Dave Vancura, Howie Marston, Linda Marston and Betsy Phillips (left to right), all residents of The Highlands Retirement Community in Topsham, make themselves at home at Birchwood Brewing in Gray, which opened on Feb. 15, 2019. Credit: Lori Valigra

AUBURN, Maine — The group entering Side by Each, a new brewery in Auburn, belied the deep knowledge of the craft beer scene typically attributed to millennials.

The 15 people from The Highlands Retirement Community in Topsham turned out not to be novices, but seasoned beer tasters on the craft brewery trail in Maine.

Not the typical tasting enthusiasts, they range in age from 72 to 93.

During the past two years they have made 17 trips to 34 breweries, and accumulated a lot of beer knowledge along the way.

“It’s the enthusiasm of the brewers that attracts me,” said Bill Ewing, 76, who along with The Highlands chef Chris Toole spearheads the trips. Toole has an added in with Maine’s craft beer industry; his son works for Allagash Brewing.

Ewing said socializing is an important part of the trips, as is seeing all the ways each brewery tries to distinguish itself. He and his wife also look for breweries to visit when they travel out of state.

“All these young people, mostly guys, get so excited. It’s such an art form,” said Lynn Lockwood, 75, who is Ewing’s wife. “They’re so jazzed up because they added mango to beer.”

The group visits two breweries every month or other month, actively seeking the newest ones. Trips typically range within 45 minutes of The Highlands. The beer enthusiasts pay $10 to use The Highlands’ bus, and they have a snack and lunch that Toole prepares. They pay separately for whatever beer they taste.

The most recent trip, on April 18, was to Side by Each, an Auburn brewery started by former Baxter Brewing employees that held a grand opening on April 13. The second trip of the day was to Birchwood Brewing in Gray, which opened on Feb. 15.

Another new brewery, Nu Brewery in New Gloucester, was added to the agenda at the last minute, but during a quick stop there between breweries, Toole discovered it wasn’t opening for another three weeks. It may be the destination for a future trip, he said.

Ewing and Toole got the idea for the bus trips, which they call the “beer crew,” after hearing Sean Sullivan, executive director of the Maine Brewers’ Guild, speak on a panel at his alma mater, Bowdoin College.

Franco-American tradition

Upon entering Side by Each, located on Minot Avenue in Auburn, the group headed straight for the long bar perpendicular to the entrance.

There, Matt Johannes, 36, the former head brewer at Baxter Brewing Co. in Lewiston, worked the taps, pouring flights of beer, including flavors like Take a Walk on the Mild Side, My Wife’s Stout, Mallard’s Revenge Coffee Porter and Shoo-ah Bitter.

Johannes co-owns Side by Each with Ben Low, the former head of operations at Baxter. The brewery was named after a Franco-American expression for “side-by-side,” but also signifies the twin cities of Lewiston-Auburn and the pairing of the brewery with an on-site food truck, he said.

Johannes smiled, remembering the group.

“They’re fantastic,” he said. “I saw them on their first brewery tour, which was at Baxter. I have fun talking to folks who know a lot about beer.”

He said the average age of tasters to his location, which is located out of the center of town, is 45-50, older than most breweries.

“That’ll get higher after our visit,” Ewing said.

After the group settled in with their drinks at picnic-style tables in front of the brewery, which is behind glass so visitors can watch production, Johannes and Low talked about the brewery and fielded questions.

“We wanted this to be the last brewery we ever started,” Johannes told the group.

Side by Each makes 12 different types of beer in 5,000 feet of production space. It only distributes locally, and does not plan to can beer. It can make up to 900 barrels per year now, and can add six more tanks to double that.

“We want to sell as much as we can through the doors,” Johannes said. “Some of our beer taps are hooked directly to the beer tanks, so the beer is real fresh. The volume is smaller but it’s more profitable.”

The brewery plans to have a total of eight employees. It currently has four full-time and three part-time employees, including the two owners, Low said.

Asked whether the market is big enough for more craft breweries, Johannes said there is still room for small brewers focused on local markets.

The tasting room has a cement floor, rehabbed vintage pinball machines, a popcorn machine and a board game corner for kids. It also serves non-alcoholic beverages, which was welcomed by a few group members who needed gluten-free beverages.

Some in the group wandered over to Pinky D’s Poutine Factory, which is in the same building as the brewery. Pinky D’s runs a food truck in Portland, but opened a brick-and-mortar location in Auburn to serve the brewery’s visitors.

To give the location the feel of a food truck, Pinky D’s owner cut a real food truck apart and used one-quarter as the order window, Toole said.

The location serves poutine, a French-Canadian dish made of french fries topped with brown gravy and cheese curds. Pinky D’s also serves other toppings.

Ewing and Lockwood were impressed by the brewery.

“It’s a lot more finished than a lot of the places we toured, which were stepping out of boxes,” Lockwood said.

“A community grows up around these places,” Ewing said.

Ewing eschews the word “retired,” but said he used to run a nonprofit food bank in Maryland. Lockwood is a former librarian.

Both dress for the brew crew outings, sporting cowboy hats with stickers from each brewery visit: Flight Deck Brewing, Grateful Grain Brewing Co., Funky Bow, Port City, Maine Beer Co. and many more. On this visit, they added a Side by Each sticker.

Birchwood benefits from welders

Birchwood Brewing, a two-barrel brewhouse in Gray, is another newcomer to the state’s craft brewing market, having opened on Feb. 15.

The 55-seat tasting room includes a large hearth, courtesy of The Hearth Doctor, a business that left it behind, and tables with cards and other games on them. The beer crew quickly settled in, ordering drinks and playing games.

“This is smaller than other places and they are just starting out,” said Don Wirth, 82, a former landscape architect. He and wife Jean, 83, ordered ales. He said they have been on about 10 brewery trips, and do so for socializing.

“I ordered the brown ale,” Jean Wirth said. “It is very good.” Don liked his red ale.

Andrew Sanborn co-owns Birchwood with his mother, Stacy Strattard, and colleague, Wesley Hewey. Sanborn and Hewey are former metal fabricators who built breweries from Maine to New York City.

“I got into the business because of my love of beer,” Sanborn told the group. “I started making beer about seven years ago.”

He also saw a lack of breweries in the Gray area, and decided to start one. Birchwood sells on site and to local restaurants.

The tasting room reflects the workmanship of Sanborn and Hewey. They bought old bricks from the brick exchange in Portland’s Old Port to build a fireplace with propane for boiling, and welded together all of their own brewing equipment.

“I used to weld, so this is way better and I occasionally get to sample the beer,” Sanborn said.

Next up? Toole said he’ll look for a couple breweries in close proximity. Nu is definitely on his radar.