Ten months ago, Maine’s brewing industry came to a screeching halt the day after one of the biggest beer-drinking days of the year, St. Patrick’s Day, when the novel coronavirus pandemic prompted Governor Janet Mills to issue an Executive Order on March 18, 2020 to close all bars and restaurants for a period of 14 days.
Back then, for many at the beginning of this unknown pandemic, the assumption was that breweries, bars, and tasting rooms would eventually re-open and it would be business as usual. But, on March 31, when Mills issued the Stay Healthy at Home directive that required Mainers to stay at home at all times unless venturing out for necessary purposes, the brewing industry—like so many other industries in Maine, saw the writing on the wall.
Since the spring, breweries with restaurant service fared a little better. They were able to re-open for indoor service, while breweries with take-out options and outdoor seating were able to capture some of the lost revenue during the summer, but as of November 1, with COVID-19 cases on the rise in Maine, Mills issued a mandate to postpone the opening of indoor seating at bars and tasting rooms.
Lowered excise tax law boosts cost savings for breweries, beer lovers
The industry got a shot in the arm with a new law announced in late December that permanently lowers excise tax for brewers, according to the office of U.S. Senator Susan Collins, who, along with Senator Angus King, and a bipartisan group of 55 colleagues, championed for the law in order to help breweries —and their brewing supply chains—stay open.
Given that Maine has the highest excise tax for beer in New England at $.35/gallon, this came as welcome relief to brewers already cash-strapped from the pandemic.
Maine leads the nation when it comes to the recent rapid growth of its beer industry. In 2018, the industry added $2 billion to to Maine economy, according to a study jointly issued by the Beer Institute and National Beer Wholesalers Association. That year, Maine’s beer industry added 15,531 jobs, paying a total $595,273 in wages.
“In Maine, we have one of the highest state excise tax rates, almost triple some of the New England states,” said Sean Sullivan, executive director the Maine Brewers Guild. “Add that to the production challenge of switching to predominantly canned beer, as well as shortages of aluminum cans, these were additional trends hurting the industry.”
In 2017, the American craft beverage industry got a break when a temporary federal law lowered the excise tax of $7 per barrel to $3.50 per barrel, which was set to expire on December 30, 2020.
“The risk was that as of January 1, that federal excise tax rate was going to go back up to $7 a barrel,” said Sullivan. “More than 25 breweries opened during the last three years that had never paid that amount per barrel, and hadn’t factored that into their costs. Picture yourself as a brewer, heading into a winter where you didn’t have a good economic summer, and then all of a sudden your taxes go up twice the amount you’re used to paying on each barrel.”
“Maine’s beer industry has been on a growth trajectory for years,” said Sullivan. “Maine brewers produced about 365,000 barrels of beer in 2019, which equates to about $1.25 million in revenue. So, to break it down, as of the beginning of 2021, either $1.25 million was going to remain in Maine for breweries to re-invest in their business, or else it was going to go to the federal government in the form of excise tax, if tax rates were raised back to $7 per barrel.”
Maine brewers come together as one brand to collaborate on brew recipe
Another spot of good news for an industry known for its tight and collaborative communities in all of Maine’s eight regions was the decision to create a Collaboration Beer 2020.
Thirty-nine breweries all over the state, including Liberator Brewing Co., in Rockland, and Waterman’s Beach Brewing, in South Thomaston, received the same donated hops, malts, and grains and one recipe to work off.
The result of that effort turned into 39 brews, all under one label, each a slightly different flavor based on how they used their own yeast, base malts, and brewing techniques. Proceeds from the beer have not generated some much-needed profit for the industry, but have also gone back as donations to bolster the Maine Brewers’ Guild.
“I’ve tried so many versions of this beer,” said Sullivan. “It’s remarkable how different they taste. I think this Collab Beer is a beautiful example of what makes our industry so special. Amidst the commonality of brewing beer, even often the same style, there is infinite diversity. Wherever you are in Maine, look for this label and check the back for which brewery brewed the beer. ”
For a list of breweries that participated visit Brewbound.com
Kay Stephens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org