Maine’s Original Craft Brewery Is Dying
Welcome to Portland, Maine, where Becky’s Diner dumped Brooklyn Lager for Bissell Brothers’ hop-heavy The Substance. It’s also where Portland Pie Co. tied on more taps from local brewers Bunker and Austin Street. In the same perimeter, Brian Boru public house replaced two national-brew taps with Substance and Austin Street’s Patina Pale Ale. Yes, Maine’s gone mad over close-to-home craft beers. Everybody’s in on the local-lager action save one—Geary’s (the artisan alers who started it all).
Founded in 1983, D.L. Geary’s was Portland’s first craft brewer. But hipper, younger yeasters saturated the scene, causing the brewery’s production to plummet significantly. Maine’s Bureau of Alcoholic Beverage & Lottery Operations said Geary’s made 34.5 percent less beer in 2015 than in 2011. Meanwhile, the Brewers Association availed the kiddie crafters showed a 113.8 percent spike in the same, time parameters.
“It’s changed dramatically,” D.L. Geary said about the craft brew landscape. “It’s certainly a lot more crowded than it used to be. We’re up to 75 breweries in the state. The number of out-of-state brands in the state has more than doubled in the last few years. And it’s a zero-sum game. … There aren’t more beer drinkers now.”
Early on in the game, for decades, D.L. Geary watched his beer business blossom until their suds slinging slowed due to the craft-beer boom. Now, the brewery’s in bereavement as their taps have been retired at local bars—the wilder, wort mongers have moved in. Even their staples, like Geary’s Pale Ale, Special Hampshire Ale and London Porter, aren’t selling as much as before...at liquor stores and supermarkets.
But D.L. Geary Brewing is not unique in terms of old-school craft-beer brewing. Other OG brewers like Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada have heaved in their efforts to make more marketable mashes. Shipyard Brewing Co., Maine’s biggest brewer, has spiced up their sauces to stay afloat among the craft-beer boom. Originally, their Export ale was the mainstay mash that sent them sailing ahead. However, they had to cook up other casks to keep their suds schooner in the running of the beer boat race.
“I’ve kind of embraced it, to be honest with you. I think that at the end of the day you’ve gotta embrace some of this,” Shipyard Co-Founder Fred Forsley said about the shift in tastes. “I recognize Monkey Fist and Island Time are going to take over some of the heavy lifting that Export has done.”
Geary’s primary pulses have been their Pale Ale and HAS. And while they won’t be abandoning these ales, they’re willing to try additional avenues. Among their efforts is a new, pilot system enabling smaller batches to test on consumers in the tasting room—the plan is to appeal to younger customers.
“We’re having some fun. We’re doing some unusual things,” Geary said. “We’re experimenting with different grains, different strains of yeast and the results have been very well received. We can’t just say, ‘OK, we’ll make this beer,’ and sell it because our small system is 24 barrels, and that’s an awful lot of kegs. So what we’re able to do (on the pilot system) is innovate on a small scale, invite our customers and friends into the tasting room to try them, and that way, if we get enough interest, we will be able to do the larger system and have the beer be pre-sold, which our distributors love,” he added.
Beer analysts are saying Geary’s is in need of a new face—a makeover. Renowned, beer entrepreneur and brewer Dick Cantwell, who went to Maine many times on holiday, said he has fond memories of Geary’s Pale Ale mash. He added their having little to no change since the 1980s.
“Like many established older brands, Geary’s has allowed their branding to stale and hasn’t done much to come up with new beers to excite the imagination of craft beer drinkers,” Cantwell said in an interview.
Other beer brainiacs and enthusiasts have suggested Geary’s needs new blood in the brewery—someone who can scoot it forward.
“First of all, I would not discount the value of intellectual property. You have an established brand in Geary’s,” beer writer Jason Notte said. “Geary’s needs somebody [who] can push it ahead. I don’t blame D.L. This brewery is something that has worked for him for a long time. But I think he needs somebody fresh in there. This is Portland’s original brand; they need to update styles and bring in some new styles. You can’t get rid of the lobster from the tap handles, that’s something classic. But you make it a relevant brewery again.”
But D.L. Geary’s actually gearing up for it. In addition to implementing the new piloting system, they slung small batches this past summer. They’ve also barrel aged some ales as special releases and hosted special foam feasts at restaurants.
Geary said they’re not going out of business—far from it. After a 30-year dynasty, he’s not hanging it up—he’s enacting a new era.
“The vision is to keep this ancient and honorable art and profession going,” Geary said. “The way we do it is to adapt to a changing marketplace.”