There are so many wonderful things about summer—you’ve got good weather, you’ve got Summer Fridays (hopefully), you’ve got baseball and open-air events, you’ve got the beach and no excuse to not go to the beach. But one of the best things about Summer—if not the absolute most best thing—is the beloved road trip.
I have found my mind returning to a delightful trip that involved some very warm days and very cold beers. The main players were a 1999 Buick LeSabre, two thirsty adventurers and the charming and delicious Portland, Maine. It was ultimately too brief of a visit—two-and-a-half days are not enough to take in all Portland has to offer, especially if you want to do some other sightseeing (which you should—Maine is beautiful), but we gave it our all in attempting to drink as many beers as possible while still maintaining some form of composure.
What follows is an account of our whirlwind adventure on the Portland beer trail. Perhaps it will inspire you to make a visit to this city by the sea and dig on some of their fine craft brews, of which there are a whole lot. And we’re off.
Now maybe when you hear someone use the words “breweries” and “Portland” in the same sentence, you think of that other Portland on the West side of things. This wouldn’t be entirely crazy—Portland, OR, certainly has its fair share of craft breweries—but the more easterly Portland is nothing to sneeze at. The city is home to a number of high-profile breweries (Allagash and Oxbow, for example) and plenty of new beermakers. In other words, Portland is a for-sure place to go to drink beer. The state of Maine in general, according to people and companies who make a study of these things, has the second-most breweries per resident, clocking in at 7.7 per 100,000 residents. They cover all the flavors and varieties—from ales and goses to porters and IPAs—and come in a variety of sizes, some having wide-open spaces with lots on tap while others offer only a small room with a few different tastes. Their combined efforts however have made this city a solid contender for an outstanding beer-cation destination.
Certainly the most important thing to consider when planning a beer-cation is finding a town with great tasting suds, but there are other factors to think about, mainly, walkability. Portland is easy to maneuver around, so you can hit many breweries just by strolling around town. There are also brew buses, should you prefer to have someone else do the heavy lifting. And there are several resources to help you map out your tour to make things more streamlined.
For us, there was no point in wasting any time on a beer tour. But you do you. There is no wrong way to do a brewery tour. (Although you should definitely check tasting rooms hours because the wrong way to do a brewery tour is to go on a day that it’s closed. But that’s really the only wrong way to do it.)
First, we feast
As an East Coaster, I have the benefit of being within driving distance to Maine (it’s about 5.5 hours from NYC). Wanting to take a leisurely pace on our way up the coast, we opted to stop overnight in Sturbridge, MA. I’d heard Sturbridge was cute and it was in a good half-way-ish sort of spot that would break the drive up nicely, but what I did not know about Sturbridge is that housed within it is seriously no joke basically the best barbecue joint in New England, B.T.’s Smokehouse. We quite literally stumbled upon it: we hadn’t booked anything for the night because we like to live fast and loose. Truth be told, we just weren’t sure how far we’d get, but living fast and loose sounds cooler.
But we rolled into Sturbridge with no room for the night, so just drove along the main drag until we decided the Econo Lodge would do just fine. Hungry explorers as we were, we inquired of our fine innkeeper if there was any good barbecue in the area. He replied, “Well you can find only the best barbecue in the region just down the hill.” Admittedly we were skeptical—how many times has a guy at an Econo Lodge told you that the best barbecue is just down the hill and that actually panned out? Exactly. But we were game. And also really hungry, so down the hill we went.
It looked unassuming—a small dining room next to a gas station. But, oh, the gods did smile upon us. We ordered nearly everything on the menu—brisket, chicken, shredded pork, more pork, ribs, sides of cornbread, collards, slaw and black-eyed peas. We BYOB-ed (thanks, next-door gas station!) as that is the custom, and we ate all the animals. And we felt no shame.
Tender and delicious, smoky and melt-in-your-mouth good, this meal made it hard for us to believe anything after would live up to it. It also reminded us that one of the most fun parts about a road trip is just winging it, for better or for worse (this was obviously a for-better moment). Our first day a hot success, we slowly ambled back up the hill on a meat high and lolled off to sleep. Never again shall I doubt the Econo Lodge man.
On the road again
Having had a restful, meat-sleep sort of night, we were up early and ready to go that following day. A final thanks to Mr. Econo Lodge and we checked out, eager to take in the sights of Sturbridge. We kicked around town for a while, had some brekkie at Annie’s Country Kitchen—homestyle, delicious stick-to-your-ribs sort of food.
But then were on our way—destination, Portland, ME. The ride was easy, thanks in no small part to Car Talk podcasts. You can never go wrong with Click and Clack. We eventually rolled into Portland and headed to our hotel. We opted to stay in the West End, which is a nice little historic area in downtown and a good jumping-off spot for exploring the city. It’s close to many restaurants and historical spots and shops in the Old Port. And also the beer.
There are many ways to conquer the Portland brew scene. One is to hop the Maine Brew Bus and take a tour. They have a number of them—both private and regularly scheduled, on the bus, on a bike or by foot—should you choose to take that route. And if you’re someone who prefers something more organized, this could be a good move. Another option is to just take a totally casual approach to things and let your feet lead you around town, making random stops along the way. Or you could do as we did and look up a bunch of spots, decide which ones interest you the most, “map” things out (we only slightly did this because I am way too lazy to do that much work—I just noted what area of town each was in and grouped things that way) and then get to drinkin’.
Day 1: Beer, please
Once we got checked in and settled, we hit the streets and started walking to see what was what. I really can’t stress how much of a fan I am of just wandering while on vacation. Cities seem to reveal things in more interesting ways when you don’t have a plan—and I think it helps get a better understanding of the lay of the land. So wander we did.
Portland has much to offer—a historic coastal town that’s both artistic and outdoorsy. It’s got working fishing wharves and cobblestone streets, old-timey pubs and award-winning restaurants, unique shops and stores and galleries, idyllic parks and historic buildings and the beautiful Maine coast. It’s a lovely place to pass a few (or more) days and can appeal to all types of travelers. Even if they don’t like beer. But I don’t know anyone like that. And this thing is about beer, so let’s get back to that. By way of wandering.
After our once-around town was complete, we found ourselves standing in front of an interesting-looking building. With a little sleuthing (i.e., reading the sign on said building), we deduced we had stumbled upon our first destination, Liquid Riot.
Liquid Riot is a brewery/distillery/restaurant/bar located on the waterfront in Old Port. It’s a funky industrial warehouse situation with lots of indoor seating—bar seating, high tops, cozy couches—as well as an outdoor deck out back. Hot dog! You can see all the inner workings of the brewery at, well, work. The brewery and distillery are on-site and on-view for all. The whole place had a nice, communal, welcoming vibe and we could’ve gotten comfy anywhere, but we opted for the porch—I am not one to pass up outdoor seating, and who doesn’t love looking at boats and birds while tossing back some brews?
We went the flight route for our visit:
- Primus Belgian-style Ale
- Albino Stout
- Head Stash IPA
- OOB Bruin Flemish-style Sour Brown/Red Ale
- Bobo Pivo Czech-style Pilsner
- Paul Bunyan Pils
- Mob Scene IPA
- Irish Goodbye Stout
We also ordered their Bierschnaps (spirits made from beer) and the housemade pretzel with spicy hot mustard and the pickle plate (Maine cucumbers—sweet, sour and spicy).
We enjoyed mostly everything, but the standout was definitely the Bierschnaps—golden and delicious and easy to drink. We happily purchased a bottle of that, which surprisingly made it all the way back to Brooklyn with us. Good on us.
We sat on that deck for a few hours just really enjoying the whole experience. Once we left, we wandered around some more to just place ourselves and to find a spot for dinner. We opted for some Mexican near our hotel and closed things out with some food and margs. Our first night in Portland was a success. But there was more work to be done the next day.
Day 2: More beer, please
Our second day in Portland found us well rested and ready for beer (so basically much like every other day). After a hearty breakfast to lay the foundation for our big day ahead, we once again hit the bricks. After checking out more of the Old Port area, we ambled up to the East End, walking to Fort Allen Park and along the Eastern Promenade trail (pretty, pretty).
We took our time and just enjoyed the scenery and the cute dogs and more of the scenery. After a while, and once the heat was starting to get to us, it was time for a drink. First stop, Maine Mead Works. I know, mead—the nectar of the gods, the golden elixir—isn’t technically (or even un-technically) beer, but I don’t care. My curiosity was piqued and I was going to have me some mead. And I didn’t even need to fight a Viking to get it.
Maine Mead Works was founded with the help of a South African scholar, so, bonus, drinking it will also make you smart! Or at least a scholar. Of taste. Boom.
The Meadery has tastings every day with flights coming in at $7. Not bad. It’s a cozy space with bar seating as well as table seating in an adjacent room. They also have tasting rooms in Kennebunk and Rockland should you find yourself out thattaway and desirous of mead.
They had two tastings and we had both because what else would we do? You gotta have all the mead. And both were good. There were four HoneyMaker Meads: Dry, Blueberry, Lavender and Semi-Sweet. We also had two of their Ram Island Meads, which have a little carbonation action to make things more festive. We had the Lavender Lemonade and the Habanero Lime. Top marks went to the Dry on the HoneyMaker side and the Habanero Lime on the Ram Island side. We opted to bring home a bottle of the latter as well as a bottle of the Lavender Lemonade as a gifty for someone (perfect for gifting, by the way). Side-note: our bartender was incredibly friendly and informative, which is just the kind of person you need in a meadery. Add that to the yummy drinks and this place definitely deserved a spot on our beer tour, despite being not beer.
From there, we made our way back to the Old Port area to visit Gritty McDuff’s, a.k.a., Gritty’s. I will never not go to a place called Gritty’s, just FYI. The Old Port location has a cozy pub atmosphere and a home-like sort of vibe. It’s got a copper-top bar, some high tops and beer-hall-style tables at which you may toss back any number of their brews. Our tastings consisted of the following:
- Seasonal Vacationland Summer Ale
- Pub Style Ale
- Blueberry Ale
- Black Fly Stout
- Maine’s Best IPA
- Best Brown
- Gritty’s Cider
- Cask Best Bitter
Our favorite was the cider—it had a good, solid, sour taste, but if you don’t like sours, you probably wouldn’t like it. Sours are pretty divisive. The Blueberry was surprisingly good—I am a gazillion percent NOT into blueberry-flavored things, except actual blueberries, so I tend to fear things labeled as such. But this had good flavor and was easy to drink. The Summer Ale was also very easygoing, as was the Pub Style Ale. The heat and walking and drinking had inspired some hunger, so we paired our beverages with a lobster poutine—what delicious devilry is this??!!—and shepherd’s pie, also good, but lobster poutine! That is all.
Moving on! Our next stop was Sebago, which was probably our favorite spot to that point. It just had solid, well-rounded flavors across the board and was more consistent, flavor-wise. Plus, there were lots of IPAs, which is fine by me.
- Darty SZN
- Bru 1 Single Hopped Pale Ale
- Simmer Down Summer Ale
- Vic Secret
- Frye’s Leap IPA
- Runabout Red Ale
- Saddleback Ale
- Lake Trout Stout
Our fave was the Lake Trout Stout, which was nice and smooth. The Red, which had a solid, warm sense, came in a close second. The place had a pretty sleek vibe, design-wise, and the beers definitely had good flavors. But there was still so much more to drink.
Up next was Shipyard Brewing Company.
Fairly recent news items tell of their proposal to transform the brewery and taproom into a beer-themed hotel—a brewtel, as it were—so your beercation options may have just gotten a little better. I quite liked the look and feel of the tasting room. You had to walk through the store, which had t-shirts saying “BEER,” and that immediately pleased me. But the small-ish bar, tables and tasting trays you wrote on with chalk just made me happy. It could’ve been that I already had a fair amount of alcohol in my system, but I feel confident that it was really just a good spot with good beer.
- Fireberry Tea Beer
- Coffee Porter
- Estival Tequila Aged Summer Ale
- Bluefin Stout Dry Irish Stout Nitro
- Old Thumper ESB
- Monkey Fist IPA
- Island Time Session IPA
- Shipyard Mango Tea Beer
- Smashed Blueberry Porter Scotch Ale
Our top drink was the Monkey Fist—a perfect IPA, nice and intense. The Fireberry was also interesting—kind of unexpected, refreshing, brewed with loose tea. And the Tequila Aged Summer Ale was easy going (although less explosive than we’d hoped). All in all, a yummy stop and I still regret not buying myself a BEER t-shirt. What’s wrong with me?
By this point we were pretty pooped and hot and sweaty—it was about 10,000 degrees out—and as you can tell, we’d had a fair amount of alcohol. This may have actually fueled our fire a bit more because now even just thinking about all this makes me tired. Yet we kept on! And we headed to the East Bayside area to Rising Tide Brewing Co. And we were so glad we did.
I wasn’t entirely sure we were going the right way (see previous alcohol consumption), but when we found it, it was like some kind of magical oasis of beer—it’s got a spacious tasting room as well as a patio out front and food trucks. Being singularly minded in terms of beer, we did not indulge in the food trucks, but we did dive deep into the beer. Tell you what, I easily could’ve just sat there for days. Everyone was friendly and it just had a great communal vibe and what turned out to be some fine beers.
- Ishmael American Copper Ale
- Pisces Gose
- House Lager Killer Pilsner
- Nikita Russian Imperial Stout
- Daymark American Pale Ale
- Sou’wester Sour IPA
- Printemps Spring Saison
- Sputnik Merritt’s Belgian Table Bier
We enjoyed the sours here—the Sou’wester was crisp and tart and bright and tasted like some kind of magical science. The Gose, made with Maine seawater, was nicely tart and refreshing. We also loved the Russian Imperial Stout, which was probably our favorite, with its full flavor. It’s basically what you want when you want a stout. The Printemps was also fun to drink—it was complex and flavor-forward and really quite refreshing.
We stayed until they made us leave (they were closing, nothing untoward) and began our trek back to our hotel. On the way, we stopped at a place called Hugo’s, which had a delightful bartender and delicious cocktails.
It’s just a very charming spot with some tasty tipples. We did the Old Cuban—mint, aged rum, fresh lime, bitters, sparkling wine. Then the Oaxaca Old Fashioned—agave spirit, mole demerera, orange twist. We couldn’t have asked for better end to the night.
We’d had a lovely, beer-y day and it was time for rest as we had another full day ahead of us. Drinking is hard.
Day 3: We’re still drinking, obviously (but also other stuff)
So you can’t go to Maine and not go to L.L. Bean. Right? So our next day started with a trek to Freeport, which is where the flagship store is located. We were extremely excited to find the L.L. Bean Bootmobile traveling the same direction we were and took it as a sign we were doing the right thing.
A short time later, we were in the mothership, entering our names to win a fully loaded yurt (we lost). Now you may feel that you don’t want to visit L.L. Bean while in Maine, but I suggest you do, not only because it’s an entire complex, which is fascinating, but also because you may win a fully furnished yurt!
We spent far more time than we intended there, even eating lunch there. But it worked out nicely, given the fact that they had local beers and a really yummy lobster roll. All that was missing was winning a yurt. Have I mentioned the yurt yet?
While in Freeport, you also have to visit Wolfe’s Neck Woods State Park.
Just a quick drive from Freeport city center, Wolfe’s Neck is located on the Casco Bay and has some seriously beautiful rocky shorelines to enjoy. We marched along the shore, dipped into the woods and really enjoyed being there. I would’ve moved in if I could, but of course it’s a state park and they probably don’t allow those sorts of things, which is most unfortunate. Why you gotta do me like that, Maine?
We really spent the entire day there and by the time we made it back into Portland proper, we had very little time to drink—sad! I’d been holding out for Foulmouthed Brewing, located in South Portland, and this was our last chance to get there. We rolled up there toward the end of the night and immediately decided this was an outstanding selection for our last brewery in Portland.
This converted auto garage brew-pub/diner offers something for everyone.
- Garbage Pale Ale
- Mango Floss IPA
- Coconut Cream Stout
- Iron Goddess Saison
- Rhubarb de Garde French-style Ale
- Blue Balls Belgian-style Dark Strong Ale
The Coconut Cream Stout was our favorite. It was an oatmeal stout brewed with toasted coconut. The coconut was mostly on the nose, but it also had a light under-taste of coconut—creamy and very drinkable. The Garbage Pale Ale, apparently made with whatever happens to be laying around (this one had Cascade, Nugget and Australian hops), was also good—it was dry, easy and good for Summer, too. And the Rhubarb de Garde was nice—very complex, it rounded out nicely and was very enjoyable.
We had to move along since we wanted to grab dinner in town, but we just really felt good hanging out there. The food looked tasty and there was some trivia going on and we even got to witness a lovely sunset by the Casco Bay Bridge. Le sigh. But there was no time to cry. There was food to be eaten and drinks to be drinken.
We headed to Little Tap House, which works with local growers and farms, for a late dinner and a couple last beer samples. We had the cheese board and the chef’s meat board and went for a couple of brews we hadn’t tried—Bissel Bros. Substance IPA and Foundation Burnside Brown Ale. The IPA was dank and murky and easy to drink. The brown was a cheerful little brown that delivered all the brown-ness you expect and want.
We stopped at the Thirsty Pig for one last beer—we are not quitters—and then, on our walk back to the inn, popped into Geno’s Rock Club for what was really our last beer. And then it really was time to go. Like I said, drinking is hard, and we’d pretty well gotten into it in the past few days. Plus, we had a drive ahead of us the next day. We tromped back to our room and, equal parts reluctant and relieved, hit the hay.
No more beer (just bloodies) and final thoughts
We couldn’t leave Portland without one more gustatory adventure, so before departing we hit Central Provisions for a little lunch and some light libations (very light!). It’s a small plate sort of joint so there is lots to choose from. Including bloodies, which was what I really needed at that point. The menu changes regularly so go in with an open mind and get a little daring. Also get there early or be prepared for a potential wait—it’s very popular and doesn’t take reservations. Post bloodies, we got our feed on to prepare ourselves for the road. We took our time (no drinking and driving here) and eventually hopped into the Buick and were on our way, waving a bittersweet goodbye to the tasty city that hosted us for a few.
I feel like we barely made a mark in Portland and would gladly go back again. There are many more breweries that we missed and lots more restaurants and bars to investigate. And even the ones we went to have new things coming out all the time (truly—some of what we drank this time won’t be there next time). Simply put, I want more. When that might happen, I couldn’t say. The Buick can only last so long. In the meantime, I’ll be making my own beer and perhaps hosting my own flight tastings. But when I am able to go back, I’ll be happy for it. So, thank you, Portland; thank you, Maine; thank you, Bootmobile (saw it on our way out of town, too); and thank you, liver for being such a trooper. Until next time, Portland. Cheers.