Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Someone Brewing This Way Comes - Dispatches from Maine

We have just returned from another wonderful week on Monhegan Island, a small dot of land in Muscongus Bay some twelve miles off the coast of Maine.  We have been doing this for the past fourteen summers (with some days trips thrown in when the mood hits us) and these visits have become the highlight of our summer vacations, and now summer residencies in our adopted state.  We have explored nearly every nook and cranny of this delightful island over the years and one of the things we like most about the place is the fact that life here never seems to change much regardless of what is going on in the outside world.  Those like us, who come here for a few days of respite, are happy to leave the daily routines and rush behind.  Other than a few trucks used by the lobster men, there are no cars on the island.  If you need to go somewhere, you walk.  What a delight.

And so it was this year as we stepped off the boat from New Harbor.  The wharf and the waterfront looked just the same as they did when we left on our last trip in September.  Many of the boats in the harbor are the ones we have been seeing here for years.  They belong to the local lobstermen who ply their trade from October until June.  The single dirt road through the village looks the same as do the pleasant clapboard houses that line the way.  The Monhegan House, our home away from home away from home, situated in the middle of the village across from the ecumenical church, looks the same.  This is one of the reasons we like to come.  Nothing much ever seems to change. It always looks the same.

I was only on the island for a couple of hours when I learned that a change had occurred during the off-season.  A pleasant lady from Virginia with whom I had chatted on the ride over that morning saw me walking by and asked me if I had visited the new brewery up the hill.  At first I was confused; there is no brewery on the island.  There has never been a brewery here.  Yet her grandson, who had just had his first pint at this apocryphal establishment, confirmed her story.  So perhaps things do change on Monhegan.  Note to self.  Check this place out.  And this is exactly what I did later that first afternoon.  After wandering up to my favorite place on the rocks on the edge of Lobster Cove where I frequently go to write, read or to just think while watching the tide ebb and flow, I stopped by the new home of the Monhegan Brewing Company.

Matt Weber, a lobsterman and former tuna harpooner on board the Ball Breaker who has been living and working on the island for almost two decades, and his wife Mary, a schoolteacher from Bath, Maine who married Matt a couple years ago and is now the island’s sole schoolmarm, launched the island’s first ever brewery on July 4th.  The plan was to open on Memorial Day when summer residents and daytrippers began to return to the island.  There were, however, some unexpected delays. Still everything worked out fine since the weather in June was not the best and summer routines on the island were slow to get started.  And from all appearances, it was worth the wait.  Business has been fast and furious over the past month.

Lobster Cove APA, its first brew, is billed as an "easy-drinking pale ale."  That it is and it is my favorite, for sure.  Wicked good!  This was soon followed by Shipwreck IPA, which is a bit stronger and hoppier, and presently they are planning to brew Dead Man’s Cove Dark IPA in the near future.  Add to these the Trapyard Root Beer and Red Ribbon Ginger Beer, and the new establishment has something for everyone who wanders from the village down to Lobster Cove at the southern end of the island.  Some even walk up the hill from the village just for the beer!

Danny McGovern, Mary's father and a long time brewer at the now defunct Lake Saint George Brewing Company (Liberty, Maine) and the Belfast Brewing Company and now the master brewer at Marshall Wharf Brewing Company in Belfast, Maine, is their business partner and he comes out to the island every couple of weeks to brew a new batch and to teach Matt and Mary the tricks of the trade.  In fact, he was on the island while I was there brewing more Shipwreck IPA.

The idea for an island brewery dates back to early 2012 with discussions on its feasibility and success in Maine’s growing microbrew tradition and market.  Construction on the small building began shortly after we left the island last September.  Work slowed on the October 1st Trap Day and the beginning of the new lobster season, but the structure was closed in by the time the snow and the cold winds began to blow over the island.  They worked on the interior over the winter.   The brewery is very compact; a 3.5 barrel brewing system with two 7-barrel fermenters accommodating over 200 gallons of beer installed adjacent to the “sampling room” (now permitted under new Maine legislation) with taps and a small counter from which beer and souvenir glasses, t-shirts and hats are dispensed.

The Monhegan Brewing Company’s initial success is due in large part to word of mouth and small signs around the island, something I did not notice until after I first heard about it from that pleasant lady I met on the boat.  I made a daily pilgrimage up the hill while we were on the island, and each time I was greeted by several people lounging on the narrow deck or sitting on the ground amidst the piles of rope, Matt’s pink and white lobster buoys, and neatly stacked lobster traps.  Nary a person walked by who did not stop in to see what was going on.  And most came out with a pint of beer or rootbeer in their hands.  Hollie Chadwick’s “Maine Beer News” column in the August-September issue of Yankee Brewing News announced the advent of “Beer on the Sea” as the Monhegan operation is the only offshore brewery in Maine.

According to a story in The Lincoln County News (Damariscotta, Maine) shortly before our arrival on Monhegan, Matt and Mary plan to extend their off-island market this autumn by distributing a limited number of kegs to mainland restaurants, primarily in Boothbay Harbor, New Harbor and Port Clyde, where the summer boats to the island arrive and depart.  This will tide the brewery over during the off-season when Matt returns to his lobster boat Seldom Seen, and Mary takes up her duties at the island school.

Business is indeed good and I hope to stop by again next year (if not before) when I return to the island.   Sometimes things do change, and thankfully this time it has been for the better.  Prosit.

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