Maine small-batch brewer creates quite a buzz
Klebans can’t keep beer on shelves
PORTLAND, Maine - At the end of a squat building in an industrial park at the western edge of Portland, a revolution is brewing.
It is here that David and Daniel Kleban, brothers who moved to Maine from Michigan in 1999, run the Maine Beer Co. They might be just another in a long line of small-batch brewers trying to make a go in a saturated marketplace but for this: One of their ales, Lunch IPA, has quickly become one of the most sought-after beers in the United States. People compare it to Pliny the Elder, the California-made imperial IPA that is considered the world’s best.
Good luck finding Lunch. So far the Klebans have brewed it only twice. When the first batch hit shelves early this year, word spread quickly about how good it was. That created huge anticipation for the second batch, which was released in July. As soon as that arrived in stores, it was gone. Beer aficionados sought tips online about where to find it. My favorite local liquor store got a shipment on a Friday night; when I showed up Saturday around noon to buy some, it was already sold out.
“It’s a good problem to have,’’ David Kleban says. “We can’t make enough.’’
In fact, it can be difficult to find any of the four beers the Klebans brew. Zoe, a hoppy amber ale, went fast in the spring, and Mean Old Tom, a stout, will surely sell quickly when the next batch hits. The Klebans’ flagship beer, a hoppy pale called Peeper Ale, is the only one brewed year round and the only one that can be readily found.
All this from a beer company that started up only two years ago and brews only 1,200 barrels a year. (Samuel Adams, for comparison’s sake, makes 2 million barrels a year.)
The Klebans’ beers aren’t cheap, either. Because they are brewed in tiny batches, prices are higher than those of many other craft beers. Maine Beer Co. brews come in 16.9-ounce (500-milliliter) bottles that run about $6 to $8 apiece. (Pliny the Elder, made by Russian River Brewing Co., comes in the same size bottle, for about $5, though it’s not distributed in New England.)
Are the Maine beers worth the price? I’ll say this: All three of the beers I’ve had were outstanding.
Peeper (5.5 percent alcohol by volume) is way more hoppy than most pale ales; it’s about three-quarters of the way to an India pale ale, along the lines of Oskar Blues’ Dale’s Pale Ale. Zoe (7.2 ABV), translucent brown with a cafe latte head, is at once hoppy and spicy, with more of a malt backbone than Peeper has.
Lunch (7 percent ABV) - and this is no hyperbole - is one of the greatest IPAs I’ve ever had. Very, very hoppy without much bitterness, Lunch is a West Coast-style IPA, and one that straddles the line between IPA and double/imperial IPA. Hazy golden-orange with a big head of foam that lingers and lingers, Lunch (named for a whale spotted off Maine, not a midday meal) bursts with a huge citrus nose, as though grapefruit juice were spewing from the glass. With its aggressive approach and dry finish, Lunch sits squarely in the upper echelon of IPAs. It’s no wonder people from as far away as California try desperately to trade for it online.
Show up for one of the brewery’s weekly “tours,’’ and you can see the mania firsthand. On a Friday afternoon last month, more than 30 people crammed in the tiny waiting room for the start of the tour, which was really just a conversation with David Kleban and a look around the Maine Beer Co. premises - a room with tanks and fermenters, and a storage room for bottles about to be shipped.
Several people asked if they could buy some Lunch. Alas, there is no more until the next batch is brewed. When will that be? Even Kleban wasn’t sure.
The overnight success of the Maine Beer Co. doesn’t appear to have gone to Kleban’s head. Humble, friendly, and laid back, he answered everyone’s questions about the beers and explained how he and his brother got started.
David is a financial adviser, Daniel an attorney. From the beginning, they had a simple business plan: They would make beers that they want to drink. Peeper, their first beer (named for the peep toads you hear at night in Maine), was a beer they had been brewing at home mostly because they couldn’t find a hoppier-than-usual pale ale in any local stores. The Maine Beer Co. grew out of that first ale.
“Our whole process is just a glorified homebrewing process,’’ said Kleban, showing the group the 15-barrel system in his rented space, which is in the same industrial park where the Allagash and Geary’s breweries operate. “It may look fancy, but there’s nothing fancy about it. It’s just homebrewing with bigger tanks.’’
And it’s not going to get much bigger, according to Kleban. Despite the demand for the beer, the Klebans don’t expect to expand much more. They have only two employees, and their beers are distributed only in northern New England, Massachusetts, and New York City. While drinkers in California may want Lunch IPA, they will probably never see it there - Kleban said the company’s ultimate goal is to brew 3,000 to 5,000 barrels a year and no more.
“People tell us we won’t be able to stop,’’ he said, “but I’m going to prove them wrong.’’