Maine’s craft brewers are on the road to recovery following early pandemic restrictions, including taproom closures, curbside-only service and a switch to take-out canned beer.
Eighteen new craft breweries opened in the state since the pandemic took hold in early 2020, while only three closed and one other was sold, Sean Sullivan, executive director of the Maine Brewers’ Guild, said. The guild will host its sixth New England Craft Brew Summit in Portland on Thursday, with a pre-event to showcase 11 new brewers at the Thirsty Pig in the Old Port on Wednesday evening.
About 43 percent of Maine craft brewers reported business was better than expected in 2021, a recent guild survey found, with 87 percent saying they are optimistic about the future. It contrasts with most craft brewers seeing sales drop 50 percent or more in April 2020, with breweries brewing less and spending more money on selling canned beer to go.
Those numbers bode well for an industry expecting to see strong business during the 2022 tourism season. Many breweries are also benefiting from changes made in the early part of the pandemic, including opening outdoor spaces and getting restaurant licenses, giving them a more relaxed atmosphere.
“I’ve been impressed and encouraged by how many breweries are still up and running,” Sullivan said. “But I think we’re at a critical juncture right now because the goodwill to support local businesses has waned a little bit.”
Brewers are optimistic about this summer, he said, pointing to a survey last fall that found 44 percent of tourists visited a brewpub or brewery, more than double the percentage in 2018. Visiting breweries ranked second behind eating lobster, which Sullivan called “huge” for the industry.
Craft brewers are a significant contributor to Maine’s economy, with $260.7 million in economic impact to the state in 2020 and employing nearly 2,400 people. There were 165 active licensed brewers in the state this year, some with multiple licenses or locations, up from 155 in 2020, according to a 2020 report by the Maine Brewers’ Guild and the University of Maine.
Maine ranked 19th nationwide with 136 craft breweries as of 2020, according to the Brewers Association, a national group based in Colorado. The state ranked second in having almost 13 breweries per 100,000 adults 21 or older.
The New England Craft Brew Summit, the largest craft beer conference in New England, is expected to draw more than 450 brewers from all over the country under the theme of “standing out in a crowded marketplace.”
Maine Beer Co. co-founder Dan Kleban will give the keynote address about his company’s growth. Gov. Janet Mills also will speak and plans to thank brewers for adapting during the pandemic.
“As someone who has enjoyed a Maine craft beer or two, I want to express how proud I am of each of you — not only for adapting and innovating in countless ways to survive this pandemic, but for putting people to work in rewarding jobs and delivering a high-quality product that puts our state on the map,” Mills said in a prepared statement before the event.
The summit, last held in early 2020, will include business sessions on lab testing beer, handling wastewater, low- and no-alcohol beers, safety in the brewery and accounting for breweries. For the first time, it will hold sessions on supporting mental health in the craft beer industry and effective intervention to stop harassment and bias.