To bring a thoughtful end to the riotously entertaining 2nd annual Sanford Beer Week, founder Mike Smith invited four close friends to speak on their experience building a beer culture from scratch and what it has meant for their towns in the state of Maine at the inaugural Sanford-Portland Beer Summit. Joining an engaged crowd of locals at Celery City Craft were Abe and Heather Furth, founders of Orono Brewing Company and Allison Stevens and Dave Nowers, owners and operators of the Thirsty Pig in Portland, who answered questions by Sanford Homebrew Shop owner and seasoned brewer Gary Holmes.
Sitting in the courtyard watching this panel of four was a bit of a dream come true. Each of them started as young entrepreneurs with dreams of bringing people together with beer, dreams that came true and then some.
“We knew craft was up and coming when we opened our first place in 2005,” said Heather Furth, referring to Woodman’s Bar and Grill, a casual eatery that has become a staple of the small town’s business community, and that sits just a block from the Furth’s other two Orono establishments, Verve Burritos and Orono Brewing. “Maine was poised for a beer boom,” she went on to say. That boom has allowed the couple to sustain all three businesses, as well as open a second tap room for Orono Brewing in the larger city of Bangor.
Over in Portland, Allison Stevens, armed with a career planning craft beer events for companies such as Shipyard, opened the Thirsty Pig in 2010. “I had always loved doing events that no one else was doing, and of course I thought it was important to support scratch made food and the concept of craft,” she said of the venture. The restaurant and tap room focuses on mouthwatering housemade sausages crafted with local ingredients and paired with, as they put it, “the best Maine beer [they] can find”. Allison now runs the establishment with husband Dave Nowers, and has since expanded into local development and consulting services for others looking to contribute to the Portland scene.
While they may be successful now, things weren’t always sunshine and roses for the Maine crew. One of the most interesting parts of the panel was realizing that the obstacles faced by hopeful local brewers are not exclusive to Sanford, but experienced by brewers all over– albeit ten years ago.
“A lot of things we were doing pushed the envelope, and our local government wasn’t always sure how to keep up,” Alison explained. “We had to compare what we were doing to things they familiar with to keep things relative, like laundromats.”
This prompted an enthusiastic nod from moderator Gary Holmes. “It took a long time for people to understand that a brewery is more than just a beer bar. Once you tell them a brewery is a manufacturer, a place where products are made, a light bulb goes off.”
Though Heather and Abe had a generally simpler experience with their local authorities in Orono, they admit that the city officials didn’t always quite get what they were doing– and that’s okay.
“There was a lot of skepticism as we were opening our first businesses,” Heather said. “Of course, we were just kids then.”
Despite the difficulties, Abe is thankful for the help the city provided for the renovations of their multiple historic buildings, including several thousand dollars in facade grants that allowed the Furths and their partners to transform the appearance of their businesses. Abe encourages Sanford business owners to seek out and follow through with programs like this when available. “In the end, it’s totally worth the paperwork,” he said.
The Keys to a Successful Beer Scene
The panel consistently returned to the same themes: originality, quality, and community.
In an era in which people seek to share experiences more than ever before, originality is a non-negotiable item when it comes to making and selling beer. According to the panel, there’s so much more to being a patron of a local beer scene than catching a buzz.
As Dave put it, “We don’t want you to get drunk, we want you to taste what we have to offer.”
With more breweries opening every year, standing out (in a good way) is both ever more important and difficult. Allison believes the solution is to stop following other people’s trends– and get people to follow yours.
“People who come to these establishments are there for the whole package and experience,” explained Allison. “They want to see and be seen, and share the experience with people they know, and that’s part of the appeal. They’re not just buying beer they like, they are aligning themselves with the values of the breweries and becoming part of a brand’s culture.”
She went on to compare this phenomenon to sports team loyalty, in which fans wear the team’s jersey and refer to triumphs and failures using “we” as a collective pronoun.
But how does a brewery get patrons on their team, so to speak? If you ask the panel (and Gary did), you cannot compromise quality.
“Nail one thing,” Dave said. “Twenty different beers don’t make a good brewery.”
Abe gave the example of the now staple Michigan brewery, Founders. “Those guys were about to throw in the towel, and then they started brewing the beers they wanted to drink, just really good beer, and people loved it.”
All panelists agreed it’s important to carry at least one true flagship beer that is indisputably impeccable. Heather and Abe believe that focusing on quality means trusting your team.
“We gave our brewmaster freedom, because we trust him and know he’ll produce a superior product,” Heather said, though she stressed that knowledge can’t stop at the brewing.
“Staff education is so important,” she went on to say. “Teach the staff serving your beer how to talk about beer.”
At the Thirsty Pig, where Allison and Dave have ten lines of local Maine beer, and no beer stays on for more than one month, having an informed, engaged staff and incredible service is key.
“You have to pay attention to who is on premise at what time, and what they’re drinking. Sometimes your guests really know their stuff or are brewers themselves, so there’s no room for your staff to not know how to recommend or serve a beer to them,” Allison said. “We don’t need people sticking taps into the heads of beer in front of guests and not realizing it’s a huge source of contamination.”
While acquiring and mastering all of this knowledge can be daunting, the panelists agree that there’s no better way to learn than from other people in the local beer scene.
“Having homebrew shops is important,” said Abe. “They are great places to converge and learn from each other. We love being part of a community of folks who are all in and who push each other to produce their best work.”
“If nothing else, you have to be out there tasting other people’s beer,” Heather added, saying that knowing what other people are producing is both informative for a brewer’s own production, and also makes beer producers more aware of what is happening on the whole of the scene, and how their beer fits into the bigger picture.
“There’s a popular phrase that the rising tide lifts all boats, meaning that when an entire industry does well, the individual businesses also do well,” said Allison. The rising tide concept, which is popular throughout craft and maker industries, encourages businesses in the same industry to collaborate and communicate, rather than compete. Allison began Portland Beer Week to put this theory into practice.
“I said, ‘Look, I can help all of our businesses with this one centralized idea’ and it took off from there,” she said. “More breweries and beer bars working in tandem together puts an area on the map and offers guests more bang for their buck in terms of being a destination.”
Her husband Dave couldn’t agree more. “When a new place opens in our town, we try to be welcoming, and we try to really understand what each place has to offer. Not every single person who walks into our place wants what we have, so we’re happy to recommend one of our neighbors and help everyone out. We actually want people to walk to every place on the block, not just ours.”
While a collaborative and neighborly spirit means plenty of good times, that doesn’t mean that beer businesses don’t have their awkward moments, even in a successful scene. Sometimes that means giving each other feedback.
“Just be honest. You have to have the hard conversations,” Allison said. “You have to make sure your neighbors know you’re trying to help their brand because you want them to succeed, and they can’t do that if you don’t tell them they really need to clean their lines.”
Abe and Heather faced opposition from another business in their town of Orono, and insist that the best way to deal with such situations is always face-to-face.
“You have to keep relationships strong,” said Abe. “We just went to them and were honest and told them, ‘We really believe that what we’re doing will help the town and help your business in the long run.’”
With constant communication and a willingness to listen to each other, the panel said pretty much any conflict could be overcome. Abe emphasized that outlook and attitude were key to having successful relationships with other brewers and owners.
“Always stay humble, even when you’re making great beer,” he said.
The real question on everyone’s mind was: what did these beer pros think of our little town and what could we do to nurture our young beer culture?
Being from a rather chilly corner of the country, all of the panel agreed that we have a great opportunity to become a beer destination based on our location alone.
“Sanford has a lot of assets, from the walkability to these beautiful buildings. You guys really know how to do outside spaces,” said Heather, motioning to the market lighting and landscaping of Celery City. Believe it or not, in addition to the comments on walkability, there was a resounding sentiment that Sanford had an incredible amount of parking in comparison to other towns and that it was very easy to get around.
While it was clear that our scene is in its infancy in terms of developing the consistency and quality required to make a lasting impression in the beer industry, it was heartening to hear that the panel thought we were onto something big.
“Sanford has so much more soul than anywhere else I’ve been in Florida. The people here are so passionate and there’s so much excitement about what your neighbors are doing,” Allison added. Her advice was to stick to our roots. “Listen to your own voice. Genuine is huge. There is no room for mediocrity, so make it count.”
There’s no denying that beer has the power to bring people together, and it was pretty enlightening to witness the joining of the Portland beer professionals with our own local brewers and beer enthusiasts. I think everyone in the audience learned a lot and made some wonderful connections, and sincerely hope this group will consider joining us again next year!