Tom Bull knows lager. And knowing it as well as he does, Bull always knew lager would be cool again, even in the hazy days of the ongoing IPA craze. And though health concerns forced him to give up brewing, Bull’s friends are now helping him create the beer styles he’s always championed.
Brewers, biologists and beer geeks could expound upon the differences between ale and lager ad nauseum, but simply put, they are the two largest categories of beer, created by two different styles of yeast. Lager yeast ferments more slowly and at colder temperatures, converting sugar into alcohol from the bottom of the tank. Ale yeast is quicker and works at a warmer temperature from the top of the tank down.
Maine brewers have many reasons to prefer ale to lager. Early craft beer snobs associated lager with corporate swill like Miller, Coors and Budweiser, the brands against which microbreweries were rebelling. The rate of fermentation makes ale more cost-effective; more beer can be produced using the same equipment, since ale yeast works faster. And most Maine brewers first learned the craft by working in breweries that make ale.
But Tom Bull, who grew up in Bath, always knew Maine hop heads would come around to lager. After working his way up from bouncer to assistant brewer at Gritty McDuff’s, where he learned to make ale, he opened Bull Jagger Brewing, Maine’s first dedicated lager brewery, in 2011. Despite the praise Bull’s brews earned from discerning drinkers, the company folded in 2013. Maine wasn’t yet ready for craft lager.
Bull bounced back in 2016, opening the Dirigo Brewing Company in Biddeford. He brewed the full range of lagers, from pilsner to Baltic porter, while his wife Molly managed the tasting room.
A rare, congenital form of cardiomyopathy forced Bull out of the business a couple years ago. He got a heart transplant in 2020, but the immunity risks transplant patients incur prevent him from working hands-on with yeast.
When asked what he misses most about brewing, Bull replied, “I miss the smells, right? The malt and the hops. And the energy. And the creative process, designing and tweaking recipes.” In other words, he misses it all, except the beer itself, which, thankfully, he can still drink.
Bull made a lot of great friends during his brewing years. Among them is Michael Schuler, co-founder of Nonesuch River Brewing in Scarborough. When Schuler wanted to create a Märzenbier, the traditional lager for Oktoberfest, he consulted Tom Bull.
“This is our first lager at Nonesuch and we figured that we could use some guidance from Tom,” Schuler explained.
Schuler first met Bull when he was preparing to open Nonesuch River Brewing in 2017. Although he’d been homebrewing for 20 years, Schuler wanted to understand more about commercial brewing before opening Nonesuch. “He was gracious enough to let me observe a couple of brews and ask whatever novice questions I had,” Schuler recalled. “I felt like, without those experiences, my first brews would have been much more nerve-wracking.”
For what they’ve dubbed Märzen the First, Schuler and associate brewer Brian Schnell used the same recipe Bull used at Dirigo, with just enough tweaking to make it their own. A portion of the proceeds from Märzen the First will be donated to Heart Brothers, a nonprofit that provides temporary quarters to heart patients in Boston. Bull benefited from the generosity of Heart Brothers as a transplant patient, and is now volunteering for the organization.
Ian Goering, head of production for Après, a new seltzer and cider maker in Portland’s East Bayside neighborhood, is also collaborating with Bull. Goering, whose first job in the industry was as an assistant brewer at Bull Jagger, invited Bull to evaluate and collaborate on the development of some seltzer flavors.
Matt Johannes, co-founder of Side By Each Brewing in Auburn, is another Bull Jagger alum. Bull and Johannes recently collaborated on a version of Dirigo Baltic Porter released as Jeezum Crow Baltic Porter. And Joel Mahaffey, co-founder of Foundation Brewing, also collaborated with Bull to create a version of his Baltic Porter that’ll be on tap later this month. Foundation opened in 2014 at One Industrial Way in Portland, the same building that formerly housed Bull Jagger Brewing.
If you miss Dirigo Brewing as much as Tom Major does, or have any other thoughts about beer, e-mail him at email@example.com.