Revisiting Beers that Launched Maine’s Brew Revolution
From Geary’s Pale Ale to Allagash White, these heritage beers paved the way for the craft beer movement in the Pine Tree State.
Built on innovation and upheaval, the craft beer revolution of the twenty-first century rarely looks backward. That’s why we love it. Brewers are on an endless quest to experiment with cutting-edge hop strains, wild yeast fermentation, and specialty ingredients to satiate the sophisticated palates of the modern beer drinker. Craft beer has become a field beloved for its creativity, a place where avant-garde brewers become industry rock stars one provocative ale at a time. And nowhere is this more evident than in Maine, the state with the most breweries per capita and home to a staggering number of sought-after beers.
But in this forward-looking spin cycle of transformation and change, it’s important to take a step back from time to time and ask, “How did this all start?” In an attempt to return to the roots of brewing in Maine, I recently sampled some of the state’s heritage beers first brewed in the 1980s and ’90s. While the technologies of these breweries have become more sophisticated over the past 30 years, these beers have generally remained true to their original recipes. I went back, not only to see how these beers hold up to their latter-day successors, but also to connect myself with the foundation of this explosive industry—the way one might listen to the scratchy recordings of Blind Lemon Jefferson to better understand the Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights.”
Sitting beside my firepit beneath the late summer stars, I pop open the beer that started it all: Geary’s Pale Ale. In 1986, it was the first beer legally brewed and sold in Maine after the end of Prohibition. The squat brown bottle and brown sugar aromatics make me awash in nostalgia. Memories from the early 2000s, of camping trips and raucous nights at Bull Feeney’s in the Old Port, flood my mind. As I quaff the bottle of English ale, fresh notes of malted caramel and biscuit work over my palate with a slightly bitter finish from the subtle addition of hops. After a few sips, my tongue is coated with a pleasant, saccharine mix of brown sugar and copper. This beer is better than I remember. I get no hints of the unpleasant byproducts that can arise from the misuse of the ringwood yeast pitched in this beer. It’s hard for an antiquated British-style ale to stand up next to the juicy New England IPAs that dominate today’s market, but Geary’s Pale Ale still has a place in the industry and in my heart.
Reaching into my cooler, I next pull out a tall-neck bottle of Coal Porter from Atlantic Brewing Company. Founded in 1991 in Bar Harbor, Atlantic Brewing, like Geary’s and most early Maine breweries, focused on English-inspired ales. For years Coal Porter was my go-to dark beer in the winter, but it’s been nearly a decade since I tippled this brew. In a tasting glass, Coal Porter pours a deep blackish-brown, emitting hints of cocoa and roasted malts in the nose. My first thought after gulping from my glass: “Why don’t I drink this beer more often?” The answer, of course, is that like most craft-beer lovers I’m constantly seeking out what’s new. Drinking Coal Porter reminds me that there’s something to be said for contentment in what we love. As the beer warms in my glass, flavors of chocolate and currants become more pronounced. It has a nice dry finish that complements the roasted notes from the chocolate and black patent malts.
I toss a fresh log into the fire, and flames spark in the darkness. I settle back in my Adirondack chair and pour a sample of Frye’s Leap IPA from Sebago Brewing Company. When it was released in 1998, Frye’s Leap was the first IPA brewed in the Pine Tree State using both American hops and an American ale yeast strain. It’s the malty precursor to the American- and New England–style IPAs of today. Although Sebago Brewing has updated the recipe of Frye’s Leap by increasing the amount of centennial hops used in the boil, as well as increasing dry hopping to bring out more aromatics in the beer, this OG IPA still holds many of the same qualities it did over 20 years ago. The beer pours a clean golden hue with none of the hazy appearance of most nouveau IPAs. The aroma is a fresh interplay of orange zest and sweet notes from the malts; the tasting experience follows suit. I see no reason to dismiss older-style IPAs like Frye’s Leap simply because they don’t hit the same flavor profile as New England IPAs. This is a beer to return to as a way to understand how the American ale craze kicked off at the end of the last century.
My final beer in this sampling of Maine’s legacy brews has held its own since it was introduced in 1995. Nearly three decades later it still somehow seems daring and bold and new. When the first kegs of Allagash White hit the market, the beer left some drinkers baffled. Although I’m not old enough to have imbibed early pints of this beer, I’ve heard stories of bar patrons asking for refunds, insisting there was something wrong with the beer due to its hazy appearance and spicy flavor from the addition of coriander. I imagine it was like going to a concert in 1972 and seeing David Bowie walk out on the stage dressed as Ziggy Stardust. And like Bowie’s androgynous doppelganger, Allagash White has become a legend. Staring at my tasting glass filled with the golden liquid, I’m struck by just how modern this beer is, in almost every way. The nose and flavors are complex and clean as the orange peel and pepper notes work over the tongue. The finish is crisp and dry. It feels like it took two decades for the rest of the craft beer world to catch up to this trailblazer. Sipping from my glass as the fire wanes, I have the feeling Allagash White will hold its luster for years to come as Maine breweries continue to push at the boundaries of craft beer.
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