For Craft Beer Lovers, Long Lines Part of the Experience

Dec 28, 2016

Many shoppers stood in long lines this holiday season to get an edge on special sales prices or limited supplies. Outside Bissell Brothers in Portland, more than 300 people braved frigid temperatures recently to get their hands on a precious liquid that comes in a can.

Zack Hutton of Waterboro has been waiting for about 2 hours, in temperatures barely reaching 20 degrees, for the chance to buy cans of Swish.

“It was a bit cold but you bundle up and it’s not too bad,” he says. “For a passion — craft beer is a passion.”

Swish, a double India pale ale, is fruity and hazy, characteristic of what’s emerging as a regional, New England style. And with its increasing popularity comes high demand, creating tight supply as breweries expand and ramp up production to meet that demand.

At Bissell Brothers, people start queuing at 6 a.m., and the doors don’t open until 10. For those willing to wait in line, at some releases as many as 600 or 700 people, there’s no guarantee that they’ll actually be able to leave with any.

“The thing that we’ve done for the last few releases, which has been nice, is we now open a couple hours early, and we do nothing but can sales until the cans are gone,” says Kevin Broydrick, who works in Bissell’s tap room. “So you have to arrive a little bit early and wait in a bit of a line, but once we open, everything moves within about an hour.”

Broydrick says the company also sells merchandise and pours beer on tap, but creating cans-only hours has cut down the line wait substantially. And he says waiting in line hasn’t proven to deter its customers.

“The fact that people are coming out in numbers like this, on a cold Saturday morning, means that they’re after something more than just literally a four pack of cans and going home,” he says. “It’s about an experience and it’s about a community.”

Because of the limited supply and strong demand, craft breweries around Maine have tried to devise systems designed to distribute beer to their loyal customers in fair and orderly ways. For recent releases of its immensely popular double IPA called Dinner, Maine Beer Co. in Freeport has moved away from a first-come-first-serve line and created an online system of ticketed reservations.

Spokesman Jesse Weyl says the system includes a staggered window, and the company encourages customers to arrive no more than a half hour before their designated time.

“We opened the doors for the first window, which was 7 a.m.-8 a.m., at about 10 of 7, and we had probably 45 people in line at that point, all of whom had shown up after 6 o’clock in the morning, which was really positive,” he says, “so that people weren’t out overnight, freezing cold, in the parking lot.”

A second line outside Bissell Brothers in Portland.
Credit Andrew Catalina / Maine Public

Weyl says the longest anyone waited throughout the day was a little over an hour.

And not every craft brewer in Maine is faced with maddening crowds at release events. Dustin Johnson of Gneiss Brewing Co. in Limerick, about an hour’s drive west of Portland, focuses mainly on German wheat beers brewed in a traditional, if slightly Americanized, style. Johnson says his relative lack of hops doesn’t draw the crowds — and lines — associated with the New England IPA.

In fact, he jokes about the brewery’s first bottle release a few years ago.

“There was quite a few people lined up at the door about 15 minutes before we opened, maybe, I dunno 20 or 30,” he says. “We had hundreds of bottles, and we had 30 people in line, but it was cool to see.”

But back in the long line at Bissell Brothers in Portland, Hutton brushes off the intense cold in anticipation of even a few cans of Swish double IPA.

Alex Lyscars (left) and Hester Bissell sell cans of Swish to eager customers at a recent release.
Credit Andrew Catalina / Maine Public

“You come in with a bunch of friends, get in line, you hang out,” he says. “The atmosphere alone kind of draws you in.”

For what it’s worth, by the time the line died down a little bit before 11 a.m., everyone who waited was able to get cans — and Bissell Brothers had cases to spare.