On the outskirts of Portland, Maine lies a quaint industrial facility comprised of 12 garage bays fit for one medium-sized vehicle each. The bays are coupled off and interspersed between each pair are office spaces that make prison cells look like penthouses.
With six garage spaces per each oblong facade, the building has become a haven for the more craft-minded of Portland’s citizenry. In fact, it’s occupancy has become predominantly small-scale breweries and tasting rooms, the likes of which would make misanthrope Frank Gallagher of Showtime’s Shameless salivate.
“Small-scale” as a description for these scrappy upstarts perhaps lends an exaggerated perspective to the size of these breweries. They rarely have more than three or four beers on tap, can fit just a handful of picnic tables or waist-high casks for sitting and standing, and are barely able to reserve a corner or two for peddling brand merchandise.
Separately each brewery operates in a distinguishing manner that echoes their own respective product and culture, but together they’ve established a cooperative that mutually benefits their business and beer enthusiasts alike.
Foundation was offering five different suds in 4oz and 10oz form: Afterglow, a citrusy IPA; Bedrock, a rich and chocolaty porter; Eddy, a mildly juicy saison with notes of spice; Forge, a malty stout; and Epiphany, the top seller. A line of thirsty customers snaked out the door and once inside had little elbow room to comfortably meander around to find a place to idle, beer-in-hand.
Austin Street had its Patina Pale Ale on draught, another fruity concoction with a smooth body. Located on the other side of the building from Foundation, a minute jaunt door-to-door, Austin Street boasted similarly tight seating with the exception of an outdoor bench and pair of folding chairs, the view from which was ruggedly Maine — a thick lining of coniferous trees encompassing a parking lot occupied chiefly by pick up trucks.
Next door to Foundation is Bissell Brothers, and though I went from Foundation to Austin Street (I had one each of the Eddy, Bedrock and Patina Pale) and skipped over Bissell Brothers it appeared to enjoy a lively outdoor scene with a counter to stand at and tables to sit.
During afternoon and evening hours, food trucks set up to provide succulent dishes to further pique the palate while providing the service of sopping up excess alcohol.
This microcosm of Portland is greatly reflective of its people and its cityscape. Customers represent a constituency that yearns for genuine, homemade products not exclusive to alcoholic beverages. That these breweries are willing to set up shop in gritty, artifactual remnants of the city’s industrial heritage is indicative of Portland’s seamless melding of old buildings and new; a maintained way of life with the twist of keeping an eye toward the future.
For example, a leisurely stroll through the Old Port District yields an eclectic view of colonial- and industrial-era brick and concrete buildings with intricately carved facades, pitched gables and emblazoned cornerstones proudly bearing date of a structure’s conception.
The architecture of Portland’s epicenter spills out into the neighborhoods further inland, providing residential areas with spacey farmhouses and lofty Victorian dwellings.
The success of these breweries, and Portland’s persona as an artisanal enclave is also evidenced by the fact that each member of this boozy triumvirate is growing. Foundation is looking to expand in its current situation, Austin Street is welcoming a larger brewhouse, and Bissell Brothers is relocating to a more spacious spot.
They’re also feeding off the success of the more widely distributed and well-known Allagash Brewing Company, literally right across a single lane street from the microbreweries.
To best characterize the present state and vibe of Portland, one need only consider the craft movement sweeping across New England at breakneck speed.
The boutiques, bars, restaurants and cafes occupying the ground floor of many of Portland proper’s brick-and-beam buildings provide products created, brewed, grown, or roasted at the local level.
On seemingly every narrow road are coffeehouses teeming with single origin beans roasted just a stone’s throw from where they’re sold, or a series of window galleries displaying the latest artistry of Maine College of Art’s student body, or a tavern setting with Maine-based beers and seafood pulled off the Commercial Street docks just a few short blocks down toward Casco Bay.
This notion of craft production extends well beyond the commercial products being bought and sold around the craggy coast of Maine. It’s embedded in the souls of its inhabitants, who took a simple idea of wanting the most authentic, sentimental and multidimensional items for themselves and others to perpetually enjoy.
Subsequently this phenomenon has created a number of sub-communities in which people are comfortably entrenched but can also move in and out of with relative ease.
After taste testing the offerings at Foundation, Austin Street and Allagash, my troupe, comprised of two artists, a mathematician and this aspiring writer, drove to Rising Tide Brewing Company, which just closed down minutes prior. Closer to downtown, Rising Tide is likewise nestled in an industrial garage, next door to a homespun micro-distillery, and its interior is set up like the aforementioned trio — a draught list you can count on one hand, a string of standing tables, and a recently minted bar. Here we imbibed a quick sample before the tap lines closed for the night, while enjoying some industry talk about Rising Tide’s recently augmented tasting room, the latest brew methods, meetups and networking events, and where we would drink in the city next.
We found ourselves at the garden-level watering hole called Maps. Carved out of what could’ve been an old wharf warehouse or perhaps a stretch of rustic townhouses Maps is a dimly-lit pub that toes the fine line between vintage and antiquated. The walls are adorned with archaic cartographs and stacks of vinyl. A jukebox, oft-employed, sits stoically by the door.
The venue evokes sentiments of various eras for which it could easily have been present: one can easily imagine Maps as a meetinghouse for revolutionary patriots, a dive primed for the end of a long day working the docks and factories, or a speakeasy where classic cocktails flowed freely behind closed doors.
Huddled around the small tables were groups that frequently interacted, broaching subjects not limited to the upcoming farm season, which trails to hike weather permitting, and which beer ought to be rotated on tap next.
People came and went freely, extending salutations and goodbyes, as if these motley groups with differing interests but common values actually knew one another. In Boston, you can bar hop from Charlestown to Dorchester and not know a single soul in the joint.
In Portland, people actually do know each other. Even better, they like each other. Best, they respect each other.
This conjoining of commonalities is the embodiment of the sharing economy, the direct byproduct of the craft movement. In this, individuals and groups, though competitors in the capitalist sense, work hand-in-hand for the advantage of the herd rather than for the sole gain of a singular person. What’s best for all is best for one.
From Maps we ventured to Ruski’s, a saltier bar where you’re more likely to see someone chase a shot of whiskey with a pint than the latest mixology medley.
Though he didn’t know us, the bartender acted as though we’d been acquainted for years and cheerily helped us herd a group from out in front of the dartboard so we could play a couple rounds of cricket. The wall from which the board hung was punctured with more holes than a Republican stump speech.
After a few rounds of drinks and a drubbing at cricket we retired to Portland’s West End, an affluent neighborhood comprised of historic homesteads and vista view parks. The apartment at which we stayed was assumably the servants’ quarters in a hefty brick mansion at the edge of the West End, overlooking the Fore River and South Portland.
I crashed on a pull-out couch in a room otherwise empty except for an artist table, stained with a spectrum of colors, cluttered with paper, pencils, pins, paint, brushes, blocks, and works both finished and incomplete.
The breakfast and coffee scene very much parallels that of beer, which is no coincidence. We walked through the West End to Hot Suppa, just off Longfellow Square, an intersection marked by the statue of Portland’s native son and celebrated poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
We dined on what looked like the child of a progressive CSA and a soul food slinging Southern diner: sweet potato and kale hash with two poached eggs, half a biscuit with sausage gravy, and bowl of assorted fruit — all ingredients either locally sourced or made by hand.
Hot Suppa is one part restaurant, one part gallery. The walls are riddled with prints and paintings of all sizes and, for the most part, exhibit a liberal use of vibrant and dynamic neon hues.
We opted out of coffee at Hot Suppa for Bard Coffee. Bard’s cafe, also part gallery, is something of a coffee lab where tools like Chemex, aeropress, pour overs, and Kalita Wave drippers render more robust and flavorful mugs of joe than your Mr. Coffee drip most assuredly does.
Using these smart methods along with an award-winning roaster and premium coffee beans, Bard is a stalwart member of Portland’s burgeoning coffee community, which is sprouting new cafes at a pace comparable to that of brewing.
Fully caffeinated, I came to the realization that my short tenure in Portland opened my eyes to the city’s natural ability to tap into the idea of craft production and the sharing economy. Perhaps more than anything else, food and drink unite people of varying background and perspectives.
It’s refreshing and truly gratifying to see Portland having so willingly embrace this way of life. Here in Boston, there are flashes of it — the smashing success of the recently opened Boston Public Market, surrounding farmers markets, and culinary genius of food trucks is testament enough to that — but in Portland it’s mainstay.
That’s not to say Portland has excommunicated all corporatized activity. Though cozy and charming, Portland is still a urban center and the economic motor of the state of Maine.
But that Portland doesn’t rely on mass production — and does instead on the ideas, execution and ultimately better products of its citizens and their respective communities in general — it’s afforded the opportunity to continually foster its style, systems, and sharing economy to the benefit of the region at large.
Often under the same roof, or elbow-to-elbow at the bar, or during a night out at an evocative lounge, the people of Portland have used each other and the city as a support system to hone their skills, which combined have helped to shape the character and authenticity of one of New England’s premier municipalities.