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Monday, November 26, 2012

What I Discovered in Maine

Post now updated with pics!

New England is known for beer and has one of the most well-developed craft brew scenes in the US. (Vermont and Maine are in the top five most-breweries states per capita, New Hampshire is 11th, and even populous Massachusetts is 22nd.) But there's beer culture and then there's beer culture. I learned on Saturday night just how advanced Maine is.

There's a little town near the New Hampshire border called Lovell. It's got a thousand people and is nowhere near any center of real population. Portland's over an hour away, and nearer towns include Paris, Berlin, Norway, and Poland--big names, but tiny populations. When you get to Lovell, there's a certain unmarked turn you can take onto a dirt road that leads , after a short drive, to an old farm. This is Ebeneezer's, a pub apparently famous among the beer intelligentsia but unknown to me.

The owners decided to try to recreate a Belgian pub, from the tchotchkes on the wall (here manifesting mainly as very cool breweriana) to 35 taps and dozens more bottles to moules frites on the menu. They did a fine job--call it White Mountain Brussels. The show-stopper and te reason to visit is the tap list. I was staggered to see TWO offerings from LoverBeer and another from Baladin--breweries most beer geeks haven't heard of. (LoverBeer only makes 500 barrels a year.) They had classic selections from De Dolle (Arabier), Silly, St Bernardus, and so on, a nice mix of styles and colors--and keep in mind this is just draft. Belgian breweries don't do much kegging, and of what they do, not a lot comes to the US. Beyond that, there are bottles aplenty, the rival of any bottle shop. The ambiance is great--cozy farmhouse--and I'm told they scatter tables outside during the summer.

I'm not convinced it's the best pub in America, as BeerAdvocate has done: the food isn't to the beer's standard, and the beer is insanely expensive. Nine bucks a pour for draft, and bottles drifting from the mid teens up. Cantillon was priced at $40 a bottle. That's higher than anyplace I've ever seen.


This is middle-of-nowhere Maine. I know there are tourists around; Maine is a three-season destination for vacationers. But there's no way a pub this far off the beaten path can survive without locals, and locals willing to pay a huge premium for the experience of having a Brussels pub nearby. It's amazing. I can't imagine a pub like that surviving in a similar place anywhere else.

As a sort of addendum, I ate last night in the Jolly Drayman in Bethel. It is an absolutely wonderful evocation of a British pub. Not a kitschy echo to remind yanks of their week in the Cotswolds, but a place for people who want a cozy pint in the kind of space British toss off with a shrug (but seem beyond the ken of most Americans). A nice selection of a half dozen beers and a cask engine. Again, a great experience, and one the people of Bethel (population 2400) are very fortunate to have. Not many towns that size do. 


  1. We get all of those beers here in Philly (or almost all) but Philly is way different than local Maine. And $40 for Cantillon at a bar isn't too shocking either. But, again, Philly. Our beer costs are pretty terrible.

  2. If you think $40 is steep, check the prices on Cantillon and other fancy stuff next time you go to Apex.

  3. $9 drafts aren't at all uncommon on the East Coast for anything that's not a macro, at least in the cities. In rural Maine, I don't know.

    As far as the bottle prices, I think you don't maintain an impressive cellar list without jacking them up a fair bit. I observed at Les Caves in Corvallis last weekend that their bottle list, while certainly not bad, is substantially less interesting than it was when they opened a year ago. I would conjecture that their extremely reasonable pricing (usually $2-3 above retail) has led to people drinking them out of all the good stuff.

  4. In a plane on the Tarmac at Logan...

    On Cantillon, the truth is I'm an old man and haven't actually checked the prices recently. In a way, I think some beers should be that expensive. It takes Jean Van Roy longer to produce a gueuze than it does my local wineries to make a Pinot--and those regularly go for $40+. So that's cool. But nine dollars for a standard beer, based on actual production costs, is hugely inflated.

    Whoops, gotta go-- (more to say, tho)

  5. I don't disagree though the Italian beers are hugely expensive due to taxes just in Italy.

    Also, it's funny you say Cantillon stuff should be that expensive since it takes Jean longer to make them. He's not really seeing any of the markup as Cantillon sells their stuff relatively cheap. It's not until it hits distribution here in the states that the prices skyrocket.

  6. When Jeff was on his Grand Tour of Europe, I asked no less than three times what he thought of beer prices here in comparison to the US.

    He never replied.

    Now I understand why.

  7. Mike, wrong again:

    I also answered your question about which kolsches I tried. Look through the posts.

  8. My apologies, I hadn't seen your reply until you pointed it out.

    However, I find your reply rather strange. "Under four euros" strikes me rather high. In the Bavarian countryside, a half liter is usually between €1.70 and €2.30. In Bamberg, prices are roughly 50 cents to one euro higher. In Munich, it could be up to two euros higher.

    Secondly, a half liter is 17 ounces, which makes it almost 50 percent more than a 12-ounce glass.

    Taking all this into consideration, I'd say that beer in Bavaria is a good deal cheaper than your description of prices in Portland, and also a good deal cheaper than prices here in Amsterdam.

    When you can buy a half-liter bottle of beer in the supermarket for 40 eurocents (or less), that makes it cheaper than water!

  9. Well, gobble, gobble indeed. I posted a reply to you this morning (about eight hours ago) and see that it still hasn't made it to this page). I'll try again.

    First, my apologies, but I never saw your response until you posted it above. It was certainly not my intention to post something not true.

    Secondly, I will take issue with your response (surprise, surprise). You wrote you could get a half liter beer in Germany for "under four euros."

    The norm in Bavaria is approximately €1.70-2.30 at the breweries and pubs in the countryside (for a half liter). Add another 50 eurocents to one euro for Bamberg and add up to two euros for Munich. In the vast bulk of Bavaria, I'd say about €2 per half liter is the average.

    Secondly, as a half liter is 17 ounces, your comparison seems a bit off. Isn't 17 ounces almost 50 percent more than 12 ounces? If you compare a half liter at €2 with 12 ounces at $4, or about $6 to make the comparisons equal, you have a much starker difference. With the current exchange rate, $6 would be about €4.60 or more than twice the cost of beer in Bavaria.

    I should also point out that beer here in Amsterdam is also much more expensive than in Bavaria, though, obviously, local products (including Belgium) are far cheaper than in either the US or Bavaria.

  10. The prices at Ebeneezers don't strike me as unusual here on the east coast. You want to see high, go to ChurchKey in DC. THEY are crazy.

    As far as best beer bars in the country, I highly recommend taking a look at the Birch Bar in Norfolk, Virginia (I still find it funny saying that Norfolk has a great bar). The owners keep all beers at under $9 and under a pour (which is good when you see their list). They are heavy on European beers (VERY big on Italian) and have few American beers (according to Ben, the owner, if he had better domestic distribution, he would change that).

    So, if you ever in Norfolk, go to the Birch. Don't expect much in the way of food, but the beer.... oh the beer. I had my first Loverbeer there last week. So many great beers all of the time.

  11. BRH,

    Will do. Now I gotta figure an excuse to get to Norfolk.