Every first weekend in November, 20-plus Maine breweries find their way to the Portland Exposition Center for the Maine Brewers Festival — the largest and best attended beer festival in Maine. It has been my honor and pleasure to attend the Maine Brewers Festival for the last four years as a volunteer with Bar Harbor-based Atlantic Brewing Company.
For brewers and organizers alike, a tremendous amount of work goes into the “fest,” but it all adds up to an exciting time for everyone involved. Volunteering is a great way to attend and get a behind-the-scenes perspective. Volunteer or not, this brew-fest continues to be noteworthy because of the excellence of Maine breweries, the diversity of its food vendors, its proximity to the Old Port, bigger name musicians for entertainment and hilarious, almost entirely happy, beer-loving attendees.
The structure of the Maine Brewers Festival consists of two sessions: a happy hour session from 1:30 to 5:00 p.m. and an evening session from 6:30 to 10:00 p.m. But for those coming from out of town — Bar Harbor, for example — the day begins at 6:00 a.m. for the ride down to set up and ice down kegs and doesn’t end until after clean up, roughly around midnight. As per usual brew-fest protocol, each attendee is issued a souvenir tasting glass and tickets redeemable for 4-ounce pours of beer.
Each session for the volunteer consists of pouring as many of those souvenir pint glasses full of beer as possible, as fast as possible, while attempting to secure one of the aforementioned tickets. As each session nears the three-quarter mark, this seemingly simple task is anything but — I assure you. I’ve seen people do unusual things for those tickets at the evening session.
This year’s fest included new entries in the food and beer categories, and featured some catchy tunes. For comestibles, old and excellent standbys such as Portland Pie Co. were augmented by Hella Good Taco, which delivered on the promise of its name, and Love Cupcakes, who served gourmet cupcakes out of a “vintage style” 1960s travel trailer wheeled into the Exposition Center.
For beer, Oxbow Brewing, a locavore’s dream noted for farmhouse style Belgian beers brewed in tiny batches, was a smash hit. Known for serving up sour-style beers such as Funkhaus, they served their Space Cowboy Country Ale, and Oxtoberfest. With live music from Maine artists — such as Zach Jones headlining for The Mallett Brothers Band, Motown funk and alternative-country jams, respectively — people were dancing in lines that stretched across the floor for the more popular, out-of-town, breweries.
While great food and beer were abundant and delicious, Portland itself is an irremovable and essential part of the Maine Brewer’s Festival. Besides being ranked one of the top 10 places in the country to live, Portland boasts an even higher ranking in terms of “beer friendliness.”
All snuggled within a 10-mile radius, a thirsty traveler can find Shipyard, Peak Organic, Allagash, Gritty’s, Maine Beer Co., Sebago, Geary’s and Rising Tide breweries — and don’t forget Maine Mead Works for something slightly more sweet but no less intoxicating. And, as if that wasn’t enough, the Old Port boasts an outstanding number of beer-centric pubs, restaurants and bars, such as Novare Res and The Great Lost Bear to name but a few.
Beyond the city, the food, and the beer, it’s the people who come to the Maine Brewers Festival that make it a supremely good time. Many of them come as a team, complete with matching shirts, costumes and rituals as they move from brewery to brewery. They ask questions, offer advice about which breweries have brought the best brews and help you avoid the lines that have become too long. In short, it’s like being at a party with about 1,000 decent, hard-working folk who enjoy trying new beer.
It’s a shame it only comes once a year, because it never fails to produce epic stories and fond memories. Unfortunately for me, leaving early from Bar Harbor and working both sessions made visiting the Old Port a hilarious impossibility, but there’s always next year.