Aloft in Portland: The Northeast Brew Scene from 4,000 Feet

Mj 618_348_portland beer camp
Chris Pagnotta

Sierra Nevada’s Beer Camp Across America bus tour has officially reached the east coast, joining 100 other brewers in Portland, Maine to represent every brewer from New York on north. The northeast beer scene may be best known for its rustic styles offered by breweries like Oxbow, Two Roads, or Allagash whose Belgian White can be found on tap nationwide. That’s not to say that the saisons and farmhouse ales are all you can find in this region. Maine Beer, for example, mines more traditional territories like hoppy IPAs and Pale Ales. Their booth at the festival will feature the longest line of the evening as they pour Lunch their west coast IPA and Dinner an Imperial IPA. But first the bus, which has so far been consistently behind schedule, has to get there.

Sierra Nevada’s Dan Root shrugs off the missing bus, “The theme seems to be the that everything is a disaster and then everyone pulls together at the last minute and we pull it off.” The bus did arrive in time for a hot air balloon ride first thing in the day. As it pulled out at 5 AM, evidence of the previous night’s debauchery was apparent. Stacks of empty bottles sat in a box next to a keg, just emptied, touting a newly minted airlock bubbling with a homebrewed — or rather, bus-brewed — batch of Berliner Weisse. “We couldn’t get a boil going with what we had on the bus,” says Sierra Nevada’s Brian Grossman, “but by pouring from the coffee machine we could mash and sparge and that’s good enough for a Berliner. We had White Labs overnight us some yeast.” 

At the parking lot, waivers are signed, allowing for no-fault gory death and seven of the nation’s best brewers clamber into a wicker basket, each with pockets full of beer and a bottle of Three Sheets White Rum from Ballast Point. Everyone agrees on two points: Adrenaline is a fine cure for a hangover, and the best food pairing for a hot air balloon ride is a Sculpin IPA and pop tarts. We touch down in the small yard of a middle-aged woman who is actually delighted to find a band of brewers landing perilously close to her house. Neighbors congregate, and rum is passed around the gathering crowd. We later learn that a second balloon crashed in a cemetery. No beer was harmed.

The crew still has time for a quick stop at Allagash Brewery which features a separate building dedicated exclusively to beers brewed with funky yeast and bacteria and one of the nation’s few coolships, a shallow pan used to cool beer and spontaneously ferment it with the yeast and bacteria in the open air. Allagash’s Resurgam is blended from three vintages of beer fermented in the vessel and aged in barrels. It’s tart and refreshing with an almost yogurt-like undertone. It’s easily the best beer we sample in the city. 

As we finally leave for the festival at Thompson’s Point everyone in the back of the bus is giddy. Beers are passed around and single malt whisky appears, consumed with blinding speed. John Mallet, the director of operations for Bell’s Brewery, strips down to his shorts and sprawls out across the top of a cooler to offer body shots to any who dares. We politely decline.  

As predicted, the festival comes together at the last minute. The bus arrives at the festival grounds to find excited beer fans lined up at the entrance and the brewery booths waiting to be manned. As the brewers collect their festival passes it is explained that those sober enough to legally serve beer (apparently Maine is strict about such things) can pour from their breweries stations and the rest will be manned by festival workers. Marching orders in hand, everyone fans into the dusty festival grounds to continue the celebration.


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