Does the City of Portland hate breweries? That question seems absurd. Isn’t Portland the most brewery-dense city in the U.S.A.? Its local government must be welcoming to brewers trying to set up shop here, right?
To Jeffrey Curran, founder of Newscapes Brewing, the jury is, literally, still out.
In June, Newscapes opened to the public on Portland’s East End, at 163 Washington Ave., following an arduous bureaucratic odyssey that began in 2018 and has ended up in court three times; the third lawsuit is still pending. Curran’s vision was to operate a community-focused nano-brewery in his home at the foot of Munjoy Hill. He said the licensing process for the federal and state governments was relatively easy, and his brewery was green-lighted by the city to begin making beer.
Jeff’s father, John Curran, helped him get the brewery started. John is a retired Portland firefighter, so the Currans decided to make their first brew a fundraiser for the firefighters’ charitable fund, which uses donations to support burn victims and people displaced by fires. The 22 oz. bottles were labeled with the IAFF Local 740 logo and sold at local markets.
According to Jeff, 11 months later, when he applied for a tasting room license, city officials told him, “You can’t be a brewery in that location. You need to stop operating.”
If you’re among the hundreds of thousands of people who drink on this stretch of inner Washington Avenue every year, that policy may seem perplexing. Oxbow Blending & Bottling, Maine Mead Works, Hardshore Distilling and Maine Craft Distilling all produce and sell alcohol within a third of a mile of Curran’s building, and they’re all on the same side of the street. Root Wild, which brews and serves beer and kombucha, is one block away.
But according to the city’s zoning map, Newscapes is inside what’s called a B-1 zone, and Root Wild is in a B-2b. Curran described the difference as that between a “neighborhood business zone” and a “community business zone.” Which is to say, an extremely slight and practically meaningless distinction.
Curran said he was told by the city that he could apply to amend the map. But there was a fee to file that application: $7,500, please. For Curran, who’s currently brewing in five-gallon batches, that’s the price of a new one-barrel brewing system — to ask someone to consider redrawing a spec on a line.
When Newscapes Brewing finally opened, it did so with a restaurant license. Curran doesn’t brew in Portland anymore; he makes beer in Cape Elizabeth. “It was a pleasure dealing with the Cape Elizabeth municipal department in comparison to Portland,” he said. “We applied for an in-home business and were granted the approval in the same week.”
When Hi-Fidelity opened among the cluster of breweries and other booze businesses on Anderson Street, it held the honor of being Portland’s newest brewery for one day; then Newscapes opened its door. Owner-operators Dante Maderal and PD Wappler signed their lease in January 2020, 30 months before they could sell their first pint.
As a former brewer and jack-of-all-trades at Atlantic Brewing Company, in Bar Harbor, Maderal had plenty of personal expertise and professional advice at hand. He described state licensing as “one of the most straightforward parts of the process.” But even the full renovation of their East Bayside industrial space, most of which the pair did themselves, was easier than slogging through Portland’s permitting process.
“Everyone we talked to said it’s really hard to work with this city,” Maderal told me. “And it is. Well, we were warned.” Their frustrations with city government led them to consider joining brewers, like Jeff Curran, who simply left town to brew. But Wappler was adamant. “‘This is my town,’” Maderal recalled him saying. “‘I don’t want to do this anywhere else.’”
Some readers may question whether Portland needs any more breweries. At what point is the market saturated? But that’s not a question for City Hall to answer, is it? The success of the craft beer industry is the result of creative disruption in the market. Entrepreneurs like Maderal, Wappler and the Currans ought to be able to take their shot. Special tax breaks and subsidies aren’t necessary or appropriate, but a regulatory process that’s navigable and affordable for the average citizen is not too much to ask for.
Feeling over-regulated, dysregulated, or just irregular? Tell Tom Major all about it a firstname.lastname@example.org.