The Resurrection of Marshall Wharf Brewing Company
When new owners reopened the landmark Belfast brewery late last year, they rescued more than just its celebrated beers.
In April 2019 Kathleen Dunckel and Dan Waldron were heartbroken. The owners of Marshall Wharf Brewing Company, David and Sarah Carlson, had announced they were closing the brewery and adjacent Three Tides bar and restaurant. After years of battling rising sea levels and storm surges due to climate change, the Carlsons could no longer combat the continuous flooding that plagued the waterfront brewery.
As longtime Belfast residents and friends of the Carlsons, Dunckel and Waldron feared not only the loss of Marshall Wharf’s bold ales like Pemaquid Oyster Stout, brewed with fresh Maine oysters, and the legendary (and dangerously drinkable) 9-percent-ABV Cant Dog Double IPA. They were also facing the closing of a Belfast institution.
“Marshall Wharf is an anchor to our community,” Dunckel muses in an empty tasting room on the cold December day when I visit. Since opening in 2007, Marshall Wharf has served as a gathering place for local residents to celebrate birthday parties, anniversaries, and holidays.
When it was announced that the brewery was going to public auction in January 2020, Dunckel, formerly a professor of landscape ecology at Unity College, and Waldron began brainstorming how they could buy Marshall Wharf. After feverish months of securing financing and finalizing contracts, the couple purchased the brewery building and property along with both businesses—Marshall Wharf and Three Tides Bar and Restaurant—just days before the auction date.
Waldron joins us in the tasting room after finishing a conversation with the bartender, who is changing out a kicked keg. Although the cozy indoor tasting room is closed, the outdoor beer garden, recently equipped with temporary plexiglass walls and a corrugated roof to cut down on coastal winds, remains open. It’s a Friday afternoon, and despite winter weather and a pandemic, craft beer lovers have shown up with their puffy jackets, face masks, and insatiable thirst for Marshall Wharf beer.
Sporting a thick black sweatshirt and a winter hat, Waldron, a former bartender at Three Tides, takes me through the process of making the brewery flood-resilient. “We spent five months renovating the building before we could brew beer,” he says. Along with modifications to secure the building against tidal waters, the long-neglected circa-1900 structure needed a new heating system, electrical work, and a boiler. The long-term plan to compensate for the rising sea levels is to raise the entire structure eight feet.
As co-owner of White Cap Builders, Waldron explains that having a construction team on hand to do the work was essential to purchasing Marshall Wharf. Although the building is still prone to taking on water during high tide, the brewing system is now secure from seawater.
After hearing about the journey to purchase the brewery and secure the building, I ask the question that’s been tugging at me since I pulled in to Belfast: Who’s the brewer responsible for maintaining the legacy of Marshall Wharf?
“Let me get Kevin,” Waldron says, disappearing into the brewery.
“We’ve been drinking his beer for years,” Dunckel explains, as her husband returns with Kevin Spigel, their gregarious, energetic head brewer. Spigel has been homebrewing for over 20 years. While the term “homebrewing” may conjure images of off-color wort boiling on a kitchen stove, Spigel’s home set-up is close to a commercial system.
What stands out in speaking to Spigel is his deep understanding of the science of brewing, which squares with his background as a former professor at Unity College, where he first met Dunckel. He takes meticulous notes on each batch of beer, paying careful attention to the minutiae of the brewing process to ensure that the original recipes live up to the standards beer lovers have come to expect from the Belfast brewery. “The plan is to continue brewing the old recipes while creating new beers that fit in with the original lineup,” Spigel explains.
Leading me out to the beer garden, Dunckel recalls how, when they first opened to the public last August, the outpouring from the community was overwhelming. “Once we opened we were slammed,” she says. “A couple of people even got teary-eyed when they came in—I did, too.”
Inevitably, Dunckel and Waldron are pulled away from our conversation by the demands of running a business, leaving me to drift to the bar to order a flight of beer. I choose two original Marshall Wharf brews (Cant Dog Double IPA and Coughing Dog Coffee Porter) and two of Spigel’s new additions to the brewery’s oeuvre (Booty Shake Milkshake IPA and Brass Nipple Rye IPA).
When I sit down at a socially distanced table with my flight, as if by kismet, the house speakers click on with a Sam Cooke song. Firewood pops and crackles in the two woodstoves heating the beer garden. Out on Belfast Bay, seagulls dive for baitfish, and lobster boats undulate next to floating docks. I sip the clean, beautiful beer from my tasting glass, convinced that one of Maine’s most beloved breweries and beer destinations is safe in the loving hands of its new caretakers.