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Something brewing in Brewer

April 20, 2016
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Mason's Brewing Company offers beer on the banks of the Penobscot

BREWER It's no secret that the craft beer scene is exploding nationwide. The number of craft breweries has grown exponentially in the past few years, though few places have seen the sort of consistent combination of quality and quantity that the state of Maine has experienced.

While the greater Portland area is getting most of the attention when it comes to craft beer, there's no denying that the scene here in central Maine has exploded as well. Seriously while there are great breweries making great beer all over the state/country, some of the finest you'll find are coming out of our own backyard.

The latest entry into the local beer scene is Mason's Brewing Company, a new operation on the Brewer waterfront. The mastermind behind this huge undertaking is Chris Morley, a longtime craft beer enthusiast who decided that the time was right for him to throw his own hat into the ring.

'I've always loved craft beer,' Morley said as we sat in the sun alongside the Penobscot River. 'Over the years, my wife and I have gone on all sorts of beer vacations. We've gone overseas to places like Ireland, Germany, Belgium and the Czech Republic. We've also gone out west to places in Colorado and Alaska and San Francisco; we've also been up and down the East Coast.'

His beer affection can be traced back at least in part to his younger days in upstate New York.

'I'm from Cooperstown,' he said. 'I grew up right alongside Ommegang; I watched as that place grew into this incredible craft beer destination. The thought to do something like that has been in the back of my head ever since. And now, I figure why not make a craft beer destination of my own?'

Considering the number of players on the local scene right now, it's not so far-fetched an idea especially when Morley gets rolling and sweeps you up into his own passionate vision for Mason's Brewing Company. Of course, it was a complicated process.

'I've been a home brewer for 13 years,' he said. 'But doing it on this scale is a whole different thing. When I started down this road, I researched styles and recipes. I looked for people to help develop the brewing process.'

Some of those people helped in creating some pilot batches of potential brews to be made at Mason's. Those batches were successful enough to attract the attention of some distributors, who tried the beers and were impressed enough to offer a distribution contract.

'That was when we reached the point where I felt secure in pulling the trigger,' Morley said. 'It added some credence to what we're trying to do.'

Finding the spot on which to build his dream wasn't necessarily easy at least, not at first. He first started seriously looking at properties around five years ago, but he struggled to settle on a location. However, when he looked at a map and saw the spot at the end of Hardy Street, he knew that this was the place.

The 6,800 square foot building has been under construction since November. It features an outdoor seating area that will eventually have room for as many as 200 people, with seating for approximately 120 more inside including 40 seats at a custom-made bar that Morley calls a combination of three different bars that he has seen and admired in his travels. Among other things, the bar features some repurposed Allagash Curieux barrels.

'The brewhouse, the bar, the building design it has mostly come together how I wanted,' Morley said. 'We had to change direction a bit due to logistics and costs, but it definitely has the vibe that I want old meets new, wood meets steel.'

Still, with a business like this, location is one of the most important factors. Morley definitely considers himself lucky to have landed one that he clearly considers to be prime.

'When you look up and down the river, I meanthe waterfront is pretty much spoken for,' he said. 'It was definitely an odd series of events that led us here, but what we wound up with was an incredible spot that we purchased from the City of Brewer. It's just a beautiful location.'

'It's the perfect combination we hope,' he continued. 'We'll be rolling out quality craft beer in a desirable location. And it's such a great scene people can walk the waterfront and do a brewery tour. We've got seals and eagles. We can do reunions, weddings we're already taking reservations for tables for concert days this summer.'

Morley couldn't say enough nice things about the level of support he received from all levels of city management. From city councilors to the mayor, from economic development coordinators to code enforcement officers, it seems that everyone has done what they can to help Morley realize his dream of a craft beer destination.

'The city is very pro-business,' he said. 'You sometimes hear horror stories about dealing with city officials, but that has definitely not been my struggle. Everyone has been tremendous.'

City officials weren't the only supporters Morley had in his corner. His fellow craft brewers have also been extremely helpful. The collaborative nature of the craft brewing community has resulted in all manner of assistance from all corners of the local scene. He had some specific examples, but he was reluctant to point them out, simply because he was afraid that he would leave somebody out.

'The local [craft beer] community is so supportive,' he said. 'What I want to do is help promote quality craft beer in the state. We won't be featuring just our beer; we'll have other Maine beers on tap. We want people to have the opportunity to try as much beer as possible, because everybody has really elevated their game.'

As for the beer itself? Morley's got some interesting ideas about that, too.

'We think we're going to be a best of both worlds' kind of thing,' he said. 'We're going to embrace the aggressive West Coast hoppiness that's big now, but we're also going to embrace the more classic German and Belgian styles of beer. We're going to take these different styles and tweak them.'

These stylistic decisions weren't made on a whim. Morley and company spent a lot of time working through iterations of various recipes in their quest to determine the final lineup.

'When we started, we had something like 107 variations of different recipes,' he said. 'We tweaked that down to around 35. From there, we broke it down into a core seven recipes that will serve to start us off. Behind those seven, we have another five that we'll probably be comfortable with releasing by summer's end.

'At any given time, we're aiming to have 10 to 12 of our beers flowing, either fixed recipe or pilot batches,' he said.

The brewing operation at Mason's is impressive in size and scope.

'We're a 20-barrel brewhouse,' said Morley. 'We've got two 40-barrel fermenters and three 20-barrel fermenters. We've got four bright tanks; we'll keg and serve off those.'

As with any new enterprise, there are bound to be some growing pains. There's a learning curve when undertaking an operation such as this one new equipment, scaling and the like will all likely present the occasional obstacle. Still, the brewing process is underway, with Morley and his 'team of misfits' getting to work.

That team includes Scott Magnan and Forrest Brown alongside Morley, as well as some consulting on the part of Jason Dionne. Morley is ostensibly the one in charge, though the set-up seems to be more collective/collaborative than anything else.

While Morley does have some distribution agreements in place, he figures that onsite sales will account for 70 to 75 percent of overall beer sales, though when Mason's hits a certain production level, they'll definitely have to focus more on distribution. Certain locations have already agreed to dedicate taps to Mason's Brewing beers, but ultimately, Morley doesn't want to overexpose the brand, instead preferring to let his product grow gradually.

Beer is going to be the star of the show, of course, but Morley also has some interesting plans in terms of food. The menu is going to consist of elevated pub food; even though Morley exhibits real resistance to terms like 'artisan' and 'gourmet,' that's what it sounds like he'll be serving. Pizzas, sandwiches, burgers and the like will be the bill of fare, with plenty of variety (although Morley makes a point on several occasions to state that bacon will be prominently featured).

'The food scene and the beer scene feed on one another,' he said. 'Just look at Portland. Food and beer help each other continue to grow. And if I'm going to serve food, I want it to be good; you can get away with the food being just OK if the beer is exceptional, but I feel like this place deserves something more than that.'

Currently, Morley is looking at having his first beer ready to go at the end of April. As things stand, he's considering doing a soft opening-type situation the last weekend in April and/or the first weekend of May featuring a limited menu and beer list before opening in full in mid-May.

There's no doubt that Mason's Brewing Company is an ambitious undertaking. The craft beer boom slows no sign of slowing and this area has proved that it will embrace quality brews. One has to assume that someone as passionate and driven as Chris Morley will find a way to carve out his own niche among the region's many exceptional brewers. If nothing else, he's someone who is unafraid to dream big.

'I want this place to be a combination of a German beer hall and a traditional Irish pub,' he said. 'I want us to set ourselves apart from perceptions of what a brew pub can be. When people come from away, they have this idea of Maine as Vacationland.' Well, we can turn this area into a Craft Beer Vacationland.'

(For more information about Mason's Brewing Company, you can pay a visit to their website at masonsbrewingcompany.com or find them on Facebook.)

Last modified on Wednesday, 20 April 2016 15:15

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