, has now shepherded me into this room on the promise that there would be free food.
Perhaps there is no way to measure the value of a beer company based merely on the tenor of that company’s employee room—or the flavor of the employees’ chili—but, even more impressive than the fact that for the last decade Allagash has experienced 40 percent annual growth and enough accolades to fill a fermentation tank, is the fact that everyone here seems to be, for lack of a better word, happy.
I know: it’s a beer company. Of course everyone’s happy. It’s also the week before Thanksgiving, so there’s that. Another thing: moments ago, when a steam whistle blew from somewhere inside the brewery and I asked Germain what it signified—assuming, perhaps, that some deeply important brewing moment had just taken place—she laughed and said it meant that “someone just got off their shift, and wants to drink beer.” Drinking at work? That would make me happy, too.
But in the last two years that I’ve been hanging around various Maine businesses—from potato farms to lobster pounds, summer camps to shipyards—I’ve never been around employees who seem to be having so much fun. It’s kind of weird, in a good way. It’s also kind of weird, also in a good way, that Germain has dropped me into this moment without giving her employees any kind of heads-up, or briefing. She didn’t handpick some cheery representative from this crew to represent Allagash’s core values, which happen to be printed across the brewery like mantras in some slightly dank-smelling temple.
And yet, in a room full of bearded men, women, empty bottles, steaming pots of chili, and a fridge with Cher’s face on it, a lot could go wrong. Already I’ve been told that the other employee get-togethers include bowling nights (pretty safe), apple crisp-offs (also pretty safe), home-brewing competitions (less safe), and an event called “Stout and Metal,” in which the employees drink lots of stout and listen to “lots of Slayer” (awesome, but not safe-sounding at all). I should have expected as much from the Allagash PR machine. Weeks ago, after I requested that we not meet with the stale backdrop of a conference room, I was promised “no conference rooms, although we have a pretty bitchin’ table in there.” (The table is in fact “bitchin’”: it’s made out of an old beer barrel, and on the day that I saw it, stood before a white board covered in flow-charty scribbly boxes and arrows, with which, Germain told me, “we had to try to explain brewing to a bunch of accountants.”)
“You want to eat?” one of the bearded, flannelled, bespectacled men asks me. Then he hands me a mug and spoon. I ask him and several others which chili is winning the competition. The answer is unanimous, if not coincidental: the White.
Ah, yes. The White. Despite the fact that Allagash brews several dozen kinds of award-winning Belgian-style beers (which utilize everything from Maine cherries and French grapes to dandelion greens and cacao nibs, and are often brewed in blended batches as well as fermented within wine and whiskey barrels), the White—that bubbling golden beer which, served in a goblet, often comes with a lemon or an orange in it—accounts for some 75 percent of Allagash’s sales. Most White that Allagash brews is consumed thousands of miles away, in sophisticated bars full of discerning types in San Francisco and Chicago who probably dream about summers in Maine in the same way that, this time of year, we dream of a weekend in Java.
What’s strange to me, though, is that back in 1998, when I tried my first Allagash White as a senior in high school—it was during the legendary ice storm, when underage drinking was all but condoned—Allagash founder Rob Tod had only been in business—and a precarious one at that—for about three years. Furthermore, the entire industry of craft beer in Maine had only been in process for just over a decade, since Geary’s and Shipyard started pushing their English ales onto the Maine palate in the mid-80s.
Now, the meteoric emergence of craft beer in our state—currently, Maine ranks sixth on our nation’s brewery-per-capita list behind Vermont, Oregon, Montana, Alaska, and Colorado—represents the crest of a much larger global wave that, by the looks of it, shows no signs of descending. According to the Brewers Association, American craft breweries last year grew at a rate of nearly 20 percent, in both sales and volume, despite the fact that craft beer comprises just a 6 percent slice of America’s $200 million beer-drinking-pie.
The smallness of that slice, though, should be taken with a grain of historical salt: 30 years ago, there were not even 50 craft breweries in America; today, there are some 2400. In Maine, those numbers are even more dramatic: with 39 craft breweries currently in operation, 2014 promises the opening of an additional 19. Some of the big names in our local industry—Oxbow, Bunker, Maine Beer Company, and Rising Tide—began as home breweries but quickly became part of what Josh Christie, author of Maine Beer: Brewing in Vacationland, calls “the scaling up” of Maine’s “third wave” of brewing. “It’s nice to see a new generation [of breweries] not just arrive, but thrive,” Christie says. “Maine has been a great place for beer lovers for three decades, but the quality of, variety of, and access to great beer we have today is just unprecedented.”
Prior to Maine’s craft beer revolution, our state had been drinking mass-produced, hugely distributed beer—Bud, Miller, Coors, etc.—that was brewed far from home, for most of the last century. This followed, more or less, the days of Maine’s fledgling era of Prohibition—an era that came some 70 years before the federal Prohibition era and is perhaps the least boast-worthy of all the “as Maine goes…” claims.
But, while walking back through the Allagash brewery past a door that reads: “Innovation: Continually pushing the limits of beer and ourselves,” I can’t help but feel that some magic has happened here that, if not found in the chili, must be hiding in that little sugar-hut-looking koelschip building built off the back of the brewery. There, shrouded in clouds of sweaty steam and fed by locally sourced and totally free yeast that comes through church-like stained glass windows near the ceiling, the brown syrupy wort will be fermented and aged for another two years before being sold in little batches that usually sell out in a couple of days.
A few weeks later, after the first major snowstorm of the winter, I return to the Allagash Brewing Company to sit down with Rob Tod. Boyish, with an aw-shucks humility about his success, Tod is the kind of person who, either because he’s too humble or just not paying much attention to the outside world, doesn’t have a whole lot to say about why he thinks his beer is so successful.
Immediately, Tod reminds me that when he started Allagash in 1995, he was “anything but the first” show in town. At the time, Tod recalls, there were 20-something other breweries in the state—about half of which have since closed down—but because the landscape of Maine’s brewing industry was still very unknown, everyone “was kind of doing their own thing.”
“You had to be a little bit crazy back then,” Tod says. “You had to have a love of beer, but you also the kind of person who really liked making things.”
As a one-man show, Tod spent six hours one Christmas morning fixing a glycol pump, and then, later that night, went back at it for another six. “For about ten years,” he says, “I had to fix all that shit myself. I guess back then it just came with the territory.”
But during the period that I encountered my first Allagash, Tod wasn’t sure that even his original—and grossly underestimated—vision of employing seven or eight people to produce 150 barrels or so a year was going to be sustainable. “For about 12 years,” he told me, “we weren’t selling a whole lot of beer.” Despite being “blessed” with a perfect water source in Sebago Lake, Portland—from a distribution perspective—probably wasn’t the most strategic place to set up shop. When I ask him why, then, he came to Maine to brew, he shrugs and says, “I guess I just wanted to live here.”
To keep his beer in the public eye, Tod “spent a lot of time in town,” getting to know local restaurant staff, buying his beer for people at bars who were only familiar with mass market brands or English ales. He credits places like Three Dollar Deweys and Great Lost Bear for being “totally essential” in putting his beer in front of customers. “I still have no idea why they did that,” he jokes.
Then, Tod shows me a book that he keeps under the glass-topped bar in the lobby, a space that, in addition to a new brewing room, was part of a 9,100 square foot expansion in 2012. Will Anderson published The Great State of Maine Beer Book in 1995, and offered what, then, was a brief history of the Maine craft beer movement. The brewers themselves—listed extensively in a section entitled “The New Brewers”—wear pleated pants, big glasses, open flannels, and baggy, tucked-in button downs, and look like they come from a very different decade indeed; the labels of their beers are oddly earnest compared to the stylized labels of Bunker and Oxbow and Maine Beer Company which, adorned with bold, tattoo-like art and clean lettering, reflect a more self-conscious, image-savvy awareness of branding. Pointing to images of old friends and brewers, most of whom have vanished from the craft beer landscape, he takes stock of all who remain. “Gone,” he says “They’re not here, either. These guys shut down a few years ago. And these guys? Long gone.”
When I ask Tod why his beer company has endured when others have failed, he just shrugs rather than offering some self-empowering zinger. It’s winter, and there are no tours of the plant scheduled this time of year, and it’s a time when Tod and his chili-eating, stout-drinking, Slayer-listening, apple-crisp cooking, home beer brewing, fridge-Chering staff can look within themselves a bit and figure out how to get better at doing what they do: being more philanthropic in the community, being more environmentally sustainable, brewing better and more inventive beer. Tod, hunched over, looks around the empty lobby. “This year, we decided to scale back, and kind of look inside. We’ve only grown by 25 percent, and it’s been really nice for everyone,” he tells me. I ask him why he decided to scale back when, as a general rule, the goal of most successful businesses is to grow. Recently, Allagash found its way on the list of America’s top 50 selling breweries. (Shipyard was the only other Maine brewery on that list.)
“I guess we never wanted to be a mile wide and an inch thick,” he says.
Before leaving, I ask him if there’s anyone in particular he wants me to talk to here. Typically, this question elicits a deeply engineered answer from a founder of a company.
But Tod looks at me like I’ve got four heads. “Yeah, sure,” he says, looking through the glass walls of his brewery. “I don’t care. You can talk to whoever the fuck you want!” We shake hands, then Tod stands, walks back into the brewery and gets back to work.
Allagash Brewing Co. | 50 Industrial Way | Portland | 207.878.5385 | allagash.com