Maine Beer Co: New England Before New England Was Cool
Maine Beer Company’s most exotic beer style is a coffee stout, and it is not regularly considered among the fraternity of white-hot New England breweries. It has nevertheless quietly built a reputation for making some of the best beer in the region.
Travelers along Maine’s coastal Route 1 pass an innocuous white building just south of Freeport; it might either be a small barn or a Shaker meeting house. Those who recognize it as a brewery and stop in will find a cozy little tasting room and a taplist that is anything but racy; in late November, they had two pale ales, three IPAs, two stouts, and a red ale pouring. This is typical. The brewery is currently making just 17 beers, and they’ve made fewer than fifty beers in the decade they’ve been around, an astonishingly small figure (most breweries will make more in a single year). For all outward appearances, it looks like any of the dozens of breweries dotting the countryside, each happily making workmanlike beer in unimaginative styles.
On the other hand, this brewery, Maine Beer Company, is also one of the most well-regarded breweries in a region bristling with buzz breweries. In fact, according to the various ratings sites, its beers are either the state’s best or second-best—impressive in a place with Allagash and Bissell Brothers, the reigning hazy kings. It is these contrasts—and more—that make this one of the country’s most interesting breweries.
David and Dan Kleban have one of the more we’ll-known backstories in beer. They tend to put the emphasis on their previous careers in finance (David) and law (Dan), but sifting through the details of their early days, I find something more telling than their previous career tracks. As the were drawn ever more firmly into beer’s orbit, the Klebans focused their homebrewing energy on perfecting one beer, a pale ale. This is unusual. Every homebrewer I’ve known goes the other direction first, trying to make as many styles as possible before going back to develop mastery. When they ultimately launched the brewery, that beer, Peeper Pale Ale, was what Maine Beer Co sold—and it’s still one of their workhorses.
MBC’s motto is “do what’s right,” but their actual mission is closer to “do it right.” Their approach isn’t wild improvisation, but refinement. This doesn’t seem very edgy until you taste their beers. On a different Maine visit, I recently discovered how high the floor in American brewing has become—there’s so much more good beer in the country than there ever. But the ceiling for superlative beer, particularly in simple, straightforward styles, is elusive as it’s ever been. Making an exceptional pale ale, one that lodges in the memory and sparks longing—that remains a truly rare beer. We don’t typically think of that as creative when describing beer (and certainly not innovative), and yet mastery is the key to accomplishment. The process they used on Peeper is evident in their other beers, which, for all the ways in which they seem old-school and understated, are so fully realized.
New England Before New England Was Cool
What we now identify as “New England IPA” was effectively nonexistent when the Klebans launched MBC in 2009. The Alchemist’s Heady Topper was being made in small amounts and constituted the entire category. (Time compresses when we look backward, and even I was surprised to see how recent the phenomenon is.)
That’s why, in 2011, when MBC introduced their Lunch IPA, it sailed a bit under the radar. At the time, pairing the terms New England and IPA would have called to mind blue and white Harpoon label and nothing much else. Lunch IPA was a huge hit for the brewery, and the companion beer, a double IPA called Dinner, did spark the kind of excitement now common outside the doors at Tree House and Hill Farmstead when it arrived in 2014.
But despite the brewery’s proximity to the hazy revolution, MBC was never seen as a canonical member of the fraternity. Indeed, my own confusion at the start of the trend resulted from having been drinking Lunch for a half decade by the time it arrived. Lunch is hazy, but not at the outer limits for what we were seeing elsewhere, and it was characterized by that saturated hoppiness that defines all modern IPAs.
Dinner helped put Maine Beer closer to that nexus of hype, and those two have fueled growth for the brewery even during a slowdown nationally. But there’s an older strain of New England in MBC, and this may be why it was never lumped in with the newer hazy houses. New England has historically made beers not far separated from old England—maltier, darker pub ales. It seems clear that the brothers see themselves as much in that lineage, and they have a slate well balanced porters, stouts, ambers, and red ales. These aren’t throwaway beers, either—they demonstrate the same careful refinement seen in the IPAs. Mean Old Tom, an American stout, is the standout here—a truly exceptional beer. (It was named for an actual person, the brothers’ uncle, a motorcycle guy who donated the beer can collection displayed above the bar.)
Three Breweries, a Centrifuge, and a Lab
Maine Beer Co quickly moved from a nanobrewery to a 15-barrel kit, which the brewery used until it bought a new, largely automated 60-barrel GEA brewhouse in 2017. They still own and use the 15-barrel system and also have a little half-barrel nanobrewery for test batches. All of this gives MBC capacity for 65,000 barrels, but it just made 17,000 barrels last year and is expanding slowly. In one key way, MBC is following (or has led) the trends in New England in which they sell at a premium price point. At the brewery, 500 ml bottles—with stark, white labels, which have become the brewery’s central branding element—go for six bucks each. Even draft pours at the brewery are at the upper range of expense.
I managed to get a brief tour on my visit in Freeport, and there are a few surprising facts to note about MBC. One is that they own a centrifuge, which they use on theirpale ales and IPAs. (Those beers are not even close to bright, and it made we wonder what un-centrifuged Lunch would look like.) Next, they not only have a lab, unusual for a brewery this size, but three (!) dedicated lab staff. They also have a sensory program led by Brooke Porter to ensure quality of all the beer going out. This isn’t a new part of the process that came along with the bigger brewery, either—it’s a part of that deliberative, “do it right” approach. Many breweries talk about their commitment to quality, but few put this many resources into ensuring it.
The brewery building is in the midst of a further renovation that will expand the taproom into what was formerly the brewery. (The brewery is now located in an addition onto the rear of the building.) On the day we visited, things hadn’t gotten very far along. There will be a giant bar along one side of the building and a large fountain—though I can’t entirely envision what they’re shooting for there. (In the picture below, you can see its outline in those circular wooden struts.) It’s now a great place to stop in for a beer an a bottle to go, but there’s not much room—this will make it more of a destination stop.
It’s an interesting moment to be a New England brewery. MBC is increasingly known as a place to find great IPAs, but the brewery isn’t planning on changing course or reproducing the taproom-and-can-sale model of the most-hyped breweries. In fact, they’re resisting cans altogether and sticking with their German-sourced half-liter bottles. Yet hops are in the Klebans’ blood, so they will continue to remain trend-adjacent. I expect we’ll continue to see very slow rollouts of new beers, ones that will have the characteristic, carefully-composed layers of flavor found in the other MBC pales and IPAs. This probably means they’ll stay outside the white-hot center of fashion, but still continue to inspire devotion among locals who have made them perhaps the state’s favorite brewery.
When I spoke to Dan a couple years ago for an article about hops, he gave me some excellent insight about the way breweries are making modern IPAs. But he also said something that, in light of my visit, seems less general and more specific to the MBC way. I asked how easy it was to compose beers with the flavors of different hop varieties. He told me:
“Rarely or ever does it end up working out that way. It’s not like you can add one pine and one part citrus and come up with a half-pine, half-citrus blend. The very nature of the flavors themselves change. So when you add half pine and half floral, it can create this unique flavor that isn’t reminiscent of pine or floral. You only learn through trial and error. You never really know what the outcome will be until the beer has been made because flavors have been created that you couldn’t possibly have imagined when you combine the hops together. You’ll be in the same ballpark, but it’s not a perfect mathematical formula. That’s why it’s an art. You learn through experience which ones work together and which ones don’t.”
Trial and error, the slow refinement of the flavors—this isn’t the way every American thinks about making beer. But it’s the Maine Beer Company way, a way that seems even more unusual in a market defined by novelty and churn. If you happen to be driving north on Maine’s Route one, be sure to stop in and see it for yourself.