Mast Landing Brewing Co. opened an expansive new tasting room in Freeport this month – a complement to its original location in Westbrook. And though it is the brewery’s second site, it also marks a homecoming.
Like many Maine breweries, Mast Landing was hatched in a garage-turned-brewhouse – in this case, in the Freeport home of erstwhile homebrewer Ian Dorsey, now the brewery’s president. The brewery’s name itself is derived from an area of Freeport just east of downtown.
“Given that the early days of homebrewing happened in Freeport, the town has always been a part of our story whether we had a physical location there or not,” says Gene Buonaccorsi, the brewery’s marketing director.
Needless to say, the new tasting room is likely a bit larger than Dorsey’s garage (though the design does incorporate garage doors). It’s located in what was formerly a children’s clothing store in a suburban-style development called Freeport Crossing, which also includes a Shaw’s grocery store, a Dunkin’ and Veterinary Quick Care.
The massive glass barn encompasses 11,000 square feet of tasting room, including a private event space upstairs. Visitors pass through a small portico that is visually warmed up by wooden rafters and beams. A long wooden bar awaits inside, backed by white subway tile and video monitors posting the draft list (with 16 taps) and beers available to go. Four-seater tables and high-tops sit atop polished, speckled concrete floors and below exposed HVAC ducts. Immediately to the left, a glassed-in area awaits the installation of a small pilot brewing system.
One’s eye tracks the bar as it hooks around the corner, leading to leather sofas, more tables and finally the garage doors on the backside of the building, opened up to the warm day beyond. Outside, there’s a beer garden with picnic tables, shaded by colorful umbrellas, and bright red Adirondack chairs. Off to the left is Nighthawk’s Kitchen food truck – a temporary set-up as the permanent restaurant is being constructed adjacent to the tasting room. To the right, just beyond a row of evergreens, is the on-ramp to I-295 North – and a suggestion for why Freeport is becoming the newest of Maine’s beer clusters.
Gritty McDuff’s was the first on the scene, opening its second location in Freeport in 1995 – early days in Maine “microbrewing.” The brewpub had the run of the place until 2013, when Maine Beer Co. relocated from the famed Industrial Way to Route 1. Stars & Stripes Brewing Co. opened there in 2018, near Gritty’s and directly across the street from Freeport Crossing. Yarmouth’s Brickyard Hollow Brewing opened a second brewpub in downtown Freeport in 2019. And Portland’s Goodfire plans to open a second location in the area, two miles south of Maine Beer Co., later this year.
Of course, Freeport has long been a destination – or waystation – for vacationers headed north, drawn by L.L. Bean’s flagship store. There are other attractions nearby as well, including hiking on the network of trails maintained by the Freeport Conservation Trust or at nearby Bradbury Mountain State Park, as well as kayaking and camping at Wolfe’s Neck Center.
The town of Freeport has also been “welcoming and helpful to breweries settling here,” according to Anne Marisic, head of marketing and communications at Maine Beer Co. Steve Mills, CEO of Maine Beer Co., says that the town and the Freeport Economic Development Corp. see breweries “as part of Freeport’s future” and have worked with those setting up there. That has included zoning adjustments to enable brewing in certain areas – an essential determinant of where breweries can locate.
One might assume that businesses would bristle at so much competition setting up nearby, but that’s not typically the case in brewing circles. Instead, they tend to view industry “clustering” as an asset, consolidating “knowledge, excitement, and resources,” says Mast Landing’s Buonaccorsi. And this sense of excitement extends to beer drinkers as well: locals who have more homegrown options and beer tourists, intent on sampling across breweries. Marisic explains: “If you are in a location that is a little off the beaten path, having a cluster of businesses helps draw visitors by giving them a number of options that they can plan a day around.”
There are some concerns for Ed Stebbins, owner and brewmaster at Gritty’s. Tourism is seasonal, so the flow of drinkers into the area might dry up some over the winter months. And new breweries will impact the local labor market, which Stebbins describes as “already strained.”
Even so, he thinks “the growing number of breweries in Freeport will only help to attract more beer lovers to the area.” Brad Nadeau, owner and brewer of Stars & Stripes, agrees, pointing to market research finding that “clusters of breweries thrive.” “The more the merrier,” he says, adding, “The craft brewery industry is supportive and collaborative, we’re proud to be part of it here in Maine.”
But at the same time, this is not the typical sort of cluster – like Portland’s Industrial Way and East Bayside – where one can easily walk from brewery to brewery. It’s difficult to imagine packs of drinkers slogging up and down Route 1 between them. The new beer hub in Freeport is very much one dictated by the automobile and its spatial sensibilities; it’s less a beer island than an archipelago. Marisic notes of the emerging scene, “each spot offers different experiences which helps make sure there is something for everyone when visiting Freeport.” So perhaps this will be a cluster that offers less a series of experiences all at once, but rather one that provides a range of options – shaped as much by the food choices as the beer itself.
My mind returns to the spaciousness of the Mast Landing tasting room, some of the people I see there, and the conversations overheard as I scarfed down a Nighthawk’s green chili cheeseburger with a Nitro Gunner’s Daughter (I took a flier on that pairing … and it worked). There’s the couple from South Portland, who enjoy Mast Landing, and find it easier to drive to Freeport than Westbrook. There’s the pair from Colorado, here for vacation (and eager to talk about beer from home). There’s a group of local women slowly assembling, pulling together multiple tables for a meetup. And there’s the 30-something man burrowed into an upholstered seat in the corner, working away with his laptop open, phone in his ear. This is a foundational appeal of a suburban landscape: space. And here, there is plenty of space.
When I first arrived, I chuckled at the name of the development, Freeport Crossing, as though we are to believe that a suburban strip mall is somehow the town’s iconic democratic space. But if my initial visit is any indication, the easy, comfortable spaciousness of the tasting room – coupled with its proximity to the highway – will be the setting for a vibrant mixture of people and uses: as tasting room, as office, as public space, and as a gateway to Vacationland.
Ben Lisle is an assistant professor of American Studies at Colby College. He lives among the breweries in Portland’s East Bayside, where he writes about cultural history, urban geography, and craft beer culture. Reach him on Twitter at @bdlisle.