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Major in Beer

by | Sep 9, 2020

photo/Tom Major

New breweries often begin in old barns and decrepit mills, attracted by high ceilings and low rent. Clean water and plumb drains are necessary, but good anecdotes are nice, too. They help to introduce a beer. And inevitably, they grow right along with the brewery.

Like many brewers, Jeff Powers and Pamela James-Powers began as homebrewers.  In 2011, Jeff suggested Pamela could retire if they opened a craft brewery — the second time in nine years that he’d held out the promise she could leave her teaching job. She suggested they name their first beer after him: Lying Bastard Pale Ale.

In 2014, they opened Bigelow Brewing Company.

Today, Jeff continues to work as a production leader at Nine Dragons Paper, in Rumford, but Pamela left her teaching position to manage the brewery full-time. When someone suggests they retire the ale’s name now that Jeff’s promise has been fulfilled, she quips, “But I’m still working.”

The couple converted the barn on their 25-acre farm — formerly home to horses, goats and poultry — into a brewery and tap room. Although they were confident about the beer, they were less certain folks would drive to their farm to buy it. Bigelow Hill is only four miles from downtown Skowhegan, but the corner store is closer, and even small country stores stock craft beer these days.

The community responded with enthusiasm. Within a year of opening, Jeff and Pamela received a federal Economic and Community Development Grant. The money helped them increase their staff to six full-time and six part-time employees, and purchase a 15-barrel brewhouse, five 30-barrel fermenters, and a canning line, as well as to finance a building expansion to house it all. The tasting room doubled to accommodate 156 guests indoors and countless more in the sprawling barnyard. On a good night, they sold 150 to 200 pizzas baked in the outdoor oven they installed.

Pamela is just as enthusiastic about Skowhegan as her neighbors are about Bigelow Brewing. Maine Wood Heat, a Skowhegan company, made the showpiece copper pizza oven. The Bankery, a bakery located in a former bank building, makes the pizza dough using spent grains from the brewery and flour from Maine Grains, another Skowhegan company. Chicken for the pizza is from birds raised at the brewery and processed at the nearby Tessier Farm. Four other local farms produce beef for the pies, and companies from Aroostook to Somerset counties provide various cheeses. The brewery’s barley malt comes from Maine’s two malt houses: Blue Ox, in Lisbon Falls, and the Maine Malt House, in Mapleton. All told, more than 40 Maine companies provide goods or services to Bigelow Brewing Company.

Pamela said the importance of supporting local businesses “has had more of an impact on us since we started the brewery.” Although some products cost more, buying local is a strong part of the Bigelow ethos. Certain varieties of malt, for example, cost up to twice as much, but local spending strengthens the economy that also sustains them.

The next challenge for Bigelow Brewing is the rehabilitation of the derelict, four-story Maine Spinning Company mill in downtown Skowhegan. It’s structurally sound, but the floors are water-damaged from a large hole in the roof, many windows are broken, and all the mechanical systems will need to be replaced.

Glancing around at the warped floorboards, Pamela said, “It has some issues, but it’s worth saving.” As she stepped past a pile of pigeon guano in the stairwell, she added, “I still feel optimistic that it will work and be a driver for the local economy.”

Once completed, the ground floor of the old mill will contain the brewery and tasting room, alongside a general store selling local produce and craft goods. A deck overlooking the falls of the Kennebec River will offer additional seating. The second and third floors will be converted to apartments, including Jeff and Pamela’s future home. The fourth floor will have a restaurant and rooftop deck. The basement will offer parking and a gym for tenants and employees.

Work on the mill has temporarily halted while a historic preservation grant is being processed. Asked about the prospect of getting a second grant to finance another expansion, Pamela said, “There’s money out there for everything. You just have to know how to find it, and we’re learning.”

The farm brewery has been a destination for locals, but Pamela observed that a significant percentage of visitors have come from away. Skowhegan sits at the crossroads of Routes 2 and 201, a common path to and from Quebec.

“Our problem is not having people come to Skowhegan,” said Pamela. “Our problem is getting people to stop.”

A great local brewery in a historic mill with a rooftop patio and live music could persuade just about anyone to stop and stay awhile.

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