A few summers ago I was outside on the deck in the middle of a Portland Maine summer at Novare Res Bier Cafe. I was there with a mutual friend Luke Livingston who at the time had just launched Baxter Brewing Company only a few years earlier. I was getting ready to call it a night when a friendly couple approached me and asked if I ran a company in town. I said yes and we began to talk, and they informed me they had just started their own business too. The couple was Mark and Nichole Stevens. The company was Maine Beer Tours. This was right at the time that the craft beer industry in Maine was really taking off. Me, being very new to any of it and being very ignorant to this happening listened somewhat in awe that people would pay money to be driven to different breweries and learn about them and sample beers all day. Why wouldn’t they just go to a bar? What’s so cool about seeing a brewery? Was there really a market for this, I asked?
Well, two years later I think my questions have been answered. Portland has almost become a proving ground for the craft beer industry and every few months a new brewery that seems to always make great beer will pop up. Personal friends of mine are responsible for some of the biggest craft beer buzz in the Northeast. The culture has exploded and people now want to know exactly how it’s made, meet the brewers, sample beers they may never be released, and most of all: have fun!
As the years went on Mark an I remained friends and shared many mutual friends. I couldn’t help but want to actually know as much as I possibly could because every single time I see his bus drive by in town. I think about how him and his wife were so friendly and excited the night I met them about this venture. I sat down with Mark recently to talk to him about it all, and what they have planned for the future!
So how did this all start?
Mark- The whole concept started for me back about 9 years ago. Some friends and I rented a van, found a friend willing to drive us, and did our own tour of breweries in Maine, New Hampshire and Mass. As you can imagine, we had a ton of fun, and talked about it for years. Fast forward to about 2010, as my wife, Nichole, and I discussed the idea of going into business more, we knew we wanted to be a part of the beer scene here in Maine. We knew we weren’t good enough at brewing to open our own brewery, but kept going back to the tour I did all those years ago. We wanted others to discover this great beer scene we have here. We spend a good portion of our free time hanging out at tasting rooms, chatting with people, so the idea that we could introduce both locals and tourists to the exceptional beer culture we have here in Maine was a no brainer. The next thing you know, we own a bus!
Tell me a little about how you and your wife got into beer, and where you guys grew up.
Mark- We both grew up north of Bangor (Nichole is from Old Town, I’m from way up in The County in Fort Fairfield). Our craft beer options were limited, to say the least. There were two places in Presque Isle that had a selection that included more than Bud and Michelob. One was this crazy store that also sold porn and odd kids toys, the other was a pawn shop. Neither were places you would think of, but they had some interesting beer choices that afforded me the opportunity to try out different things and expand my palate. Then, at 19 I brewed my first beer at home. It was awful, but it gave me the itch to learn more about beer. Since then, I’d say it’s been a bit of a love affair, in a good way. Since Nichole and I have been together, we have planned every trip around checking out new and different breweries. For example, while she was on maternity leave, we brought baby Brooklyn to 18 different breweries. It’s something we love to do. It’s a very calming place for us, sampling a few different beers and checking out every breweries interpretation of what beer is to them.
You and your wife run the company, correct? Have you always loved beer?
Mark- Nichole and I run the company. For the first 6 months, it was just the two of us, with friends jumping on the bus to help from time to time. During this time, we were rapidly approaching the arrival of the newest addition to our family (Brooklyn) knowing that Nichole would need a little time off, we hired our first employee. As of today, the Maine Beer Tours team consists of 10 folks that are all just as passionate about Maine’s craft beverage scene as we are. We are big fans of beer. We plan vacations around brewery visits, we host a couple of beer tastings at our house every year, and we spend a fair amount of time going to beer events and releases whenever possible. We are intrigued by the vast differences from one style to the next, or from one hop or malt to another. It’s been an interest of mine since college, when I brewed my first beer.
What was the moment you decided to do this, did you feel there was a need?
Mark- It was back in 2010 when we first discussed doing this. At that time, there was nothing like it. Maine Foodie Tours existed, and I was doing the books for them, so I was aware of the tour industry and had an idea of how the numbers might look. I spent 2011 and the beginning of 2012 working feverishly behind the scenes to figure out licensing, partnerships, routes, calendars, logos, web site design and building relationships with the breweries. It was the beginning of the brewery boom here in Portland, and the timing was right to really help breweries fill up their tasting rooms. My concept was less about us, and more about promoting the breweries. We understand that it isn’t about us, and that we don’t exist without great relationships with the breweries. We pride ourselves on promoting others as much as possible. The “buy local” premise is big in Maine, and we wanted to further that concept with our tag line “drink local”. I think we have been helpful to the breweries we visit, and hopefully even some we have yet to visit.
So take me through what happens when people step onto the bus!
Mark- In short, snacks, beer and fun! To break that all down, we try to really show folks not only just a fun time sampling beers from around the state of Maine, but to teach them all about the great things going on here as well. We have a 14 passenger bus with lots of storage. For each and every tour, we pick people up on Commercial Street in Portland, and visit 3-4 different places. Our tours include all sampling and tours at each location. Our longer tours include a snack stop (including stops at Salvage BBQ, The Great Lost Bear, Ebenezer’s Brew Pub and Gritty McDuff’s), and our shorter tours include snacks from a variety of local businesses (pretzels from 158 Pickett Street in South Portland, potato chips from Fox Family Farms in Mapleton and popcorn from Little Lad’s in Holden). A nice little perk about our bus is that it is registered as a limousine, so folks are allowed to sample beers on board. We typically bring a beer from somewhere we are not visiting, which is a great way to feature another Maine brewery, giving us a wider range of locations to showcase. We also have bottles of water, because staying hydrated is the key! A tour with us will feature a minimum of 7 different Maine companies, which is extremely important to us. Between each stop, we will answer any questions you may have, entertain you with our wit and charm, and provide all the Maine beverage industry information you care to hear. The idea, for me, is to engage people, but don’t talk over them. We pride ourselves on fostering a fun atmosphere, and making everyone feel like part of our family, even if it is just for a few hours.
Do you think this would have worked ten years ago, do you think it’s something that is a fad or do you think the craft beer industry is something that will always grow?
Mark- This may have worked 10 years ago, but it wouldn’t be nearly as strong, obviously. Breweries have been opening like mad in the past half dozen years, with about 10 just in the past year alone. I think the timing was right, and this niche is here to stay. Craft beer is big business, on par with the ski industry here in Maine, which is incredible. I’m sure that proverbial bubble is hanging out there somewhere waiting to burst but as long as people continue to make solid beer, I think the Maine craft beer industry will continue to grow.
Do you have any favorite new breweries or ones that you personally love the most?
Mark- Picking a favorite beer or brewery is like picking your favorite kid. In all honesty, it changes for me all the time. I’m really into IPAs and stouts, that much I’ll say. My taste buds definitely change with the season. I like flavorful, hoppy beers when the sun is actually keeping us warm, and want dark, roasty stouts when the temperatures drop. I love the gang up at Baxter Brewing in Lewiston. I’ve become friends with many of them, and really enjoy spending time up there. I think Sebago Brewing is absolutely killing it right now. Their Bonfire Rye, Simmer Down Summer Session Ale and Hop Swap are excellent, and they give an amazing tour out at their production facility in Gorham. The new guys, Austin Street, Bissell Brothers, Foundation, Gneiss, Banded Horn, Barreled Souls and Funky Bow are putting out high quality products right out of the gate as well. Seriously, it’s hard to narrow it down for me.
Personally, I have always respected people with a dream, a vision, a passion for anything. The first moment I met Mark and Nichole I knew they had the passion to make something special. They’re friendly, hard working people with an intense love for beer and it shows. To learn more about Maine Beer Tours and to get some tickets and experience this first hand click below! Comment or like this story on our Facebook to win a free pair of tour tickets to ANY tour.
Take care guys!