Fresh Growth

Banded Brewing builds a beer around foraged spruce tips–and gathers a community around local, experimental flavors.

Fresh Growth

Banded Brewing builds a beer around foraged spruce tips–and gathers a community around local, experimental flavors.

Issue: October 2019

By: Katherine Gaudet
Photography by: Ben Macri

Each spring, around the time you’re ready to say out loud that winter is really over, the spruce trees put out their new growth: soft, bright green clusters of needles at the end of each dark and prickly branch. Along with fiddleheads and daffodils, spruce tips herald the new season. They also signal a rite of spring for the staff of Banded Brewing in Biddeford: the annual gathering of hundreds of pounds of spruce tips. In the first weeks of summer they’ll be boiled, fermented, and carbonated, finally finding final expression in Greenwarden, one of the company’s most popular seasonal beers.

“Maine just got it right away,” says Ian McConnell, who started Banded with his cousin, Ron Graves, in 2013. Not every beer drinker likes the idea of spruce as a flavoring (“Connecticut isn’t sure what to think of it yet,” McConnell says), but today’s Maine beer scene is interested in experiments—especially when they involve local ingredients. “Banded strikes me as part of the start of the third wave of breweries in Maine,” says Josh Christie, the author of Maine Beer: Brewing in Vacationland (and co-owner of Portland’s Print bookstore). The first wave, he says, began in the late 1980s and focused on English-style ales. A decade later saw new companies “bringing different styles of beer into Maine, with more people coming from established breweries to open their own.” The third wave—the present—sees breweries “less beholden to one particular style. They seem to do a little of everything, and chase these interesting new flavors.”

McConnell left his native Maine for New York in 2007 (his then-girlfriend, Celia Blue Johnson, was working in publishing there). He got an internship at Brooklyn’s Sixpoint Brewery, where he met Redmond and eventually worked his way up to the head brewer position. It was a good place for a brewer of an experimental bent. “In the early days of Sixpoint we had a series called the Mad Scientist series. All the brewers would come together and make these beers that were somehow esoteric or using a strange ingredient that hadn’t been done before, something we wanted to try,” he recalls. “Spruce tips were a great excuse to come to Maine. It made sense to me as something I could source from Maine, something I could forage. I didn’t expect it to taste as good as it did, but it worked really, really well.” The spruce contributes a woodsy spirit, but the taste is refreshingly sweet and bright.

Greenwarden starts out like all beers, with malted grain being milled, steeped in hot water, and strained out. (In Banded’s case, the spent barley is sent to a farm in Baldwin, where it feeds cows.) The liquid, called wort, is then boiled for about an hour. This is when hops—and in this case, fresh spruce tips—are added, so that their bitter, citrusy flavors can infuse the beer before it’s fermented, carbonated, and bottled.

Hops have been used in European beer since the Middle Ages. Beer can be brewed without them—when it’s flavored with herbs and spices instead it’s called a gruit—but hops have antimicrobial properties, so beer made with them lasts longer, and became more common as a result. When European settlers were trying to brew beer in early New England, says Christie, they turned to spruce. “Hops needed to be cultivated and didn’t travel all that well. They used spruce as a bittering agent, in place of where the hops would be, with molasses, which they had access to because of sugar processing in the South, as a fermentable sugar instead of malted barley.” There are recipes for spruce beer in colonial-era cookbooks and records of spruce beer rations for the colonial military. Yards Brewing Company in Philadelphia sells a spruce and molasses beer based on a recipe in Benjamin Franklin’s records. Banded’s version, however, is an entirely modern beer. “The base of Greenwarden is a pale ale, one of the most commonly brewed beers out there,” says Sean Sullivan, executive director of the Maine Brewers’ Guild. “What makes the beer special is that the resinous spruce tips are able to really come forward on top of the pale ale, highlighting the ingredient in a great example of brewing expertise.”

By the time the Mad Scientist spruce beer was launched, the McConnells, by then married and parents of a toddler, were getting ready to leave New York. “I couldn’t wait to get back to Maine,” says McConnell. From afar, he’d seen signs of a new movement in Maine beer—the opening of Novare Res Bier Cafe in Portland, the launch of breweries like Rising Tide and Maine Beer Company. “I thought the iron was hot to start an operation here. I could see this awesome wave coming.” By the end of 2013, McConnell and Graves had opened Biddeford’s first brewery, renting space in a former textile mill. “I came to Biddeford because the real estate was awesome,” says McConnell. “The building has so much character. Something in me didn’t want to be in a metal and concrete industrial park.” A Kickstarter campaign raised the funds to build a tasting room with reclaimed wood from the mill building in 2013, and it’s since been expanded into a full tap room, with long pine tables, pinball and video games, and a well-curated menu of snacks and sandwiches.

Banded’s timing was fortuitous. Maine—the birthplace of Prohibition—is becoming a friendlier place to make and sell beer. A decade ago, Maine breweries couldn’t sell beer on site; visitors could only take tours and try free samples. In recent years, Maine’s legislators have passed a number of laws that make it easier to buy and sell beer brewed in Maine. Governor Janet Mills made the brewing industry one of her campaign priorities, and this summer signed legislation to raise the size of breweries that can self-distribute their products (larger ones have to use a state-approved wholesaler). Most important to the success of Banded Brewing were law changes in 2009 and 2011 that made it legal for breweries to sell growlers and enabled them to charge for samples—in other words, to sell drinks. These new rules made tasting rooms possible. “It was a major game-changer,” says McConnell. “Otherwise it’s hard for a brewery this size. We wouldn’t be able to stay afloat if we had to rely on selling wholesale.”

Beyond shoring up breweries’ business models, tasting rooms let them play a new role in their communities. McConnell chose the brewery’s original name, Banded Horn, because “I really liked the idea of being banded together, the symbolism of drinking horns—the ceremonial vessel that represents celebration and drinking together.” While the horn was dropped from the name last year, the Banded tap room has been from the beginning a celebration of community gathering, hosting monthly game nights and comedy shows, an annual Christmas sing-along, and weekly Neighborhood Nights that feature local businesses. “As soon as we opened the tap room, we got really great support from the locals. From day one, we’ve been a place for townies to hang out, and also for out-of-town people to stop when coming through. We’ve been on the vanguard of Biddeford’s resurgence. I don’t take credit for it—we were at the right place at the right time.”

Sean Sullivan of the Maine Brewers’ Guild sees the success of Banded Brewing as representative of what beer can do for Maine. “We’re proud that the Maine beer industry is able to attract a younger demographic to Maine,” he says. “The community gathering space Banded built in Biddeford is a really good example of the types of places people seek when they come to our state.” (Biddeford in particular, he notes, has the youngest population in the state, and is a growing hub for craft beer lovers.)

The Banded crew takes a break from harvesting to enjoy their favorite brews.

On the day I visit the brewery to interview McConnell and Redmond, I swing through the tap room on my way out. It’s a sweltering July afternoon, and the pine tables are filling up with cheerful groups and growing collections of empty glasses. It’s a big day for the lighter beers—the classic Pepperell pilsner; Wicked Bueno, the Mexican-style lager; and Petit Bière, a French-style saison (and my personal favorite). But a family group that’s been vacationing in the area for decades came specifically for Greenwarden, which they’d read about online. “It tastes like you’re in the woods,” says Tom Cordeau of Connecticut, who is there with his sons and daughter-in-law, visiting from Seattle and California.

We’re not in the woods, but we’re very much in Maine: in a 200-year-old mill, feet from modern stainless-steel brewing equipment, breathing in the slightly sour, slightly funky scent of Maine vegetation being transformed into our version of the celebratory drinking horn. The room is full of Mainers who have stayed and who have gone away, summer people who have always come back. Greenwarden is a taste of Maine’s special legacy: of history and of the present, of local ingredients and international traditions, of the bright green growth on the deep-rooted spruce.

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