HARRISON, Maine — Lisa Graham realized early on that the coronavirus would upend how she and her husband Shaun planned to run their small brewery in rural Maine and survive.
She took to the internet first to research the virus when it hit Maine in March, and then to look into ways to keep serving customers safely. She searched Amazon and found geodomes, clear plastic bubbles stretched over frames in which people can sit.
She held off buying them for a few weeks but resumed her search when prices tripled as other businesses throughout the country warmed to the same idea. She ended up buying five geodomes from a brewer in upstate New York that had domes from a canceled event. Fluvial is one of the few breweries in the area using the domes this winter, which contain heaters, she said.
“It’s been a ton of hard work,” Lisa Graham, who also is an occupational therapist, said of keeping the 17-month-old business afloat and all four of its employees on staff. “It’s about constantly thinking, revamping your business model to make things work and being creative.”
Pivoting quickly has been key to coping with the rapid changes of 2020, she said, including the ever-changing restrictions that have come with the pandemic.
Fluvial is in Harrison, a southwestern Cumberland County town of 2,730 nestled among Naples and Bridgton on Long Lake. The brewery is about 3 miles away from the downtown on a rural road overlooking the hills of nearby Oxford County.
The Grahams, who declined to disclose revenues, are not alone among craft brewers scrambling to survive. The industry has become one of Maine’s largest over the past five years, contributing $656 million to the state’s economy in 2019, according to the Brewers Association, a national industry group.
But virus restrictions have dampened business since March. The pandemic has taken a toll on craft brewers, including severely decreasing taproom business and sales to bars and restaurants, according to a survey this spring by the Maine Brewers’ Guild answered by about one-third of its 152 licensed members. Most respondents said sales were down 50 percent or more and two-thirds have had to lay off or furlough workers.
The Grahams said it was “devastating” when Gov. Janet Mills in March ordered nonessential businesses in Maine to shut. Taprooms like Fluvial could still offer curbside pickup or deliver to homes to offset losses. The Grahams rushed to set up a website within 24 hours to handle the e-commerce sales, Lisa Graham said. As state restrictions loosened, they were able to seat people outside. The Grahams already had six fire pits surrounded by chairs and later added the domes.
“Our motto is ‘bring your bubble to our bubble,'” Lisa Graham said.
Florence Williams, a first-time visitor to both Harrison and the brewery, said it also was the first time she has been out to a brewery since the pandemic started.
“It’s so festive rather than being stuck at home for so long,” Williams said. “The view is fantastic.” She heard about the brewery and the geodomes from a coworker who is related to the Grahams.
In January, Fluvial linked to the path on its 40 acres to the local Harrison Friendly Riders Snowmobiles Club trail, which runs from Harrison to Casco, giving the brewery more potential customers and snowmobilers access to a place to rest and refresh.
Aside from a forgivable loan from the federal Paycheck Protection Loan program to keep on staff and pay some overhead expenses during the pandemic, the business has been self-funded.
The Grahams, who met when they were whitewater rafting guides, built the brewery themselves. They chose the name “Fluvial” because it means “from a river.” They became interested in brewing when Shaun Graham, a veteran, got a homebrew kit as a Christmas gift. They opened the brewery in July 2019.
Many have questioned why they would locate on a rural road in a rural Maine town, Shaun Graham said, but the property overlooks the Oxford Hills and when the leaves turned in the fall, people flocked to the small brewery.
But in August, the young business faced another setback. It was burglarized, the front door damaged and unspecified items stolen.
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“I’m still angry about it to this day,” Shaun Graham said. “But I’m not going to let someone make me feel like a victim. We have to stay positive.”
Family and staff quickly made repairs and the brewery opened that day without missing a beat. Lisa Graham credits local community support with helping them to get back on their feet quickly.
“Multiple community members asked if there was anything they could do to help. Others offered condolences. And customers continued to come out,” she said.
One of those customers was Bob Monteiro, a regular customer from Harrison who said he was the first to reach the brewery from the snowmobile trail in January. He and his family come for the variety of small-batch beers brewed there.
The breakin is uncharacteristic for the area, he said from inside a geodome, “but when it happens, you feel even more violated.”
“It’s a weird thing to happen during a pandemic,” said Jan Monteiro, who also comes to the brewery regularly.
As the pandemic dragged on, Fluvial began serving light food this summer in order to compete with breweries in nearby Oxford County.
In May the governor postponed dine-in activities that originally were slated to reopen in June in three Maine counties, including Cumberland, although the three were allowed to continue serving outside.
Fluvial still isn’t allowing customers inside the taproom. But the brewer expects to expand production and sales for 2021. It plans to more than triple its current brewing capacity of about 125 barrels per year, which it delivers to residences and a handful of restaurants, and accelerate its plan to increase distribution.
“It’s been an activity of survival,” Shaun Graham said.