FREEPORT, Maine — You could say it was a real barn burner, minus the flames. On a frigid early March Saturday in Freeport, more than 300 hard-core devotees of Maine Beer Company flowed through the craft brewery’s just-built, towering “Black Barn” entrance. Inside, they packed the shimmering new space, both across its 5,000-square-foot floor and nearly up the ceiling — courtesy of the 1,000-square-foot mezzanine. They took breaks from the bar and playing shuffleboard to sit on Thomas Moser wooden tables and wash down wood-fired pizza with glasses of Peeper, the house’s signature ale.
This new space may have replaced the brewery’s previous tiny tasting room, but to call it that (at least the way most wineries or breweries interpret the term) is a misnomer. It’s far less a tasting room than a temple — one clearly built to impart the company’s philosophy and approach to business, beer, and life. If there’s any question about that, just look up in the gigantic room and read the unmissable mural spelling out the company’s motto, “Do What’s Right,” and its three missions: taking care of its employees; giving 1 percent of its sales to environmental nonprofits; and of course, making beer.
Maine Beer Company certainly isn’t alone its commitment to green causes or to community. An increasing number of New England craft breweries are serving up not just brew, but a pledge to environmental stewardship and other local nonprofits. Places like Long Trail in Bridgewater Corners, Vt., and Hanging Hills Tasting Room in Hartford are also members of 1% for the Planet. But in opening its new space, Maine Beer Co. may be the first to put its ethos into a literally concrete — and interactive — form. “We’re taking the movement a step further by having an approach to life within that story, and with actions that guests can take when they step inside,” says co-owner and cofounder Dan Kleban.
He and his brother David Kleban cofounded the company together after years of home brewing. Dan had been a corporate litigator in Portland and David a financial adviser. Then the financial collapse of 2008 hit. And by winter of 2009, they’d both left their former careers and decided to become full-time brewers. “Seeing the havoc the economy had wreaked on families with the crash, we were frustrated and determined to launch a company with a constructive business model,” says Dan. “Our theory was that if you build a company that put its workers and the environment first, it will be a model to other businesses.”
One definitive way they did that was to write it into their business plan to donate 1 percent to environmental nonprofits such as Maine Audubon and The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund. That’s 1 percent of sales, not profits. “That’s a much larger number,” says marketing and events manager Anne Marisic. “It gets taken off the top of gross annual sales, not after. And the first years of the business, the brothers weren’t paying themselves money, but were always paying that 1 percent.”
They also started out looking at the mission to “take care of employees,” providing full benefits, a living wage, paid vacations, and retirement benefits to their employees. And to fund both of those efforts, they leaned on making their values a public focus. In short, they charged more for the beer. “We were convinced that people would pay a premium for the product if they knew what that money was going for,” says Dan.
Which brings us back to the tasting room, a veritable showroom of those values. “The whole concept of any brewery’s tasting room is that it’s a community space,” Dan says. “There are activities for kids, and different spots for people to hang out and talk to their neighbors. We’ll host regular fund-raisers for green causes and our environmental partners. The Girl Scouts will be here in a few weeks selling cookies.” One of the most striking hangout spaces is in the room’s center: Guests sit and eat around a circular stone water fountain, aglow in its blue light beneath a looming sculpture of a tree that shines with intricate copper leaves. A separate area nearby keeps fans of the truffle-and-chive pizza eating it up right next to the oven, at community tables. And then there’s all the messaging meant to inspire.
“The exciting thing about the tasting room is that it’s a storybook. It has visuals that let people know what we’re all about and what we stand for,” says Dan. “We have an 11-foot mural up above everything calling out 1% for the Planet. It’s very in-your-face, saying, ‘This is who we are, this is what we do.’ We have photography showing our staff in action volunteering out in the community, and tell the stories of our environmental partners.”
Some of that inspiration also comes in the form of actions taken right in front of guests. “We pledge 100 percent of our tips to environment nonprofits,” says tasting room manager Ryan Conery-Poulin. (That, too, is wrapped into the brewery’s business model of donating 1 percent to environmental causes, and the brewery in turn makes sure the staff is well compensated in their salaries.) “That’s an extra level of commitment, and it creates a great, noncompetitive working environment for us,” says Conery-Poulin. Meanwhile, the beers hint at that same kind of personal connection; the two brothers have named them after everything from their life stories to their kids.
“The more people start talking about what we’re doing and other companies start following how we run ours, that’s the goal,” says Dan. “We want people to walk away from us and hopefully they’ve enjoyed the beer and the pizza and the friends, but also leave thinking, ‘Well . . . I guess there’s hope in the world.’ ”