It has been years since erstwhile brewer Tom Bull – who founded Maine’s first, second and only dedicated lager breweries – was plying his trade. In 2018, he received a heart transplant, resulting in the closure of Biddeford’s Dirigo Brewing and his retirement from brewing. And yet, just as Bull was in a sense reborn with a new heart, his old recipes have found another life, in the hands of some of his brewing comrades.
The Bull is a Baltic porter (7.6% ABV) from Foundation Brewing, developed in collaboration with the beer’s namesake. It pours a rich, dark brown. Malty chocolate aromas forecast a light sweetness balanced with notes of baking chocolate and coffee. It is roasty, without the burnt flavors you might get in a stout (or sometimes an English porter). A full, silky mouthfeel is brightened up by the carbonation. There’s a touch of warming alcohol at the end, along with a slight bitter bite.
When The Bull is fresh, as it was at its launch roughly a week ago, those roasty malts do retain some bitterness, a quality that likely will appeal to some. But as the beer ages a bit in the can, it will mellow out, with a softer mouth, a melding of flavors, and the emergence of a more caramelly flavor profile. It’s a lovely beer now, to be sure, but I’ve stashed some for the fire-pit sessions of December.
The Bull features five grains, including Pale Malt from Aroostook County’s Maine Malt House. John Bonney, a founding partner at Foundation, notes that they put some Maine malt in just about every beer they make, in part to ensure that there is “a piece of Maine in everything we do,” in part to support Maine-based businesses.
But there’s more Maine in this than base malt and water. Like friendly ghosts from breweries past, this beer closely resembles the Baltic porters Bull brewed at Bull Jagger Brewing and Dirigo Brewing (with some minor tweaking from Joel Mahaffey, partner and head brewer at Foundation). Bull has a long history in Maine brewing. He started homebrewing with his father at age 19. His first job in the industry was as a doorman at Gritty McDuff’s in 1993 – a position that was, as Bull says, “literally the foot in the door” for his career. He would later start brewing at Gritty’s, before also working at Stone Coast Brewing in Gorham’s Corner in Portland, Liberal Cup in Hallowell, Sunday River Brewing Company and Casco Bay Brewing on Industrial Way.
Bull would go on to open two dedicated lager breweries. Bull Jagger operated out of the famed One Industrial Way (currently home to Austin Street Brewery) from 2011 to 2013 . In 2016, he started Dirigo Brewing in the expansive mill complex in Biddeford, perched atop the Saco River (the space currently occupied by Blaze Brewing). That project was derailed in 2019 by Bull’s health problems.
Bull and the partners at Foundation – who include Christie Mahaffey and Tina Bonney – first met in 2013, when Bull Jagger Brewing was being unwound. Foundation, which would open in the same building in 2014, bought some of Bull’s equipment. John Bonney and Bull stayed in touch over the years, and Bonney hoped to do a collaboration beer at some point. Once COVID became slightly less threatening, The Bull was born. As Bonney explains, it was an “excuse to make a beer and get together with people we haven’t seen in two years.”
The Bull isn’t the only Bull-inspired beer making the rounds. Nonesuch River Brewing in Scarborough adapted Bull’s märzen recipe to make Märzen the First (5.6% ABV). This copper-colored lager possesses a smooth mouthfeel, a little sweetness, some toasty maltiness, and a balanced, clean finish. And like Foundation, Side by Each Brewing Company in Auburn borrowed from Bull’s Baltic porter from Bull Jagger and Dirigo. Jeezum Crow Baltic Porter (7.1%) pops with delicious chocolate melodies, backed with coffee notes. True to style, it is full-bodied and smooth, with a lively carbonation that lightens things up and a crisp lager finish.
The history of the Baltic Porter is nearly as delicious as the beer itself. Henry Thrale’s Anchor Brewery in London began shipping its famous porters into the Baltic region in the late 1700s – much of it bound for Russia, where Catherine the Great’s reign was marked by an affection for strong, roasty ale. That strong porter style would come to be known as a Russian Imperial Stout. Over the following decades, some British expats moved to cities in Baltic ports, where they set up breweries and made strong porter. But lager brewing had also arrived to the region by the middle of the 19th century, and many of the breweries there ditched their ale yeast for lager yeast. The regional affection for porter did not diminish; rather, brewers began using cold-fermenting yeast. And so, this hybrid beer – rich and roasty, but possessing the clean characteristics of a lager – was born.
As a style, Baltic porter was rarely brewed in the United States in the 20th century. Beer writer Jeff Alworth, in his recently revised compendium, The Beer Bible, calls it “one of the hidden treasures of the beer world – but perhaps not for much longer.” Unsurprisingly, Maine drinkers have at least a handful of local options when it comes to the style, from breweries like Bunker, Tributary, Marshall Wharf and Lake St. George.
When he was brewing, Tom Bull wanted to “show people the range of styles within lager.” How many of the state’s beer drinkers were introduced to lager’s possibilities – pilsner, helles, Märzen, dunkel, schwarzbier, Baltic porter – in Bull’s beers?
If the return of some of Bull’s recipes provide us a sort of renaissance, Bull himself is living one as well. In receiving a new heart, Bull also had to give up brewing. Heart transplant recipients must take immunosuppressive drugs, and there are plenty of microbial dangers within a brewery that might compromise the efficacy of those drugs and his health overall: yeast, mold, and grain dust all pose risks.
Bull has moved on to work that is close to his heart indeed, working with the Heart Brothers Foundation, which assists heart failure patients. He manages HeartBrothers House in downtown Boston, where patients can rent rooms for just $30 per night – a position that enables him to pass along his experience as a heart recipient to fellow travelers. A portion of the proceeds from The Bull will go to the foundation.
And though Bull won’t brew again, his beers survive – not just as memories, but as living artifacts, still spreading the gospel of lager – while he has turned to more important work.
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.