Maine Beer Company’s success is almost a happy accident.
Almost, because it’s unfair to leave Maine Beer Co.’s staggering rise to chance, as if making hoppy, exquisitely balanced beer is rote or easy.
But if the world financial market hadn’t crashed in 2008, brothers Daniel and David Kleban might have kept their jobs as a lawyer and financial planner, respectfully, rather than spend evenings tinkering with the recipe for something called “Peeper’’ in a drafty Maine garage.
After nearly 10 years of releases garnering consistent praise from critics and on review sites, Maine Beer Co. opens a brand new taproom this month, expanding its current Freeport location. We recently spoke to Daniel Kleban about the journey, and what’s next.
Daniel Kleban decided he wanted to brew beer for a living either right before or right after he was laid off from his job at a Portland law firm in 2008.
“In one of life’s weird ironies, it opened up the opportunity for me to think about doing something different,’’ says Kleban.
Initially, the Klebans brewed only one beer, Peeper, an American pale ale that’s cracker-crisp, with notes of orange and grapefruit and a little pine.
“My brother and I brewed out of my house,’’ says Kleban. “First out of my kitchen, but then we got kicked out of my kitchen into my garage. We’d hang out in my garage on cold winter nights and just talk about life.’’
Initial output was modest: the Klebans made 40 gallons of beer at a time, with the goal of producing 1,000 barrels annually. Their timing, though, was more important than their production.
“I kind of feel like an old brewery at this point, because we came onto the scene kind of on the leading edge of this new wave of brewers,’’ says Kleban. “A lot of people in New England were brewing in the English tradition. You couldn’t find a lot of fresh, hoppy beers.
“That’s how we kind of set our hook.’’
A BIG HIT
Maine Beer Co. was one of the first breweries to have a beer go viral.
Much like the Alchemist’s Heady Topper and Bissell Brothers’ Substance, an early Maine Beer Co. IPA caught fire, leaping to the top of sites like Beer Advocate and Rate Beer and causing crazed customers to brave long lines to get it.
“I think probably two years in I started messing around with an IPA recipe that turned into Lunch,’’ says Kleban. “It was kind of something that people up here have never tasted before.’’
Lunch was a new kind of IPA that doesn’t seem so new now: pungent, tropical, with a fresh aroma you could smell from across a room. Kleban credits social media, and a 2011 column focusing on the beer by the Globe’s then-beer writer Steve Greenlee, for propelling Lunch to new heights.
“If we opened the brewery in the 1990s or early 2000s, I’m not sure it would have caught on, to be honest with you,’’ he says. “I was incredibly surprised.’’
DO WHAT’S RIGHT
Motivated by their experience in corporate America, the Klebans were intentional about the kind of company they wanted to create.
“We saw the recklessness of Wall Street, and said let’s create a business that does things differently, and looks after the locals and the environment,’’ says Kleban. “And let’s try to be an example of a company where if you have that kind of ethos, you can still be successful.’’
To that end, the company committed to One Percent for the Planet, agreeing to donate one percent of gross annual sales to environmental charities. The charities rotate, but most are based in Maine and currently include the Freeport Conservation Trust, Wolfe’s Neck Center, and Bicycle Coalition of Maine. To date, Maine Beer Co. has given away nearly half a million dollars.
“If I wanted to just make beer I’d probably just be a home brewer,’’ says Kleban, citing the company’s motto, “Do what’s right,’’ printed on every bottle. “The desire to do this was to show that it doesn’t have to be a race to the bottom.’’
NEW TAP ROOM AND WHAT’S NEXT
Until 2011, it was illegal to operate a tap room pouring full beers in Maine.
As part of the Maine Beer Guild, Kleban helped change that, and Maine Beer Co.’s Freeport location opened in 2013.
“Tasting-room culture wasn’t what it is now,’’ says Kleban. “We built a tasting room that we thought was way oversized. If you ever come here you’ll laugh.’’
The new tasting room takes over the former production space (which was relocated to a big barn-like structure to the side of the building), and is about six times as large as before.
Since the winter months dominate in Maine, outdoor features, including plants and a granite fountain feature, were brought in. There’s a wood-fired pizza-maker onsite, adding to the cozy feel. Draft lines in the new space have expanded from eight to 20, and a new experimental Black Barn series of brews will be available only at the brewery.
Ten years and dozens of beers later, Kleban has a hard time picking a favorite.
“It’s like picking your favorite child,’’ he says, singling out Peeper and Woods & Waters, an IPA brewed to commemorate the naming, in 2016 by President Obama, of the national monument. “It depends on the day, and how they’re acting.’’
As for what’s next, Kleban says the company will continue to focus on hoppy beers, experimenting with new varietals but ultimately staying true to itself.
“I often tell people, just be authentic, don’t try to follow trends,’’ says Kleban. “Just be true to yourself and true to your artistic vision when you’re developing a beer recipe. If you’re authentic, that’s going to translate.’’
Maine Beer Co.’s new taproom is located at 525 US-1 in Freeport, Maine. A grand opening party takes place Saturday, March 9. Tasting room hours are 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.