To me, New England is the historical cradle of the American ideal, and the dichotomies it presents today are hard to understand if you’re not from there; this is especially evident in the northernmost of its states, Maine. Even within its borders, Maine has multiple personalities. If it was a person, Sybil would be hard pressed to top it. You have the self-reliant men and women of the earth eking out a living from the abundant lumber, ample fishing, and ever-present tourist industry. Then there’s the urbanites in the few large cities that Maine boasts, many of whom are transplants from the rural areas. An increasing number of the population everywhere are out of staters fed up with life in other other parts of the U.S. and looking for a simpler, but admittedly economically poorer living. But other than the hordes of tourists and seasonal residents, they all have a common independent outlook on life, one that nearly equals the individualistic nature of what we have here out West.
It’s been eight years since the wife and I visited her family in Maine, not since her mother passed away. And while we looked forward to seeing the family, we also planned to spend some time alone exploring areas of the coast we had only touched upon in previous visits. We also anticipated stopping in at the odd brewery or two since we had only had limited opportunities in the past; namely Atlantic Brewing and the Sea Dog in Bangor.
Not being able to fly non-stop from Denver to Bangor, we rented a car in Boston and drove up on a pleasant Autumn day. The trees had just started turning a week or so before, but what color there was, was striking to eyes used to only urban trees and the predominate golds of the Aspens of the high country. My Western sensibilities were also assaulted by the never ending tolls along the way. The funniest thing that happened on our drive up resulted from the car we rented, which had New York plates. While stretching our legs at a rest stop just over the Maine/New Hampshire border, a guy with the thickest New England accent said nonchalantly “Go Red Sox,” as he walked by. It took me a moment to figure out what possessed a guy to say that to a complete stranger when I remembered the car plates; I just wish I had the wherewithal to come back with “Go Rockies, we’ll get you next time.”
Being out of Colorado, I had to resort to an app for my phone to find the breweries along the way. Brewery Map works fairly well in locating the breweries, but is a little buggy when zooming in on a region, and the descriptions are just pasted in from the breweries’ own web sites; nothing insightful to make your choices. The best features are buttons to directly call the selection, and another to navigate.
Our first stop was just south of Augusta in Hallowell to visit The Liberal Cup Public House and Brewery. Sitting on the banks of the Kennebec River, Hallowell is typical of most older towns in Maine with 19th century brick buildings lining Main Street or where the highways pass through them, the Liberal Cup sits right in the middle of this.
Coming in at midday, the place was hopping but not overly so, the bar was a different story. Every seat at the 30 foot or so bar was taken, and boisterously so, by locals coming in for lunch and a pint. With low exposed timber beams, it was easy to imagine patrons doing just the same a hundred or so years ago. What became evident as we perused the tap selections, was that the owners had a good sense of humor; I ordered the Ex-Wife Extra Bitter, while the wife chose the For Richer or Porter. The Bitter was cask-conditioned with a hint of brandy on the backside, while the Porter was toasty yet light bodied. Both were hitting the spot after the morning drive from Beantown, and quenching the thirst while we waited for the steamers we ordered, which were outstanding when they arrived. Boiled in a buttery white sauce, the mussels went down lip-smackingly quick.
Sadly we had to limit our stay since the ETA we had relayed to the B&B was quickly approaching. So we paid up and, as always, purchased a pint glass on the way out. I was astounded when they handed it over since the size was much greater than the standard pints you get elsewhere; it’s volume is easily an Imperial pint, although sans the “bump” of the traditional Imperial. Still relishing the snack and beers, we hit the road again.
Our ultimate destination for the family get together was just outside Corinth, but we first had to check in at the bed and breakfast we were to be staying at in Dexter. The wife had chosen a quaint place called the Brewster Inn, which billed itself as a touch of England brought to Maine. Occupying the residence of a former Governor of Maine, the service and meals were impeccable, what little time we had to enjoy it. The husband and wife team, transplants from England, were attentive and very friendly. I’d highly recommend it, and since Dexter is located in central Maine, it’s a great homebase if you want to visit both the coast and the interior attractions.
Over the course of the visits with the in-laws, we made several trips into Bangor and had the opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with the Sea Dog Brewing location there. We had visited it a couple of times over the years, the first time shortly after they had opened the Bangor location in 1995, and had enjoyed the atmosphere, if not always the beers. Adorned in ropes, brass, and expansive dark wood, the nautical trimmings make you feel like you’ve stepped into what I like to call the “Ye Olde” type of bar of yesteryear, but the vibe is inviting nonetheless.
Arriving fairly early in the day, I couldn’t get a gauge on the bar to table patron ratio that usually indicates how much of a craft beer haven a place is. We of course took up our seats at the bar, sitting underneath nearby models of sailboats adorning the ledges ringing the bar area.
While the wife, her brother, and I enjoyed our pints we struck up a conversation with our server, Chris. I was much more impressed by their beers this time around and Chris mentioned this might be the result of Sea Dog being bought out by Shipyard Brewing approximately eight years ago. The beer is shipped in regularly from the main brewery, and often include various rare cask conditioned offerings. The Old East IPA was hoppy without being a hop bomb and was well-balanced overall. The wife’s Sea Dog Stout on nitro, nice and creamy with a good portion of roasted dark malt. The only “dog” of the day was the Owls Head Light Ale that my brother-in-law ordered. An obvious bid to pander to the Bud and Bud Light crowd, it was very light and had a slightly sour after taste. He is actually a regular Bud drinker and didn’t like it either; his second draught was the IPA, which he quite enjoyed.
The remainder of our time was pleasantly spent catching up more with the brother in-law, and chatting up our bartender. Before we left I had a taste of the current cask selection, Sea Dog Pale, which was very mellow a slight hop bite on the back of the palette. It was indicative of many cask conditioned selections from the other Maine breweries we visited on this trip, which is lighter and less complex than what we’re used to here in the West. This is just an observation of the breweries we visited, I’m sure there are better to be had elsewhere in Maine.
During the rest of stay in central Maine with the family, I picked up a few six packs of different offerings from the state and it was a mixed bag. My favorite was Sebago’s IPA, which is nice and hoppy without being overpowering; the majority of everything else that was available in the stores we went to suffered from a strong case of the mehs. I know that there had to be better places to buy craft beer in the Bangor area, but we didn’t have the time to hunt them out. Selections from Geary, Shipyard, and one other brewery (the name escapes me) just didn’t have the body, taste, or fullness I like in a beer. Don’t get me wrong, they tasted good, but just not anything to write home about.
So after a few days of catching up with the relations, we made our way south to the coast for some “us” time, and in the process, found some true gems of Maine brewing.
Up next: Andrew’s, Marshall Wharf, and Gritty McDuff’s.