Signifiers

It’s That Feel — Bissell Brothers Brewing Company in Portland, ME

“Summer of 2005 changed my life.”

Peter Bissell is leaning back in a chair when he says these words, Weihenstephaner in hand, reflecting on the moment he knew he needed to be in Portland. “I had never seen anything like this place.”

He and his brother Noah are winding down with a couple of beers when his voice shifts with the gravity of the statement. They've just spent an entire day at the brewery, but no fatigue is apparent as he conveys how the city changed him. 

“Even then, over 10 years ago, it was on the cutting edge of nightlife, dining, and drinking in Maine,” he raves. “It’s ballooned twenty-fold since then, but even then it blew my mind, growing up in northern Maine.” 

Milo, ME is where Peter and his younger sibling grew up. It’s a tiny one (the last census pegs its population at just north of 2,000), a place where geography becomes a tagline: The Town of Three Rivers. The brothers fondly recall needing to make drives to Bangor (a 45-minute trip, if you’re lucky) for household items not available locally. So when they eventually made their way beyond its confines to attend college, their worldview widened significantly.

Peter’s first real taste of Portland happened when he relocated for the summer, moving two and a half hours south to shack up with friends from the University of Southern Maine. It was an opportunity to step outside of his comfort zone. 

“There I was, alone in a new city. I walked, got my bearings downtown, and met up with some friends from college at Gritty McDuff's brewpub,” he remembers. “I couldn't believe how cosmopolitan it all felt. The initial experience of the vibrance of the Old Port on a weekend night was electrifying. I could not believe that I now lived in this place!” 

Just like that, he knew he was going to call Portland home permanently.

“You don’t know what’s possible until you see it,” Peter says in hindsight. “You’re limited by what you know and have experienced, and coming down this way just opened up everything for me.”

He couldn’t have known it then, but that was merely step one.

The King’s Head is a cozy local haunt in the Old Port. The walk from the hotel is colder than anticipated, but feels appropriate for a seaside town in April. It’s gray, flat, and yet somehow charming. Inside, the taps are flush with Maine beers. The Bissells sit at a table tucked away in the back. Their story starts to unfold over beers, fried pickle chips, and calamari.

Peter would ferry out to Diamond’s Edge, a restaurant located on Diamond Island in the Casco Bay. “[There was] tons of money to be made, but you got your ass kicked because, by nature of the location, the restaurant would go from being dead to being absolutely mobbed as the ferries came in each night,” he remembers. 

After work, Peter and his friends would head out on the town to unwind. Noah, only 20 at the time and visiting from college, couldn’t tag along. Luckily for him, there was always beer in the fridge, and it was better than what most college students were accustomed to, so he started developing a taste for fancier brews.

“Basically, you’re spending money to force beer on people for a long time.” Noah’s reflecting on his early homebrewing days and his grin indicates he’s just fine with them being firmly in the rearview. Those early homebrews came shortly after his discovery of craft at Peter’s apartment. “2010 would have been the first time I brewed awful beer,” he says with a chuckle. He was compelled partly by a romantic notion that he could brew better beer than what he could buy on the shelves at convenience stores. But of course, those first homebrews are first homebrews—some can be difficult to get through.

It felt right, and that intuition, that gut instinct, has guided us to a lot of our decisions. You can number-crunch, you bean count and assess probabilities, but if it feels right, it feels right—and it felt right.
— Peter Bissell

He forged ahead, continuing to brew while still in college, developing recipes. But post-college life was just around the corner, and with it, the intimidating “what now?” As a psychology major, there were “no real clear prospects of what I was going to do after school.” But like his older brother, he wanted to be in The Forest City. “I was pretty sure I wanted to move to Portland, and I was thinking I might try to get a job at Allagash,” he says.

Peter had been learning about business on his own time, working as a photographer and running his studio. He recalls Noah coming to him in 2011 and saying: “This is what I want to do. We should do a brewery together. Us working together would be better. I don’t want to go work for someone else.” He says his younger brother’s idea came out of the blue, caught him off-guard, but he was extremely excited by it. He was getting momentum with his own career, but there was a natural draw to create something with Noah.

“I’m not going to claim it was some sort of brilliant judgement on my part,” Peter says. “But it felt right, and that intuition, that gut instinct, has guided us to a lot of our decisions. You can number-crunch, you bean count, and assess probabilities, but if it feels right, it feels right—and it felt right.” 

In the weeks that followed, the two exchanged hundreds of texts. The flow of ideas was constant. Noah, who admits he’s not much of a text person, says his final semester of college was spent furiously thumbing out messages to his older brother. Bissell Brothers poured their first beers in December 2013. 

“[Those two years] taught me so much about life, what it takes to do something like this,” Peter says. “I don’t try to be evangelical about it, but anyone can do it. It’s a mindset. It was a transformative period for me.” 

That being said, it wasn’t easy. There are loads of obstacles you don’t see coming when starting a business. “If you go down this road, you will be faced with a million reasons to quit,” Peter says. Questioning the idea, realizing how much more things cost, how much longer everything takes. These are challenges you’ll face as you move forward. How you deal with them is a test of your mettle. “That’s part of the story that I like to think anyone can relate to,” he continues. “That transformation. It’s not just beer, it’s not just starting a brewery—it’s shattering your beliefs of what you think you can do.”

The Thirsty Pig is a must-visit bar for craft drinkers visiting Portland, but it was still relatively new when the Bissells were working there. It was the place where the brothers developed a passion—and a business plan—for craft beer. Allison Stevens owns the bar, and remembers the vital role the Bissells played in solidifying her establishment as a craft beer destination. She recalls Noah striking up conversations with customers to find a beer that suited them.

“Noah got a following of knowledgeable beer drinkers almost immediately,” she says. “I noticed his shifts were busier than others. Customers would come in to enjoy beer discussions with him.”

Looking back, she can see it was an on-the-job consumer focus group of sorts as Noah learned what people liked and didn’t like about the Maine craft beer scene—a huge asset for someone about to open a brewery. His brother was no slouch, either.

“Peter’s enthusiasm for the beer community was visible immediately,” Stevens says. “He sometimes brought his business right to work and seamlessly got meetings done while pouring pints and making killer [sausage] links.”

At the time, Peter was building a photography business shooting the food and drink scene in Portland, elevating the visual aesthetic of local businesses. As it turns out, that’s another useful tool for an entrepreneur.

“Peter used his photos to tell a story nearly every shift he worked,” Stevens says. “He took time to grab shots of the perfect dog and beer combo. He elevated the presentation of our food. Whenever we did a big event or tap feature, Peter would make a list, researching all beers involved, design the list with fonts and graphics to match the feel of the event, and even make a playlist to keep the appropriate party mood.”

The two were actively informing the future of their brewery—research, presentation, marketing—even if it wasn’t readily apparent to them at the time. When it came time to introduce Bissell Brothers Brewing Company, it just made sense to host their first event—indeed, pour their first beers—at The Thirsty Pig. On Dec. 7, 2013, Bissell Brothers officially launched.

“It felt like my own brothers just pulled off the greatest beer launch in Portland history,” Stevens recalls. 

The brothers themselves felt slightly differently about the situation.

“It’s truly mortifying to think about how ignorant we were,” Noah says. 

“That aged me a little bit” Peter says, erupting into laughter.

“This is our friend, he made beer with us.” 

It’s perhaps not the way most brewery owners would describe their distributor, but that’s how Noah Bissell introduces Josh Schlesinger. Now, granted, he’s not just another distributor. In fact, Schlesinger is the second employee of Bissell Brothers, and the now owner-operator of Sleek Machine Distro. The idea for the latter was born out of Peter and Noah feeling a traditional distribution route was not for them. 

“Breweries and beer bars have gone through a rapid, massive transformation in past 15 years, distribution hasn’t really changed, more or less,” says Peter. He pauses to clarify. “It’s a vital thing—breweries need distributors. But there needs to be smaller players, and we saw this. We didn’t want our beer to be another SKU, and we didn’t want our beer to be used as a tool.” 

During the grace period Maine grants breweries to engage a distributor, one triggered when Bissell reached the volume production threshold of 50,000 gallons (or roughly 1,600 barrels), the brothers approached Schlesinger with an idea. He was already handling in-house distribution, so the Bissells saw a path that deviated a bit from the norm. Having opened their own business just years prior, they realized what they were asking was risky.

We didn’t want our beer to be another SKU, and we didn’t want our beer to be used as a tool.
— Peter Bissell

Peter explains: “We asked him if he would be up for doing this because he would need to become a business owner. And I’m very proud of him, he went through a lot of the same process we went through.” 

Ultimately, Schlesinger agreed and Sleek Machine was born. The brothers and their new distributor still work very closely, almost as if things never changed. And while the two are tied by a business arrangement, at the core is a friendship. 

“It’s about the trust we have in him that we could not have gotten with anyone else,” Noah says.

1 Industrial Way has served as home to a number of notable Portland breweries. Maine Beer Company, Bissell, and now Foundation Brewing Company. When Bissell launched, Maine Beer Co. was in the process of moving to their new home in Freeport. They reached out and offered to sell the brothers some of the equipment at the space to aid in their setup. Noah still seems surprised recalling the time David Kleban reached out to him: 

“I remember getting the call, I was at The Pig, and at the time I was like, ‘Jesus Christ, the owner of Maine Beer Company is on the phone!’” he says with a belly laugh. The Bissells admired these brewers, held them in high regard, and here they were receiving a helping hand directly from them. “They were cognizant enough of our situation and were nice enough to try to lend us a hand when they could have just as easily sold the stuff outright. I’ll never forget getting that call."

Substance, an American IPA, was their only beer at the time, produced and sold for their initial nine months. It was followed by the Baby Genius, a Hoppy Session Ale. Since then, they’ve slowly built out their lineup, working in more hoppy offerings (Reciprocal, i-Lucky, Industry Versus Inferiority) as well as darker selections (Umbra Oatmeal Stout, Angels With Filthy Souls Porter). But perhaps no Bissell beer is more sought after than Swish. 

When it was introduced in January 2015, lines formed, posts in trade forums were created, and out-of-state plates started pulling up in front of the brewery. If Substance made the proverbial path, Swish was the beer that set that path on fire and created a new one in its own image. The brothers were now selling out of their beer on a weekly basis. It was time for more brewing capacity, more space. And that’s why, merely two years in, they needed to expand.

It’s not just beer, it’s not just starting a brewery—it’s shattering your beliefs of what you think you can do.
— Peter Bissell

Fortuitously, an investment group was looking to develop an inexplicably overlooked swath of land jutting out into the Fore River in the shadows of the planes landing at Portland International Jetport. Thompson’s Point, Bissell’s new home, was little more than an afterthought for many years, until Forefront Partners came along. Their challenges with developing the area were numerable. It’s not as if no one hadn’t previously tried to develop the area.

“There have been a lot of people, from developers and entrepreneurs to artists and city officials who have looked at the site and thought that it represented a great opportunity,” Chris Thompson of Forefront says. “But it has been a complex and costly site to develop, and this was the primary obstacle to forward motion for all those years before 2009-10 while the site sat waiting for something to happen.” 

But the group put together a plan to make the area a destination. They knew they had to “create reasons for people—locals and visitors, young and old—to want to come to this peninsula on the outskirts of town,” so they developed a list of wide-ranging businesses that would support this endeavor, and the Bissells were one of them. They knew they wanted a brewery early on in the planning, but were unsure which brewery that would be. Mutual friends introduced the partners to Peter and that got the ball rolling. The new space opened in June 2016.

“We had wanted to have a great Maine brewer at the Point since the inception of the project,” Thompson says. “We’d explored a few ideas, but none of our discussions came to fruition. From the first conversation with Pete, it was evident that these guys were something special. At least from our perspective as amateur beer fans, they had a completely different approach to their craft and how they shared it with the world that was fresh, engaging, deep, and actually very inspiring.”

There’s a building at the edge of the road back in the Bissells’ hometown of Milo, one that Peter remembers pretty well. It was a snowmobile dealership and then a logging industry supplies store when he was younger. But more than that, as a child, it was a visual indicator, a milemarker alerting him that he was almost home. 

“As a kid, with my head pressed against the back window, seeing it down the road was always a sign that we had returned home to Milo from a trip to the Bangor area.” 

That memory from his childhood will soon house the third and latest iteration of Bissell Brothers as they establish an outpost in their hometown. Their new facility will focus on wood aging, sours, Lagers, and mixed-fermentation creations.

Things have a funny way of working out sometimes. It’s clear how much Portland has changed the Bissell brothers, how much it widened their gaze. How they discovered a city—not to mention an industry—that they fell in love with. But that gaze now fittingly turns inward as they pay homage, in a way, to their beginnings. 

“It is still surreal to think that we purchased a facility in our hometown to further our brewing business,” Peter says. “If you had told me that any of this would happen five years ago, it could not have seemed more of an improbable situation.”

It’s a manifestation of their old life intertwined with their new, and proof that the importance and reverence for both exists in the same space. In a way, opening a brewery in Milo makes perfect sense. 

“There was never, ever a question of where we were going to do a second location if we left Portland,” Peter says.