Here we go again. Temperatures are dropping, darkness encroaches, and a second pandemic winter is upon us. And yet, there seem to be a few more bright spots than the last time around. Most Maine breweries have survived a longer, metaphorical winter. And for beer drinkers, most indoor tasting rooms have been and will continue to be open. Children are being vaccinated, and adults are getting boosters.
But for those beer seekers who prefer – or, for health reasons, require – the relative safety of the outdoors, there are plenty of good options. Propane heaters have started popping out of parking lots like steel mushrooms. Fire pits are again glowing outside breweries as beacons in the late afternoon darkness. And while I’ll spend plenty of time huddled outside these tasting-room appendages, Maine’s beer drinkers won’t be limited to these settings.
For those who feel they must earn their beer – deferring its worldly pleasures until after the work has been done – sweatier options abound. The Oxbow Beer Garden in Oxford heads the list. The tasting room and restaurant are located in a 200-year-old barn. The previous owners of the farm, Anne and David Carter, had developed and maintained Nordic skiing trails there, running them for decades. And Oxbow has committed to maintaining those trails. Use of the trails, nearly 5 miles worth, is free. Portland’s Gear Hub runs a rental shop on weekends, where visitors can rent skis, snowshoes and fat-tire bikes. A warming hut graces the trails’ outer loop, where adventurers can stop for beers around fire pits. Back at the main barn, the weary will find more fire pits, heated A-frames, wood-fired pizza, natural wines and beer. And with any luck, you’ll find yourself with a Sap Haus in hand, Oxbow’s smoky sweet dark lager, brewed with Maine maple syrup.
Those with their own gear can also find public trails at the Shaw Cherry Hill Farm in Gorham. The parking lot is conveniently located next door to Sebago Brewing Co. and its decadent barleywine – aged for 10 months in bourbon barrels. Just one should do the trick, as this year’s version weighs in at a hefty 13.75%.
Alpine skiers might look to Lost Valley Brewing Co. in Auburn. The brewery’s home base is a brewpub located at the base lodge of the Lost Valley Ski Area. “Skiers and boarders literally can kick off their sticks and grab a seat next to the fire pit,” notes brewer Darren Finnegan. The pub, which reopens on Dec. 8, offers table service inside. But visitors can also get grab-and-go food from the lodge to take onto the patio with beers. In addition to the slopes, there are miles of trails for Nordic skiing, snowshoeing and fat tire biking (and equipment for each can be rented on site).
Downhill skiers should also keep their eyes peeled for the imminent opening of a third Definitive Brewing outpost at Sunday River. Deck seating around a fire pit, with mountain views, will be available apres-ski. A full restaurant, the Phoenix Kitchen, will also be on site. It doesn’t take much imagination to put oneself there, lumbering in from the hill, knocking back a Kolsch-style Contee, with a pastry stout chaser.
Ice skaters can find a home at The Rink at Thompson’s Point, where one can skate all day for $10 (and rent skates for $4). When you need a breather, there are fire pits and a bar serving Maine-made beers and snacks. And once you’ve run out of steam on the ice, Bissell Brothers Brewing is mere steps away. Though the brewery has made its name on New England IPAs, I’ve always been drawn to their rich porters and stouts. And Peter Bissell promises a “buncha big beers coming out” this winter.
For something more rustic, Lyman’s Funky Bow Brewery and Beer Co. will also offer an ice rink for skaters, once the temperatures drop. Visitors can unwind with beers and wood-fired pizza around vast fire pits, or take the party indoors to picnic tables flanking the brewery’s enormous, translucent tunnel tent. Dogs aren’t merely tolerated, but encouraged. Sorry, cats.
If winter sports aren’t your mood, Maine’s breweries still have you covered (sometimes with actual coverings). Marshall Wharf Brewing Co. in Belfast features a waterfront “beer atrium,” warmed with wood stoves and a towering steel chiminea. Freeport’s Maine Beer Co. offers both indoor and outdoor seating; its covered patio is dotted with heaters and well protected from the wind.
Allagash Brewing Co. in Portland has winterized its outdoor tasting space, with fire pits, heated lean-tos and an enclosed, heated patio. As always, Bite into Maine is on location – its Airstream trailer snug against the patio tent – serving lobster rolls, chowders and whoopie pies. Dogs are welcome there, as they are across Industrial Way, where peripatetic beer drinkers will find fire pits, patio heaters and tents at Definitive and Foundation Brewing Co.
If you want to feel like you’ve stepped into a glossy lifestyle magazine or Instagram feed, the decoratively themed “fish shacks” at Batson River Brewing & Distilling in Kennebunk are a good bet. But you’ll have to plan ahead, as reservations fill up quickly. Up to six (a cozy six) can fit in each shack. Reservations are $25 and come in 90-minute blocks: plenty of time to enjoy some of the hearty food menu, cocktails and an ample selection of the brewery’s beer. Marketing manager Ashley Charlton recommends ordering one of their staples, the 5.8% Estate Pale Ale – full-bodied with a subtle spiciness – which is made with all Maine-grown malts and hops.
But for me, the most endearing memories of the last pandemic winter were those of being huddled around fire pits with friends and beers. There are many Maine breweries poised to replicate that experience. Fore River Brewing Co. in South Portland is one. Regardless of the weather, it is always a comfortable, familial setting with its woody, clubhouse interior and fenced-in, grassy yard. Wood fire pits and propane heaters will make a fine partner to John Henry Milk Stout.
One of my favorite backyard-style scenes is at Odd Alewives Farm Brewery in Waldoboro, right around the corner from Moody’s Diner. It features a large yard, abutting the farm and its lovely, rustic indoor tasting room. A large, stone community fire pit anchors the yard. Smaller groups can reserve private fire pits on Saturdays (the reservation system opens each week on Thursday at 10 a.m.). A $20 fee gets you kiln-dried firewood and an attendant to keep it roaring (and another $15 secures a s’mores kit for six).
The pits themselves are gorgeous: geometrically austere, wrought by Kirk Lynch of Detailed Design and Fabrication in Alna. Wood-fired pizza and farmhouse ales will keep you good company. This season, the brewery will again be rolling out its winter stout, Odd Oracle, a roasty Belgian-style stout accented with the earthy bitterness of horseradish grown right there on the farm. It’s name, according to co-founder Sarah McNeil, is derived from the Oracle of Delphi, who told Apollo, “The radish is worth its weight in lead, the beet its weight in silver, the horseradish in gold.” I look forward to trying it with Odd Pip – a sprightly petit saison made with raw wildflower honey and lemon coriander grown on the farm – as a palate cleanser.
For those willing to brave the cold for a cold one, there’s plenty to look forward to this winter, as Maine breweries (and beer drinkers) adapt and evolve. We did it before, and we’ll do it again.
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.