The story is a common one: recession hits, guy loses job, guy sets out to build a business around something he loves rather than jumping back in the corporate rat race—but what sets Dan Kleban’s Maine Beer Company apart is a dual focus on values and quality and just how intently they pursue both. In the world of brewing, artists are plentiful, as are businesspeople, engineers, and even idealists. But harnessing the strengths of each of those personalities is a true balancing act.
Maine Beer Company has done it, creating groundbreaking hoppy beers from their sustainably powered brewery in Freeport, Maine, while giving back to environmental causes in a consistent and intentional way. Kleban is known for his use of hops, so it’s no surprise that his dream 6-pack starts with a classic in the IPA genre.
Bell’s Two Hearted
“I grew up in southeast Michigan. My brother went to school in East Lansing, Michigan, and I remember going up to visit him in my late teens, going out to eat at a local college bar, and ordering Two Hearted. I didn’t know there were breweries around back then—this was 1994, probably—but after ordering that beer I was like, ‘holy smokes there’s something different about this.’ It was the first experience having a beer from a brewery that was close to me.
“As I entered the homebrewing world and then the professional brewing world, I came to appreciate the craft that went into formulating that beer. Today, with this proliferation of IPAs across the country, it still holds its own as one of the best IPAs made in the United States. That’s saying something for a beer that’s been around that long. It’s a well-balanced IPA. It’s not over-the-top bitter; it’s just pleasant. It’s extremely difficult to achieve that kind of timelessness. That beer is an example that has withstood the test of time, and I would put it up against any IPA that any brewery is making in the United States.”
“I moved to Maine in 1999—I was 21 at the time—and that was the first time I ever had a beer that looked like Allagash White, that smelled like it, that tasted like it. It was probably the first Belgian-style beer I had. I don’t know that the term ‘craft’ was part of my vocabulary back then, but I knew that I was drinking something different and unique, and I could tell that whoever made it put some real time and effort and passion into it.
“It was a brewery that was right down the road, and back in ’99, that was still a unique phenomenon. I’m very well connected with Allagash now, and it deepens the meaning of the beer when you come to know the stories behind it, especially the struggles that Rob had for years trying to convince people that it was supposed to be cloudy, and it was supposed to taste like that. I appreciate it even more knowing the blood, sweat, and tears that went into creating that brand.”
Russian River Pliny the Elder
(Santa Rosa, California)
“When we started our brewery in 2009, I hadn’t had any beer from Russian River, but I had heard about them. Obviously, we don’t get Russian River in Maine and probably never will get Russian River in Maine. But I remember as a homebrewer listening to homebrew podcasts and reading homebrew articles, and Vinnie and Natalie [Cilurzo] had developed quite a reputation for what they’d built. Then I remember the first time I had some, and it was one of the few beers that lived up to the myth. You build things up in your head—not just beer, anything in life—and are often let down, but that beer certainly did not let me down.
“Even though I’d never had it before, when I drank that beer I said to myself, ‘These are the beers we’re making here, too.’ Vinnie and I didn’t know each other and had never had each other’s beer, but their approach to brewing was similar to the thing we were trying to create up in Maine at the time—clean, hops-forward beers that weren’t super bitter.”
“The guy who taught me how to homebrew shared a Fantôme Saison with me before I started homebrewing with him—he’s a partner at the law firm where I practiced before I started the brewery. He had a bunch of us young associates over as a team-building thing and shared a bunch of beers from around the world with us.
He shared some Belgian beers, and German beers, and American beers, and taught us the difference between ales and lagers. It was a fun little course. This was one of the bottles he shared with us.
“I researched it a bit after I had it, and the story of that brewery and the mystique behind it are something that I had never experienced before. The allure of this little barn out in the countryside in Belgium where this guy was just creating these beers where you kind of just ‘got what you got,’ and more often than not it turned out to be really, really good. So to this day, if I can get my hands on a good bottle of it, it’s always a special treat.
“Dany [Prignon] of Fantôme is such a colorful character, and looking at his example added a lot of life to what brewing could be.”
Half Acre Daisy Cutter
(Chicago, Illinois) “Matt Gallagher [of Half Acre] and my brother and I met in 2009 at CBC in Boston, right as they were starting—we randomly sat down at the same lunch table, and we hit it off with Matt. Since then, in a lot of ways, we’ve grown up together.
“I remember having Daisy Cutter and thinking, ‘These guys get it. These are the kind of beers I like. These are the beers we’re trying to make at Maine Beer Company.’ “Balance is number one for me. It’s not overly sweet; it’s not overly bitter. It has a nice dry hop to it. The hops varieties are the kind I like—the citrusy, floral, piney side of things—and it’s designed in a combination that just hits the mark.”
Lawson’s Finest Liquids Maple Trippel
“Many of these beers are special, not just because they’re great beers, but because there’s a story and a connection that I have to the brewer. Sean and I started the same year. We were both brewing on glorified homebrew systems because the term nanobrewery didn’t exist back in 2009. I was brewing on Blichmann 45-gallon pots on lobster burners, and he was brewing in his barn out back on a very similar setup.
“Sean is a special guy in our community up in New England and is one of those guys who makes great beer and could certainly have a big ego but is extremely humble. Maple Trippel is one of the first commercial beers that you could tell started out as a homebrew. It’s not a beer you’d conceive of that would sell. The care he put into that beer, from the hand-applied labels and the foil on the top—I dare to say he wasn’t making a ton of money on that beer—but you know he loved to make it, and it became a cult favorite and gained him his much-deserved notoriety.
“All of that aside, on a winter night, it’s so comforting to pull out a snifter glass and pour some of it, then drink it like a nice liqueur.”