Note: Orginally appeared in Issue 47 of BeerAdvocate magazine.
Even though it can be a dirty, hot, and messy job there is something about small brewers that beer geeks find appealing. Likely the first reason that we think of these craftsmen as rock stars is because they make our elixir of choice, but there is more to it than that. In an era where terms like profit margins and productivity find their way into our daily conversations, the brewer focuses on things of real value like quality – both of product and of life.
Corporate America may look at a brewer like Steve Gorrill of Sheepscot Valley Brewing Company out of Whitefield, Maine and see a man with his priorities out of whack – his business could grow and he could be a lot more aggressive in the market, but Gorrill likes things just they are and that’s why he garners the respect of beer geeks in Southern Maine.
The general population might be more familiar with some of Maine’s other, bigger brewers. Names like Shipyard, or Allagash can tend to dominate the discussion when it comes to Maine brews, and for good reason. That’s fine with Gorrill, who is happy with his small share of the market.
“I really just try to do my stuff for the local area for the most part,” he said. “I’m the whole company. My distributor [Pine State Trading] gives me enough business. I never wanted to get into the whole dealings of giving stuff away for draft lines. There are people I want to deal with who put the beer on because they like the beer, and then there are people who want something for it.”
Although Whitefield is not a tiny town, it is far enough away from the beer bars in Portland that a pub with five or six taps is a good find. As far as Gorrill is concerned, if one of those taps is a Sheepscot tap, he is pleased.
Sheepscot has had some changes over its history, as it has moved from its original home at the old Whitefield Hospital to its current location, grew from a 4-bbl to 7-bbl system, and has ceased to be contract-brewed after Gorrill’s contract brewer ran out of capacity. Now, Gorrill handles the 500-bbl annual production on his own and does not want to see demand grow much higher, as it means more work and less time spent with his family.
“I could actually sell quite a bit more beer if I wanted to get on and do that, but then I wouldn’t spend more time at home, and I kind of need to do that,” he said. “It’s good to be around for your kids. [Family] is the most important thing.”
Gorrill’s brewing roots lie in his kitchen, where he was a home brewer for about a decade before opening Sheepscot 15 years ago. Prior to opening his brewery, Gorrill was an oyster farmer, but he was getting tired of spending the frigid winters tending to his crop and the long hours away from his growing family. He decided to make a change, and three weeks after the birth of his first child Gorrill opened his brewery.
“It’s something I like doing, and I’m able to stay home,” said Gorrill, who has a 15-year old son and a 12-year old daughter. “My kids have grown up with the brewery.”
When he says that his kids have grown up with the brewery, he means that they literally grew up on the same property. Sheepscot Valley Brewing Co. is located in a converted barn on Gorrill’s property – about 25 yards from the main house. It’s close enough that the kids help out by labeling growlers and adding the shrink wrap on the caps while waiting for the school bus. The location makes it difficult for his fans who want to drop by unannounced, but that’s fine with Gorrill, as he is pretty busy anyway.
“I normally start working about [5 a.m.],” Gorrill said. “But, this fall I had to help coach soccer, so I got up at three so I could have time to go coach soccer.”
Although the location – which in a prior incarnation served as a custom cutting operation that sliced deer meat for hunters, and where some still brought freshly-killed venison in the early days of the brewery – makes it difficult for drop-ins, Gorrill welcomes visitors who make an appointment, and knows most of his regulars as if they were part of his extended family. It is all part of being a small brewer in a tight community, and Gorrill understands the importance of keeping up good relations with his neighbors.
“It’s a great place,” Gorrill said, speaking of the brewery and the town. “Every Thursday during the summer the whole neighborhood comes over and we have a party for a few hours. We have a giant potluck, and then everybody goes home.”
And for Gorrill, going home is the best part.
Creative Before it was Cool
Gorrill and Allagash’s Rob Tod have something in common – besides being members of the Maine Brewer’s guild – both were brewing adventurous, Belgian-style beers in 1995 long before the style was popular in America. In Sheepscot Valley’s first years of operations, Gorrill said he brewed about 15 different beers – many of them Belgian-inspired.
“My favorite was Lucifer’s Hammer,” Gorrill said. “It was a Belgian Tripel, and I made about four different versions of it. It’s been so long now though, I probably don’t even remember how to make it.”
Unlike Tod, Gorrill decided that the risk of making such radical beer wasn’t worth the potential reward, and switched to making more traditional ales – the type of beer he likes to drink. He is proud of the fact that Sheepscot’s flagship, Pemaquid Ale – a malty Scottish Export beer brewed with six different malts – is also his favorite style.
“It’s really just making a beer that I like to drink,” Gorrill said. “That’s the most important thing. Pemaquid Ale, I like drinking it. I know some brewers who their top-selling beer isn’t the beer they would actually drink, but it sells well, and it pays the bills. I think it’s nice to have something you like to be the thing that pays the bills.”
Gorrill has found that the local community seems to share his tastes, and he has become a popular figure in Whitefield and the surrounding areas because of it.
“I can walk down the street in some of these towns and all of these people know who I am,” he said. “It’s kind of cool.”
Sheepscot also produces a handful of seasonals and growler-only releases (see sidebar), all of which are in the same traditional-minded vein of Pemaquid. Keeping tradition in mind, all of Sheepscot’s beers are keg-conditioned, naturally carbonated and unfiltered. It’s a technique that gives Gorrill’s brews a unique mouthfeel and flavor.
Sheepscot Valley Brewing Company is small and it does not carry with it the same hype or popularity of its neighbors, but its owner has his priorities in order. Perhaps his community recognizes him because they simply like his beer, but they respect him because he unabashedly puts his family before business, and has been a proud member of his community for well over a decade.
Sean Lewis is a freelance journalist and the beer columnist for the Santa Barbara News-Press. He is currently working on his first book.