Maine’s First Gluten-Free Brewery Takes Flight in Biddeford
Since opening in August 2021, Lucky Pigeon has delivered artfully crafted ales that refuse to compromise on flavor.
Pidge clanks a pint glass out from beneath the bar and sets it under a tap. Cascading golden liquid fills the shapely glassware. A frothy head of tiny bubbles settles at the lip. She places the pint in front of a man perched at the corner of the bar. They exchange a smile, as if they’ve shared a secret. “That’s Chris,” Pidge says to me, motioning to the man now sipping the head off his IPA. “He was our first regular customer. Comes in every Friday. He always tells us how grateful he is that he can drink beer again.” Without missing a beat, she clicks on the tasting room lights and raises the music on the speakers. Lucky Pigeon Brewing Company in Biddeford is officially open for the weekend.
Lucky Pigeon is Maine’s first dedicated gluten-free brewery, and only the second in New England. While Kathleen Pigeon, affectionately called “Pidge” by all who meet her, pours beer for eager patrons drifting into the tasting room, she takes me through the brewery’s origin. Lucky Pigeon is the passion project of two couples: Nic and Lesley Bramer plus Lesley’s sister, Beverly Pigeon, and Beverly’s wife, Pidge. While the four were vacationing together six years ago in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, Pidge started dreaming out loud about opening a gluten-free brewery. A longtime beer lover and homebrewer, she’d recently discovered she had an intolerance to gluten; she still hadn’t found a beer that both tasted good to her palate and didn’t cause her physical discomfort. Nic asked if she was serious about her dream. She was. This conversation set the two couples on a journey of researching commercial gluten-free breweries, attending a national brewing conference, and scouring the homebrewing internet communities for tips, all of which resulted in the opening of Lucky Pigeon Brewing Company in August 2021.
Our conversation is cut short by a patron ordering two four-packs to go. She explains they are for her husband, who has given up gluten for health reasons. Lucky Pigeon’s is the only gluten-free beer he enjoys. When the customer leaves, I ask Pidge if that happens a lot: people expressing gratitude for palatable gluten-free beer. “At least once a shift someone will share a story like that,” she says. “Some people have even gotten teary. One customer told me he hadn’t had a beer in 20 years.” Pidge explains she frequently observes patrons interacting with one another, bonding over stories of gluten-free life. “We’re building this community in ways I didn’t expect,” she says.
When I ask about sourcing certified gluten-free ingredients that fit the flavor profile of traditional beer grains, Pidge admits there are challenges. Knowing how dangerous it can be for someone with a severe gluten allergy, like celiac disease, to ingest gluten, the owners at Lucky Pigeon meticulously scrutinize every step in the supply chain to guarantee their ingredients don’t contain gluten. They even have to be careful that the yeast they source isn’t grown on a medium with gluten. As a result, the ingredients Lucky Pigeon uses in its mash are three times more expensive than those used by traditional breweries. Regardless, the team of owners is vigilant about keeping the cost of their beer competitive with barley-based brews.
To ensure their beer meets the high expectations of modern craft beer drinkers—gluten-free and otherwise—Lucky Pigeon hired head brewer Scott Nebel. Clad in Carhartt bib overalls, Nebel leaves his post at the seven-barrel brewing system to join Pidge and me at the tasting room bar. With nine years of brewing experience split between Sebago Brewing Company and Maine Beer Company, Nebel was excited for the challenge of brewing with gluten-free ingredients. “Brewing isn’t easy, and making a great beer is hard,” the bearded Nebel laughs, “but when I came here, brewing with barley suddenly seemed easy.” After he signed on with Lucky Pigeon, Pidge dropped off her five-gallon homebrew system to Nebel’s Portland apartment, where he got to work experimenting with a new lineup of ingredients, including millet, rolled oats, rice, and buckwheat. “The goal from the start was to brew clean, drinkable beer people love,” Nebel states.
And so far that’s exactly what he’s done. During my visit I sample the four beers available on draft. Rock Dove is a 6.5 percent IPA loaded with hop notes of mango and grapefruit. The malt finish has the smooth characteristic of a craft IPA, with no off-notes or flavors that don’t fit the profile of an American-style hoppy ale. The blonde ale, Eclectus, is a bright, crushable beer offering a clean tasting experience from nose to finish. Columbidae offers a straight-ahead approach to an American ale with a pronounced malt finish. And Little Brown Job, Nebel’s take on an English-style brown ale, has rich notes of caramel and brown sugar with a velvety mouthfeel. The first compliment I’ll pay to this lineup of beer is that it tastes like, well, beer. Pidge notes that plenty of customers have finished a flight before they even realized they were drinking gluten-free beer.
Nebel wants to continue to push the bounds of gluten-free beer in Lucky Pigeon’s oeuvre. He’s currently working on an American stout and a Belgian ale. The goal in the coming months is to fill all ten taps behind the bar with different beer styles.
As the tasting room continues to fill, co-owner Lesley Bramer strides through the repurposed mill space. She hangs her jacket behind the bar and sets to work washing dirty pint glasses. Pidge tells me Lesley just flew in from Maryland, where she and her husband, Nic, live. Once a week, either Lesley or Nic flies into Portland Jetport and taxis to the Biddeford brewery to help run the tasting room for the weekend. Lesley smiles at a customer as she fills a pint glass with brown ale. She doesn’t look tired; in fact, she’s glowing. I ask how she manages a full-time job, kids, and regular trips up the Eastern seaboard. The frequent voyages to Maine are only temporary, the Ellsworth native explains, but they all agreed they need to happen to get Lucky Pigeon off the ground. Lesley also notes how gratifying it’s been to build this dream with the other three owners and to serve beer to a population that’s been longing for good beer for too long.
Before I leave the Lucky Pigeon team to tend to the demands of the swelling tasting room throng, I ask how they chose the downtown Biddeford location, just around the corner from Banded Brewing in the Pepperell Mill. “When you step out onto Main Street you feel an energy. It’s tangible,” Pidge says. She pauses and looks down at her forearms, then adds, “I get goose bumps talking about it.”
Pushing out into the dark fall night, I feel it—the energy. It’s a vitality made only more palpable by the addition of Lucky Pigeon Brewing Company and its carefully crafted gluten-free beer.
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