Over the last few weeks there have been a number of articles chronicling the ongoing changes at Geary’s Brewing Company, the oldest brewery in Maine. First it was announced that founder David Geary was selling the brewery to Freeport businessman Alan Lapoint. Jason Notte noted that Geary’s had to lay off some long time employees as part of this transition, and that they would have gone bankrupt without the intervention. The new owner seems optimistic and has a plan to turn around the brewery, which has seen sales decline over the last few years.
Unfortunately this news isn’t very surprising. When Geary’s launched in 1983 their classic takes on flavorful British ales stood out in a market dominated by light lagers. Their immediately recognizable lobster logo was great marketing in the tourist towns along the Maine coast. I grew up working in a family-run specialty grocery store and Geary’s beers flew off the shelves, especially in the summer months. In those days the number of Maine breweries were limited, and sales were good. In the last few years the Maine beer scene has exploded and competition for shelf space and sales dollars has become fierce.
While competition is a major factor in the decline in Geary’s sales there are also other factors. The biggest one was Geary’s stubborn resistance to change. While their new competitors were gaining accolades with hop-forward beers that showcased New World hop varieties, Geary’s kept brewing their same stable of classic English ales. While there is something to be said for sticking to your brand and not chasing every trend, not adapting at all to changing tastes can be disastrous for a brewery. They also took a long time to open a taproom even as it’s become clear that direct sales are extremely important for a profitable modern brewery. It looks like new ownership is taking these challenges seriously. They have a taproom open and they are brewing many new beers, including some hoppy American ales. There are a number of recent examples of breweries successfully refreshing their brands, it will be interesting to see if Geary’s uses these success stories as a model.
I want Geary’s to succeed. Every beer geek has a few beers that helped lead them from macro lagers to better beer. They may not be your favorite beers anymore, but these beers were an important step in the transition from keg parties to beer appreciation. Geary’s Pale Ale was definitely one of these beers for me. I drank more than a few during my years at Bowdoin, and have enjoyed more since. I am still a big fan of HSA and London Porter. These two styles that aren’t in as high demand as IPAs, imperial stouts and sours, but they are well crafted and tasty. I think there can still be a market for some of these under-appreciated styles, but they can’t be all that you brew. Hopefully the new ownership finds a nice balance between tradition and innovation and we can all enjoy a new era of Geary’s beer.
Hoppy Boston classic beer week continues with a review of Geary’s Hampshire Special Ale. I grew up and then went to college in Maine, while Boston is now home I still love vacationland. Throughout high school and during breaks in college I worked at a local specialty grocery store that catered to many of the area tourists and summer residents along with locals. The most popular things amongst the tourist crowd were often local products, fresh Maine lobster, blueberries, maple syrup, and local beer. This was before the current Maine beer renaissance, there was no Maine Beer Company, Bissell Brothers or Rising Tide, but there were still a strong selection of local offerings. One of my immediate favorites was D. L. Geary Brewing Company in Portland. Many of the beers that facilitated my transition from macro lagers to craft beer were brewed by Geary’s. In the winter months Geary’s brewed HSA, or Hampshire Special Ale, an assertive English style strong ale (HSA is now available year round), and it would frequently find its way into my college beer fridge. Geary’s HSA is brewed with pale, crystal and chocolate malts along with Cascade, Mt. Hood and East Kent Golding hops. It is available year round on draft and in 12 oz. bottles.
Geary’s Hampshire Special Ale pours a clear deep copper with a moderate off-white head. The scent is a mixture of roasty malts and old world style hoppiness. The malts lead the flavor, notes of caramel and grainy bread with just a hint of coffee. This is complemented by a solid dose of hops, touches of cut grass, earth and pine. The hops also contribute significant bitterness, not IPA level but you feel a solid kick as you drink. The beer is medium bodied and goes down smooth. By today’s standards the 7% ABV isn’t that strong for a “strong ale”, but it isn’t a session beer by any means. The finish is clean with a little hoppy bite. To this day this is probably my favorite Geary’s beer, tons of flavor and well balanced. Every time I drink HSA it reminds me of Maine and good times in college. Definitely worth picking up if you haven’t tried it before. Hoppy Boston score: 4.5/5.
Previous Geary’s Reviews:
Geary’s Ixnay, Geary’s London Porter
Gluten, the group of proteins in wheat, barley and rye that give bread its structure, has been in the news a lot lately. Many people are adopting a gluten-free diet either due to a diagnosis of celiac disease, an allergy or sensitivity to the protein, or personal choice. During the brewing process gluten is one of many proteins released into the beer from the malt, so anyone on a gluten-free diet can’t drink most beers. Some breweries have started to brew gluten-free or gluten-removed beer selections to meet the demand of people who want/need to have a gluten free diet, but still want to enjoy an occasional beer. Gluten-free beers are brewed with malted grains that don’t contain that protein, like buckwheat, sorghum and rice. Gluten-removed beers use normal barley and then add a special enzyme that digests the gluten into smaller, easier to digest proteins. I don’t have any issues with gluten (thank God), but I thought it would be interesting to try an occasional gluten-free or gluten-removed beer. Geary’s Brewing Company of Portland, ME typically brews very traditional English style ales, so I found it interesting that they decided to make a gluten-removed ale. Their take on the style is called Ixnay, it’s an English Pale Ale brewed normally and then treated with enzyme to break down the gluten. It is available year-round on draft and in 12 oz. bottles.
Geary’s Ixnay pours a deep reddish brown, clear with a minimal off-white head. The smell is pretty malty, some roasted caramel notes. The taste starts with some mild earthy hops followed by significant malt character, touches of toffee, cracker and whole grain bread. There is a bit of bitterness to balance the malt sweetness. This is definitely a British style beer, more of an ESB than a pale ale to me, but not so much that it’s worth quibbling over. Ixnay is easy to drink, lower in alcohol at 4.7% ABV, and finishes clean. I never would have guessed that this was a gluten-removed beer as there is nothing in the flavor that makes it taste any different. Overall Geary’s Ixnay is worth a try regardless of your gluten tolerance, and should be a go-to for those on a gluten-free diet who crave an occasional beer. Hoppy Boston score: 4.0/5.
Previous Geary’s reviews:
Geary’s London Porter
D.L. Geary Brewing Company of Portland, ME was the first microbrewery in New England. When Geary Brewing was incorporated in 1983 there were only 13 microbreweries total in the United States. Co-founder David Geary traveled to England and Scotland to train in breweries and learn more about brewing traditional British style ales. Geary’s sold their first pints of Geary’s Pale Ale in 1986. D.L. Geary Brewing now makes a series of year-round and seasonal ales that are distributed all over the Eastern United States. One of Geary’s flagship beers is London Porter, a traditional British style dark ale. London Porter mixes dark chocolate, black and crystal malts with Cascade, Goldings and Williamette hops. While many newer breweries make their dark beers with very high levels of alcohol, London Porter is only 4.2% ABV. Many might even consider it to be a session beer.
Geary’s London Porter pours a clear dark brown with a mild tan head. The smell is dominated by dark malts, milk chocolate and brown sugar. There is a touch of mild earthy hops in the aroma as well. The taste is malt forward but balanced. The malts give flavors of mocha, molasses, toffee, dark chocolate, roasted barley and a touch of plum. The hops add a pleasant bitterness along with some hints of pine and earthy flavors. Geary’s London Porter has a medium body, full carbonation, and finishes pleasantly bitter, like strong black coffee. At 4.2% ABV this is a pretty low alcohol beer so it is very easy to drink. Geary’s London Porter is a great choice for a balanced, flavorful dark beer that will hold up to rich winter food without the high alcohol content. Hoppy Boston score 4.5/5.