Rich Ruggiero to open World War Two aviation themed brewery

Liberator Brewing Company to touch down in Rockland

Fri, 03/30/2018 - 7:30pm

    ROCKLAND — Rockland will soon be welcoming a new microbrewery, Liberator Brewing Company, named for the World War Two B-24 bomber, is scheduled to open late this spring in the space formerly occupied by Terra Optima market on south Main Street. Pending the receipt of requisite permits, owner Rich Ruggiero said that he hopes Liberator will be ready for takeoff by late June.

    Though the brewery is a new incarnation and theme, owner and brewer Rich Ruggiero is no stranger to the craft beer scene.

    Ruggiero said his earliest foray into the Maine craft brewing scene occurred in 1995 when he was hired to design and install a private brewery for a local doctor who had found him through the Siebel Institute in Chicago. When the doctor had second thoughts, Ruggiero purchased the brewery and moved to Maine from New York. That brewery would become Rocky Bay Brewing, and Ruggiero remained at the helm until 2007.

    Following his departure from Rocky Bay Brewing, Ruggiero took his craft to Shag Rock Brewing, which was housed in the former Amalfi space on Rockland Harbor, he said. Additionally, he was the owner of the Waterworks restaurant in Rockland.

    "I decided to get out of that," said Ruggiero, 59. He added that he indulged his passion for brewing through a variety of consulting jobs.

    "I worked a series of 'normal' jobs, but I felt like my life wasn't fulfilled." he said.

    Following a trip to Bar Harbor's Octoberfest in 2012, Ruggiero said that the brewing community embraced him as an old friend.

    "It was amazing, everyone recognized me," he said.

    Afterward, his wife Karen encouraged him to once again pursue his passion for brewing.

    "She looked at me and said, 'you need to do that again,'" he said.

    Despite his experience and recognition in the brewing community, Ruggiero said it wasn't easy to simply get back on the proverbial horse.

    "I almost gave up," he said.

    While Rocky Bay boasted a robust 15-barrel setup, Liberator will have a mere two barrels. Ruggiero said that his decision to get back into brewing full-time was not a recent one, but it took him time to find the right space and the requisite financing. The space he found via word of mouth and started the process of securing a lease in November 2017.

    He worked with Coastal Enterprises, Inc., the financing and business development nonprofit based in Brunswick. Its website explains the mission: "Coastal Enterprises, Inc. (CEI) helps to grow good jobs, environmentally sustainable enterprises, and shared prosperity in Maine and in rural regions across the country by integrating financing, business and industry expertise, and policy solutions. CEI envisions a world in which communities are economically and environmentally healthy, enabling all people, especially those with low incomes, to reach their full potential."

    Ruggiero said he worked for three months with a counselor for CEI who travels to Rockland weekly. The CEI counselor helped him refine his business plan and assisted with financing once it was apparent that the business plan was ready to move forward.

    "I was just going to look for another 'normal' job, but this lets me do what I love to do," he said. "I'm going to start small and grow until I can make a living doing what I love.... If you get too big, things get away from you.”

    Ruggiero said that a tasting room license introduced by the state has made it feasible for a brewery to open for a relatively small amount of money, additionally, it provides a revenue stream for nano breweries that mostly serve their own customers.

    "It was difficult to open a brewery for under $100,000 until the tasting room license was introduced," he said.

    Now, it is possible to do so for under $50,000, according to Ruggiero.

    He said he sourced much of his equipment from Stout Tanks and Kettles in Portland, Oregon, and purchased some used equipment. He said he plans to keep his overhead low with two to three staff and many friends and family helping throughout the build out of the brewery.

    "You see the nanos popping up all over the place, I call it the new age of brewing," he said.

    While his plan is to have several tap lines at restaurants in the region for marketing, he said 75 percent of the beer produced at Liberator will be served in-house.

    "We will mostly be doing direct sales to our customers," he said.

    At this time, he does not have plans to can or bottle the beer he brews; however, growlers will be offered on-site.

    "My vision is to put the micro back in micro," he said. "I've seen it all in my 25 years in this industry," he added, with a grin.

    Ruggiero lit up as he talked about the beers that will be offered at Liberator.

    "Things are trending back toward traditional styles, but beer styles come in cycles," he said. "Hoppy beers will always be popular."

    Liberator will have five or six "mainstay" beers and two rotating taps.

    "We'll do outside the box type beers that we will offer once or twice a year, [when they are released] I plan to do special releases and fun promotions," he said.

    Among his mainstay offerings will be a West Coast "classic style IPA" with a flavor profile he describes as, "not in your face, but bold enough to satisfy hop lovers."

    A session IPA will be offered consistently, as will an Irish Style Red called Katie's Celtic Red. Libertor will also offer a "semi full-time" helles style lager.

    A barley wine style libation that he once produced under the name "Viking Plunder" will be reinvented as "Axis Nightmare," named for a B-25 owned by the Tri-State Warbird Museum in Cincinnati.

    Liberator carries a Farm Sustainable license that stipulates that a certain percentage of the ingredients Ruggiero uses must be locally produced. He said he is already talking with  Ducktrap River Hops in Lincolnville, and Blue Ox Malthouse in Lisbon Falls. He said he is excited at the grain and hops that are becoming popular crops in Maine.

    "Products are starting to pop up all over the place," he said.

    Liberator will collaborate with local restaurants, including Rotary Pizza, to offer various prepared food options, and hot food on a weekly basis. The food he sells will also be sourced locally.

    He said he envisions being open five to six days a week from 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. during the summer, winter hours have not been determined save for the fact that Ruggiero plans to be open for some portion of the week year-round.

    "The first season will dictate what I do," he said.

    He added that he will offer happy hour and work to cultivate a fun, inviting environment.

    "It will have a relaxed atmosphere, I really want it to be a fun, affordable place to hang out," he said. "I'm making a big leap but I am excited. I wouldn't be doing this if I wasn't.”

    The name of the brewery is dear to Ruggiero's heart. His father dropped out of high school at age 16 and joined the service following Pearl Harbor.

    "Everyone was volunteering then," he said.

    Once enlisted, the late elder Ruggiero reported from his home in Brooklyn, New York to Bangor where approximately 30 percent of the B-24 Liberators manufactured were also sent according to Ruggiero. His father did his training in Bangor and was sent to serve in the European Theatre during World War Two; he began as a ball turret gunner aboard a B-24.

    Ruggiero explained that a pilot shortage allowed his father to learn to fly. After the war, his father became the director of manufacturing for the Navy and also worked for Pratt and Whitney.

    "I grew up flying with my dad and hanging around the flying club," he said.

    Ruggiero's passion for aviation only grew, and he earned his pilot's license at age 25.

    A native of New York, he spent the subsequent years servicing electronic systems for the Department of Defense while residing in his home state.

    "I was making great money and I loved my job," he said.

    Eventually he made the decision to leave the job and take his passion for brewing to the next level. 

    "I took out my retirement and enrolled in the Siebel Institute in Chicago," he said.

    Siebel boasts the distinction of being the oldest brewing institute, and is looked at by many as the best, he said. He graduated the brewing program after two years of studies.

    During his time at Siebel, he periodically flew home to Long Island. On one such visit he noticed that a brewery had hung its shingle in Port Jefferson, not far from where he lived. Owned by a fellow aviator, the James Bay Brewing Company was Long Island's first small brewery, and Ruggiero said he immediately got involved, albeit by accident.

    "I was there having a beer and remarked that it was the worst beer I had ever tasted," he said with a laugh. The owner of James Bay overheard his remark. "He looked at me and said, 'do you think you can do better?'"

    Ruggiero answered in the affirmative and reported for duty the following day, and products from the seven-barrel steam-fired brewery subsequently went on to win multiple national awards. 

    Though Ruggiero does not maintain a pilot's license, he remains passionate about aviation. He said he was toying with the idea of a nautically themed brewery, but when he spoke with his counselor at CEI about his passion for World War Two era aircraft, the theme became obvious to both of them.

    Ruggiero will decorate the brewery with posters depicting World War Two aircraft nose art, and other touches that harken back to the 1940s era. He said the idea came to him after his father passed away.

    "When I was cleaning out my dad's house I found all sorts of photos, medals and letters," he explained. He added that pieces from his father's collection will be part of the decor in the brewery, and he is currently collecting complementary pieces.

    Construction on the space began March 2, and Ruggiero said working with a contractor friend, as well as support from his family, has been a positive experience.

    "I'm hoping to be good to go sometime in June," he said. "The first season is the learning season."

    Jenna Lookner can be reached at