SEBAGO’S NEW DIGS

words KATHRYN WILLIAMS  |  photography DOUGLAS MERRIAM

 

The 20-year-old craft brewery’s new Gorham facility
shows sometimes the destination is about the journey.

It’s a long story involving overbooked flights, match-making friends and missed connections, but Sebago Brewing Company in Scarborough was the location of my first date with my future husband. We celebrated our fourth anniversary in October. Sebago celebrated its 20th in June. I gave my husband a crystal beer stein (to replace the one I accidentally broke). Sebago celebrated with
a new 30,965-square-foot headquarters, brewery and tasting room in Gorham. After a tour of the facilities from SBC Co-Founder and Vice President Kai Adams, I have a few ideas about how to fill that stein.

Known for its American-style ales and family-friendly pub menu, Sebago already has its die-hard fans. The company’s brewpubs in Gorham, Scarborough, Portland and Kennebunk are regularly packed. Sebago’s new “destination brewery,” however, is a jewel among Maine breweries (tallying roughly 130 at press time) for a number of reasons.

Kai Adams, Sebago co-founder and vice president, on the catwalk used to access the
15-foot mash mixer, lauter tun, kettle and whirlpool at the brewery.

“I’m a kid in a candy store,” says Adams, as he walks through the airy 122-seat tasting room, past a gigantic wood-fired pizza oven, to an outdoor seating area with custom-made stone fire pit ready for the snowmobilers and cross-country skiers who promise to arrive via the area’s newly cut trails come winter.

The brewery’s location is what stands out first. On 5.2 acres parceled out of a 258-acre tract along the Presumpscot River recently acquired by the Shaw Brothers Family Foundation, the brewery abuts the historic Mosher family farm, one of the oldest continuously operating farms in the state (since 1770). From the fire pit one can watch the sunset over recently cleared fields (and one day, hopefully, an ice-skating rink). Not 10 miles away sits the lake that gives the brewery its name and whose waters flow through its pipes. Adams and his partners and co-founders, Brad Monarch and Tim Haines, had been keeping an eye on the property for nearly four years.

Later in the tour, with a twinkle in his eye, Adams will reveal another advantage of Sebago’s agricultural setting: This summer he and his team grew 450 pounds of barley in a field behind the brewery. Malted by Maine Malt House in Aroostook, they plan to use it for what would be the state’s first estate beer—a beer brewed exclusively with ingredients grown on brewery grounds, a feat currently managed by only a handful of breweries in the world.

To understand the excitement over the new brewery, however, one must go inside, to the taps and bright shiny workings of the beast. There aren’t many craft brewers in the state working a four-vessel, 40-BBL setup (which one beer blog describes as the Tesla Roadster of brewhouse setups). “BBL” stands for barrels—or how much beer the system can brew at one time, though fermenting space also limits output. Sebago’s largest fermenter holds 5,000 gallons. the brewery’s overall capacity has increased by 30%. (In an example of the uniquely collaborative culture among Maine brewers, where mentees grow into mentors and breweries often sell their outfits to smaller, expanding competitors rather than sell equipment piecemeal, Lone Pine Brewing Co. has purchased Sebago’s old brewery.)

“The message,” however, “isn’t bigger, it’s better,” says Adams. The new automated production system allows for more consistent batches on a less grueling schedule for Sebago staff. While a second, smaller pilot system is dedicated to experimentation—producing small-batch beers like Danquito, a Mexican Session India Pale Lager, and Pack in the Day, a hazy double IPA developed by the packaging crew. In a small barrel room, kettle sours age in oak. Adams knows that in today’s crowded craft market, Sebago must innovate to thrive.

He is no longer Sebago’s head brewer, a title he relinquished around 2011 to focus on the front-facing part of the business. “People should do what they do best,” he explains with a self-deprecating laugh on the catwalk used to access the 15-foot mash mixer, lauter tun, kettle and whirlpool. Next to us, one of his brewers works a touchscreen panel that looks like the command center for the Death Star.

When the first Sebago brewpub (the very location where my husband wooed me over Frye’s Leap) opened on June 16, 1998, it was considered a small, independent business amid a sea of chain restaurants. Twenty years later, Adams notes, the Portland location is often deemed a chain in a sea of independents. It’s a tightrope Sebago walks, more than ever with this impressive expansion and reflected in the facility itself: a balance between the tried-and-true and innovation, each feeding the other. It makes Sebago’s new brewery not just a destination, but a fascinating and physical representation of what it takes to “make it” for the long term in Maine’s craft beer scene: respect, investment and plenty of room to make discoveries as well as mistakes. Sounds kind of like a marriage.

sebagobrewing.com

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