Maine craft brewers “own the backyard” — but beer brewing is on a new playing field


A bartender pours a beer in the tap room at Bissell Brothers Brewing Company in Portland. Brewers have been slow to bring “cloudy” beers to market, an industry adviser said Thursday at the New England Craft Brew Summit. File by Brianna Soukup/staff photographer

Maine craft beer makers have locked down the state’s market for foam — but must act quickly to maintain that position, a beverage expert warned Thursday at an industry conference in Portland.

“They own the backyard,” said consultant Bump Williams at the New England Craft Brew Summit at the Holiday Inn by the Bay.

Maine breweries have been quick to adapt to changing consumer preferences, but those changes will only accelerate and amplify, Williams said. At the same time, he predicted, large multinational brewers will step up efforts to hold shares in an increasingly fragmented market.

Williams said some of the most profitable tools Maine brewers have are their brewpubs and tasting rooms. The state’s brewers have done a masterful job of getting people to stop by to sample the latest creation, he said.

“We don’t see that anywhere else,” he said.

Still, he warns, Brewers should strike a delicate balance by playing hard to come by.

“Exclusivity is key,” he said. “Once people can find it easily, they don’t want it.”

Williams also credited the brewers for introducing Hartselters, which is riding a national wave of popularity and becoming a key product for the state’s breweries.

That nimbleness has helped Maine breweries come through the pandemic relatively unscathed. Breweries and brewpubs have continued to open since the pandemic struck in March 2020, and many have weathered the economic devastation of those early months.

Brewery Summit officials said 27 new brewpubs have opened in Maine since 2020, while only 10 have closed. Brewpub owners are hoping a repeat of last year’s tourism boom will give the industry another boost this year, sending tourists to breweries across the state.

According to the Brewers Association, a national trade group, 143 craft breweries were operating in Maine as of 2021. The state ranked #2 in the number of breweries per capita, and Maine’s beer production — totaling 364,000 barrels in 2021 — ranked #3 per capita.

Williams said the prospects for beer production aren’t exactly rosy. He said the industry has 72 million barrels of excess capacity nationwide, which opens the door for international competitors to strike deals with brewers to use that extra capacity for foreign brands.

Williams also said the industry is likely to see further restructuring as breweries compete for in-store shelf space. He also said there will be a trend away from six-packs and toward high-quality single-serve beers in larger 19.2-ounce containers. Brewers willing to adapt the larger cans will be better positioned to make sales and secure shelf space, particularly in convenience stores, he said.

One way to weather the wave of change, Williams says, is to have breweries collaborate with distilleries, wineries, and even soft drink makers — a trend that’s just starting, he said. The partnerships could give the companies a stronger position and more stability.

“These weird partnerships develop for a reason,” he said.

That message resonated with Summiteer Pete Harris, who works for Liquid Riot, a brewery, distillery and dive bar on Commercial Street in Portland.

He said brewers should be a little more sensitive to changing public tastes when planning their strategies. For example, Williams said, brewers have been slow to release “cloudy” beers, which are the result of IPAs going through a secondary fermentation process and producing a “cloudier” beer with stronger aromas and flavors.

“Brewers don’t like them, but people will line up for them,” he said.

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