Wake Up, Maine

Warning: rant ahead.

After moving to Portland about a year ago from Braintree, MA, I breathed a sigh of freedom after living under some of Masachusetts’s draconian liquor laws. There are drink specials here! Happy hour! Granted, the selection at my local “packies” isn’t quite what I could get in MA (the Boston market is a big one for craft beer and increasingly, craft liquor) but there are some fantastic local offerings, such as Maine Beer Company and Marshall Wharf brewery. Yeah. Lunch IPA is plentiful up here. Think about that.

Maine is one of the top states for breweries per capita, coming in at number 6 (little New England neighbor Vermont is number 1). My brother, who moved to Portland, OR last year, loves to brag about all the breweries out there (143 according to this site) but was shocked to discover Maine was so high up on the list. Even MA doesn’t crack the top 20. This is the beauty of “per capita” statistics. Maine has about 40ish breweries, but only about 1.2 million people in the whole state. So when skewed per person, we’re doing pretty good. And growing. As a result, more and more people are coming to Portland as a craft beer destination, and the city is hosting more and more brewfests and craft beer events. Last weekend, Portland hosted The Festival.

The Festival was held in Worcester, MA last year, and kind of flew under the radar. This year, however, it was highly publicized, and moved up to Portland. Organized by Shelton Brothers Importers (based in MA), this event pulled together world-class breweries, many from Europe, to showcase some incredibly rare and special beers, focusing mainly on Belgian styles and sours.

No, I didn’t go. I’m more of a hophead than a Belgian lover, and I don’t think sours are much fun. Plus, tickets were a whopping $65 for not much beer. More on that below.

So when I stumbled across this article today, I was infuriated:

Portland Press Herald, June 26, 2013

Unbelievably bad publicity. Beer festivals in Maine are in trouble if this state doesn’t shape up and reevaluate its silly rules. If you want to be part of the craft beer game, and reap the benefits of festivals pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into the economy, then you have to provide a welcoming environment to the hosts and vendors of the event. Here’s what needs to change:

– Drink Tickets
This is just plain silly. Limiting patrons, who pay ticket prices upwards of $50 (The Festival was $65) to 48 oz of beer is insulting. That’s equivalent to four 12oz beers, or three 16oz pints, which any craft beer drinker can take down without blinking. When you divvy that up into pours of <2oz, it's highly unsatisfying. Naturally the Maine Liquor Licensing and Compliance Division claims that the 48oz limit wasn't in effect for this event, yet I'd put money down that they threatened the organizers that they'd better adhere to the rule regardless. Criminal bureaucracy bait and switch.

– Not Letting the Brewers Pour their Beer
This was a big beef with The Festival. The brewers are basically told that they can’t touch their own beer… can’t serve it, can’t provide the equipment to serve it, can’t touch it. Not even the distributors can get involved. Because of licensing issues, it qualifies and a “catered event.” Everything has to be owned and handled by the catering company that officially serves the beers, in most cases by people who know NOTHING about the brews they’re pouring. This defeats the whole purpose of an event like this. Let the brewers bring their own team to serve and spread knowledge about their own products. Get real and come up with some realistic guidelines for a beer event.

– Cost
The Festival was $65 per ticket. Plus fees. The upcoming Maine Brewers’ Guild event in July (“Craft Beer Comes to Maine State Pier”) is $50, $75 for a VIP which gets you in an hour earlier. The only reasonably priced ticket we’ve encountered is the Portland Brewfest for $35. Come on. If BeerAdvocate can throw the ACBF in Boston for $47.50 per ticket which includes over 600 different beers from 140+ breweries, why should I pay MORE money for a third of the breweries? Did I mention that the ACBF doesn’t have drink tickets and that the brewers actually pour and handle their own beer?

When Massachusetts does a better job of handing an alcohol-related event, you know you’re in trouble.

– Mandatory Donations
There was an issue where basically the organizers were forced to give a donation to charity to obtain the license in the first place. I mean, donating to charity is great, but not when you’re told you HAVE to do it if you want your license. That’s extortion.

– Liquor Violations
Apparently, some of the volunteer servers were doing some tasting of their own, which is against the rules. If the brewers can’t touch anything, then aren’t these volunteers under the direction of the catering company? So isn’t it THEIR duty to police the event? You can’t blame the brewers for this one at all if you’re going to tell them they have to be “hands off” for the event.

As a result of these issues, Shelton Brothers won’t be back to Maine for another Festival unless the contradictory and uninviting laws change. The venue was great, the patrons were great, and nearly 2,200 people pumped $750k into the local economy. Apparently Maine won’t be seeing that money again until they get their act together and make some realistic regulations for these events. Which makes more sense: one event that nets $750k and pisses off all the vendors and organizers, or keeping them happy, so they come back year after year, and hopefully dump more and more money into the local coffers?

Stop chasing away business, Maine. You’re being an asshole.

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