Signifiers

Allagash Brewing Company — Chasing Waves

Peering through my hotel window, it’s still dark. Street lights cast a yellow, incandescent glow on the icy asphalt below. When I meet Allagash Brewing’s Mat Trogner out front, he tells me, “We’re gonna take it a little slow. I heard some of these back streets are a bit gnarly this morning.”

We cross the Casco Bay Bridge into South Portland, Maine. It’s more residential here, and the intertwined neighborhoods unfold as the busier Old Port area disappears in the rearview. Pushing further towards Cape Elizabeth, the roads get narrower, houses larger. It’s beautiful, serene, quiet. There’s enough light in the pre-­dawn morning to see the outlines of waves, white caps in the distance and lobster boats moored a few hundred yards out.

But it’s the sound that stands out more than anything. It’s rough this morning, waves crashing on the jagged rock that lines the shore. Kettle Cove is one of Trogner’s favorite spots to take photos—ones that sometimes end up on Allagash’s stunning Instagram feed. He brings his dogs sometimes. Other times, he shoots Allagash founder Rob Tod and a host of other employees as they head out to surf—even when it’s February.

When we get to the brewery, it becomes clear that you can get a sense of the company’s past by poking around the building. A large wall opposite the main brew deck was previously an exterior wall—the Allagash logo that once welcomed visitors remains. On that same wall, a seemingly out­-of-­place overhead lamp juts outs, a one-time exterior light that used to lead the way in. An old door to the Curieux barrel room includes an inspirational quote:

“Innovation: continually pushing the limits of beers and ourselves.”

Another place you might look for that history is down. In the back of the brewery, where they house various barrels and fermenters, there are a few shapes painted on the floor in varying colors. A closer look reveals they outline the original brewhouse setup Tod started back in the mid­-1990s. The heat exchanger, lauter tun, and grist case, among others, are all outlined on the floor, serving as a reminder of the early days.

While Allagash’s past is storied, around every corner is evidence of the brewery’s future. Beyond the brewhouse paintings, old dairy tanks sit, serving as holding vessels for beer aging on various fruits. “The longer, more elliptical shape gives more surface area for the beer to come in contact with the fruit, and we think that imparts more flavor,” Mike Guarracino tells me as we slip into the large back room.

In the back-corner tasting area, we try some of Allagash’s smaller format bottles. The room itself is like stepping into a beer museum. Allagash’s original sign, which looks something like a ’70s psychedelic-rock poster, hangs proudly. A graveyard of old bottles—mostly Belgian brews—haunts the shelves. We start with a Coolship Cerise. Brewed with Maine cherries and aged in oak, there’s a complex balance of fruit, funk, and earthy wood-­aged notes.

During my time here, I try Resurgam (the word is Portland’s city motto, Latin for “I shall rise again”), Coolship Red, and some Ghoulschip taken directly from the barrel. The latter is Allagash’s unique take on a pumpkin beer. Brewed with local gourds, fresh molasses, and pumpkin seeds, Ghoulschip is only made one day a year (Halloween), and spends the night in the coolship getting inoculated by local microorganisms—perhaps ghouls and goblins as well. These are unique offerings, and some that Allagash takes pride in producing.

In fact, Allagash is really more like two breweries in one. Many know them for their volume-leading witbier, and it’s the engine that powers the vehicle. But there’s also a robust, thriving, and innovative barrel and wild ale program that continues to churn out new and interesting beers. I ask Guarracino about the commitment to a program that’s surely a burden to maintain, from the ingredients to the time and space required for aging, the lower yields, and just generally so much work for so little beer, relatively speaking. “One percent of sales, 100% of soul,” he says. “We can only utilize the coolship for about a month a year, [so the] weather has to be just right.”

It’s at these crossroads where Allagash operates deftly, balancing brand image with sales, volume with vision. White may be the brain, but it’s their fruited, oaked, and soured ales that are the heart. While White is the trusty standby, it’s the barreled offerings that pique the interest of the tickers and chasers—and serve, perhaps counterintuitively, as a marketing strategy of their own.

It would be easy to envision a scenario where a coolship program like this one would be scrapped in favor of diverting efforts to much more profitable endeavors elsewhere. Instead, Allagash rewards their consumers with a unique experience. We crunch through the snow at the back of the brewery and make our way to the tiny room just off the edge of the brewery. Inside it’s small, cold. There are stained glass windows, created by an employee, including the Allagash “A” on the entryway door. The coolship itself consumes most of the room. Finally, there’s a narrow walkway allowing access to the vessel, windows above which tilt inward, letting the cool air waft in. It feels like a church. In a sense, it is.

Early the next morning, I join Evan Culver on the main brew deck where he’s making Allagash White. White is the beer that originally pumped life into Allagash, and it pumps to this day, the sales and volume leader by a significant margin. “White is around 80% of our total volume, and we brew about 1,300 barrels per week,” Jeff Pillet-­Shore says.

It’s internally scrutinized more than ever these days, too, due in large part to the dedicated lab Allagash created to test their beers before sending them out to market. As we’re walking around, Trogner grabs a handful of coriander and lets the tiny orbs roll off his hand. There’s a peppery, herbaceous quality to it that, after nibbling on a few, reveals itself to be one of White’s backbones.

But back to that lab. Beakers and measuring instruments neatly line the walls. Biologist and head of quality control, Zach Bodah, explains why there are petri dishes with contents of varying colors in them, and why there’s a bottle perched on a stand with a laser at the ready to beam right through its neck: “We use that to calculate the amount of carbon dioxide in the bottle.”

Bodah runs down the various tests they perform, and about 50% of it goes right over my head. But the takeaway is that they consider testing extremely serious business. He opens a refrigerator, and there are sealed test dishes attempting to detect microorganism growth, and test tubes lined neatly with tags that read “Terminal Gravity Primary Enrichment.”

Following the lab visit, it’s time to enjoy and think about some White. Trogner and Bodah each begin by asking me about my swirling technique. Stirring up the sediment in the bottle is desirable, they tell me—the way Allagash wants the beer to be enjoyed. Many employees have their own preferred method. So committed are they to this agitation that they ship their kegs upside down, forcing the need to flip them right side up upon arrival, jostling the sediment and liquid inside. “Getting the freshest keg of refrigerated White shipped upside down to California is the best way to keep selling more of it,” Pillet-­Shore concludes.

I opt for an elevated swirl—not an Allagash-approved Official Swirling Method™ just yet, though I certainly lobbied—and pour it into a glass next to one that’s been poured sans ­swirl. The creamier, mixed-up version is different, though perhaps not overwhelmingly so. But maybe my palate’s not finely tuned enough yet.

This obsessive dedication expands far beyond White, outside the brewery walls and into the world these people call home. The Maine plaque that hangs proudly in the brewery. The sour beers like Farm To Face and Pick Your Own that are aged on Maine­-sourced fruits. House Beer-filled wooden crates that are still burnished by a friend of the brewery in Maine. It’s one thing to be dedicated your region, and another entirely to actively give back to it like they do with their Tribute series. Each sale of Fluxus, Hugh Malone, Victor, and Victoria sends money back to selected efforts in Maine such as Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital at the Maine Medical Center, and the Victoria Mansion.

Allagash is the 42nd biggest craft brewery by volume according to the Brewers Association’s 2014 rankings. But it’s the quaintness of the place that sticks with me—the family vibe that seems to permeate the facility is palpable. That quaintness extends beyond the walls and out to greater Portland, bolstering that vibe. You’d be hard-pressed to walk into any bar or restaurant in Portland and not see White on tap. It’s a fixture of The Forest City. On Allagash’s street sits three other breweries. The younger upstarts that have occupied these units have grown, changed, moved on to allow more new breweries to grow or move. And all of them gaze out their windows at the elder statesman, a fixture at the end of their block, the one that paved the way—one way, anyway—for them to follow.