So to prove that my grandiose plan to explore a ton of Maine breweries wasn’t just a bunch of cheap talk, I went to another one last Saturday. The weather had been sensational in the days leading up, so I figured it wouldn’t kill me to try one that was a little off the beaten track. My trusty navigator Bonnie was stuck workin’ (for The Man, no doubt) so I was flying solo this time around.
This time the destination was Oak Pond Brewing Co. in Skowhegan (well, it was more like Canaan, but whatever), about 45 minutes to the north of Augusta, a little ways past Waterville. I wasn’t sure whether to expect there to be a bar-type setup as there was at Baxter Brewing, or whether it was strictly a brewery-and-gift-shop type of deal, so I made sure to grab some cash before I left civilization. I also held off until around 1:00 p.m., mostly because I was hungover and didn’t want to get off the couch, but it was okay because the website indicated that tours ran between 12:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. Suits me!
The drive wasn’t too taxing – half of it was on I-95 North and the rest on state routes that wound through the countryside. Just like Maine Maple Sunday, I lost cell signal about halfway to my destination, but my GPS managed to hold on at least until I got to Oak Pond. As I drove along state route 23, I realized that through all the travels I’ve done in the U.S., this was a part of the “real America” that perhaps no tourist ever really sees. I passed a lot of farmhouses and mobile homes that had seen better days, plenty of junked cars and and a Mark Twain-esque trio of shirtless guys with simple poles fishing off a bridge. On my way back, one of them was playing a guitar.
In an even more striking contrast, I passed a convenience store advertising Budweiser six-packs for $4.99, just minutes down the road from a brewery that sold me four tallboys of craft beer for $15, which is a price that I suspect many of the people who live out that way would scoff at.
ANYWAY. Goddamn can I disappear on tangents or what? I found the brewery with the minimum of fuss and pulled into the driveway, which was nondescript and mud-soaked. In hindsight, it was beautiful weather but not the right day or setting to wear white Air Jordans. DUH. While the ground in Augusta had dried out considerably over the past few days, Skowhegan was a little further north and still a little cooler and the conditions were a little sloppier.
I parked the (freshly washed, and now muddy) car and was welcomed inside the brewhouse by a friendly woman who I’m guessing was Nancy Chandler, one of the owners. Her son and nephew were preparing the equipment for Monday’s brew, which was Oak Pond’s excellent Nut Brown Ale. Nancy took me through the process and explained that the brewery, which sits not far from the titular Oak Pond (but doesn’t use its water), is one of few microbreweries in Maine to make lagers as well as ales, which don’t require as much temperature regulation and therefore can be turned around in a much shorter timeframe.
After the quick tour was over, Nancy asked me which of their beers I’d like to try. As it happens I love Oregon brewer Rogue’s Hazelnut Brown, so I went for the OPB Nut Brown Ale. I don’t profess to be any sort of knowledgeable beer reviewer, but it was delicious. Dark and nutty but not too sweet or dessert-y, which the Rogue one can be after awhile. Nancy didn’t want to stop pouring though, so I gave the White Fox IPA (not as hoppy as you would expect an IPA to be, which was pleasantly surprising) and OPB’s winter seasonal, the Storyteller Doppelbock, a whirl as well. I’m not huge on European-style beers, and the weather is warming up, but I definitely enjoyed it enough to buy a bottle.
On to the money-spending! I took a four-pack of tallboys – the White Fox, the Storyteller, the Nut Brown and the Somerset, a German-style pils. I also grabbed a branded pint glass for my burgeoning collection, and with all of that I still got change from a $20. It was a single, but still. Change. Shut up.
As I was finishing up, a couple of guys came in with growlers to have filled. Since OPB doesn’t have a bar on-site as such, this is how I’m guessing they do most of their local trade. The growlers were extremely reasonably priced too, although off the top of my head I can’t think of the number, but in any case it was a steal for such good booze. Nancy said they distribute around Maine in about a 50-mile radius, including to a liquor store in Augusta and a few restaurants in the area too. I think the phrase “hidden gem” applies here, and it’s almost definitely Skowhegan’s best-kept secret. Whether there are any other secrets in Skowhegan, I wouldn’t know.
Since it was still relatively early (i.e. the sun was still out), and I hadn’t eaten since breakfast, I figured I’d stop off in Waterville for a late lunch at Mainely Brews before I headed back home. I had read about the place before and its name rang true – it’s got more taps than I’ve seen in a long time, and a pretty good menu too. I’ve been craving seafood a lot lately and while I felt like fried clams, I ended up with a coconut-crumbed haddock sandwich which was a) enormous and b) excellent. I had a Pork Slap (!) American pale ale to go with it, which was less bacon-y than the name may imply.
So that’s two breweries down, as well as a bar off the list of places I’ve wanted to get to. Judging by what I saw in the couple of hours I was in Waterville, the crowd is substantially younger, due largely to the fact that there are a couple of colleges up there. I’m thinking I may have to get a cheap room one Saturday night and go up there for the night to check out the nightlife. Thirty miles is a little too far to get a cab home at 1am.
STAY TUNED FOR THAT ONE.