A visitor checks out the hops booth at the New England Craft Brew Summit in Portland on Thursday, March 31, 2022. The summit, which is the largest beer-focused event in New England, drew about 450 brewers. Credit: Lori Valigra / BDN

Maine’s craft brewing industry is maturing, with stiffer competition forcing companies to figure out ways to stand out in the crowd.

Maine’s 136 craft brewers are a significant contributor to Maine’s economy, with $260.7 million in economic impact to the state in 2020. The industry employs nearly 2,400 people, according to the most recent data from the Maine Brewers’ Guild and the University of Maine.

Fewer new breweries are opening because of an already crowded market, according to Bart Watson, chief economist with the national Brewers Association in Boulder, Colorado. Existing breweries are doing well, but they have to work harder to attract customers than they did five years ago.

“While the market is maturing and getting more competitive, this isn’t a bubble bursting,” he said. “There is still strong demand for locally brewed beer from small brewers.”

Watson will give the keynote speech about the maturing beer market at the New England Craft Brew Summit, the largest craft beer conference in the Northeast, in Portland on Thursday.

In Maine, 27 craft breweries opened since the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in early 2020, while 10 closed, he said. And the number of openings has declined every year, falling from 12 in 2020 to seven in 2022.

Watson said the craft beer industry is evolving and he hopes to give local brewers the broad economic, demographic and market context to understand the changes and apply them to their businesses.

That includes embracing trends like fruit-flavored beers which, like bell-bottomed pants, are back in style.

“Many long-time craft beer drinkers will remember when everybody had a blueberry wheat,” he said. “Those went out of fashion, but we’re seeing fruit-flavored beers on the upswing.”

Fruit beers originally were made in Belgium, but they have surfaced on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean in the U.S.

Locally, Sea Dog Brewing has long had raspberry and blueberry beers, while Allagash Brewing has a Little Grove Peach and Kombucha sparkling session ale and Mast Landing Brewing has a raspberry and fig tart ale.

In a blog, Mast Landing said it is continuing to experiment with the fruit beers as an “answer to the overwhelming interest in seltzers, craft cocktails and natural wine that we see happening around our industry.”

That includes a recent mix of orange, cranberry and ginger and a new beer to be released Wednesday to celebrate International Women’s Day. Called “forage,” it was created entirely by women at the company and is a sour ale brewed with blackberry and sage. 

Hard seltzer also is popular in Maine. In 2016 it was a niche, $41 million part of the country’s alcohol industry. Today, it’s worth an estimated $2.5 billion dollars and growing. Craft breweries including Portland’s Lone Pine Brewing Co., Peak Organic Brewing and Orono Brewing Co. have launched their own brands of canned hard seltzer.

Watson said other trends include higher alcohol-by-volume beers such as double IPAs, non-alcohol beers and session beers such as blonde and golden ales.

“In this information age, people are much more conscious about their beverage alcohol decisions,” he said. “They’re thinking very specifically about occasions and what type of beer they want.”