D. L. Geary...20 Years and Counting

by Jack Curtin
Atlantic Ale Trail
CELEBRATOR BEER NEWS
August/September 2006

Up north in Maine, residents have the somewhat contradictory reputation of being both stubbornly taciturn and shockingly outspoken. David Geary, who's spent two decades at the helm of Portland's D. L. Geary Brewing Company, which specializes in British style ales and is best known for its flagship Pale Ale and Hampshire Special Ale, clearly falls into the second category.

"We stuck to our mission, we didn't deviate from that at all," he says, when asked to account for the success that Geary's, the oldest surviving microbrewery East of the Mississippi, has enjoyed since the first kegs were sold in late December 1986. "We still make beers in traditional methods, using traditional ingredients, which are pretty true to traditional styles. We haven't done anything too wacky, we haven't done anything in the way of unusual ingredients. Our whole thing is that, first and foremost, beer needs to be an enjoyable beverage."

And then he continues, daring to go where few are willing in this era of "Extreme" mania. "It seems to me that there are a lot of beers, particularly now, which subscribe to the idea that if some is good, then more must be better. There are some beers out there now…they've stopped being beverages and have become what I call 'fermentation curiosities.' They are either so heavily hopped or so far out of balance that the only thing they have going for them is high alcohol. The idea should be to make high alcohol beer that is in balance and is something that people want to consume rather than something to point at and say `Wow! Look what they've done!' "

A bold statement, that, and it raises a question. In a program begun last November, Geary's is now three-fourths of the way through a celebration of its 20th anniversary with the limited release of four draught-only specialty beers, each one of them a big beer by anyone's evaluation: Wee Heavy, 8% abv (November 2005); Imperial IPA, 8.2% abv (March 2006); Kristoll Weizen, 6% abv (June 2006). Given his position, isn't that at least a tad, well, hypocritical?

"Not at all," Geary chuckles. "You see, we don't have a pub. Somebody who owns a brewpub, they get to play a lot. If something doesn't work, they say okay, let's try something else. But we package everything that we make and the amount of money that goes into a new brand, with all of the packaging and all of the design work, all the things that attach to it, makes it virtually impossible for us to ever just 'play.' This was our chance to do something we never have done before. These beers are a celebration of our 20 years and of our skill and devotion to the craft of brewing."

The anniversary beers (the fourth style is still being decided upon, for release this November) were intended as one-offs, but Geary admits that could change. "These beers have turned out to be too good to let them slip away, so we'll be looking at bringing one or more of them back. They're obviously a lot more difficult and expensive to make, a lot more labor intensive, but they are such magnificent beers that I feel fairly certain you'll see at least one resurrected as a package product in 2007." Most likely to reappear is surely the Wee Heavy, about which he waxes rhapsodic. "It is very true to style and an amazingly good beer," he says. "I think it's the best thing we ever made, to be honest, because it was sublimely balanced. We planned it very carefully, how we were going to do it. All the little things-boiling time, hopping rate, attenuation, we wanted to be right on the money as far as the style goes. And I think we succeeded magnificently."

Geary's affinity for a Scotch Ale is appropriate, given the origin of his brewery, one of only 13 in the entire nation when it opened and the first one in Maine in over 100 years. When he was first considering opening a microbrewery in Portland in 1984, Geary met and became friendly with Scottish brewer Peter Maxwell Stuart , the 20th Laird of Traquair for Traquair House, who had resurrected the antique brewery in his family's Scottish castle and was in the US promoting his beers. Geary went to Scotland to stay at Traquair House that winter and studied brewing there and at other nearby breweries.

(If I might steal a tactic perfected by a colleague with whom you may be familiar, I would like to offer a digression noting a bit of intriguing history that I've not seen mentioned elsewhere. The modern day Traquair House brewery was founded by Peter Maxwell Stuart in 1965, the same year that Fritz Maytag became involved with and took the first steps toward modernizing San Francisco's Anchor Brewing. Each was an early signal event in the history of modern craft brewing. Mere coincidence…or cosmic forces at work?)

In addition to the skills he'd learned, Geary also brought back from Scotland a young brewer named Alan Pugsley and Peter Austin's Ringwood yeast strain, which was used to create Geary's Pale Ale. They have, of course, become controversial additions to American brewing history (Pugsley has been called both the industry's "Johnny Appleseed" and its "Typhoid Mary"). "We're still using the same yeast for 20 years and it bears very little resemblance to the original Ringwood yeast," is Geary's sole comment.

"You know, it really doesn't seem like 20 years, mostly because it's so much damn fun," Geary sums up. "This is a great business. I love saloon society, I love the people in the beer business-in the booze business in general-and I enjoy myself every day. Of course, there are four major things that I would have done differently…(laughs) but I won't tell you what they are."

Hmmm. Fodder for next issue's column. Or next decade's.

Heavyweight Down But Not Out
David Geary might still be having fun, but Tom Baker wasn't. Or, more accurately, he knew he was at the point where he soon would stop having fun. Baker says that Heavyweight Brewing, his tiny New Jersey brewery, "has been profitable for the last couple of years, but the only way to make it really profitable and keep going would be to divest myself of the whole one-man brewery approach, to grow bigger and add people. But the real charm and appeal of Heavyweight was that it was just me. I really have no interest in hiring people and doing all the things you need to do to grow bigger. And I was also tired of the grind of making the same beers over and over."

So Baker and wife/co-founder Peggy Zwerver shut the doors at the end of June. A secondary reason for closing down, interestingly, echoes some of Geary's comments on the Extreme Beer trend. Heavyweight took its name from Baker's original interest in making big beers but now, he says, "I felt like I'd kinda lost my way. I really didn't know what Heavyweight meant to me any more. I've become really interested lately in making smaller beers, or really different beers, trying to achieve the same flavors and quality of high alcohol beers, and I didn't like people looking at me as if I were a traitor because I wanted to make a 5% beer."

One door shuts and another opens, as they say. Baker and Zwerver will now be looking to establish a "combination good beer bar and brewpub," possibly in the Philadelphia suburbs. "I've always relished the brewpub scenario where you can make different beers all the time. The idea would be to have something like ten taps devoted to our great local beers, along with other US micros and great imports, and then two or three taps for beers brewed on site, possibly one-time beers that would never be brewed again," Baker said. "We're talking to a lot of different people to try and determine the best situation for us. We hope to stay in this area because I really like the Philadelphia market."

Meanwhile, the pair has embarked on a farewell tour which would do a rock group proud. "I've never been more popular," Baker laughs. "I should have done this years ago." The absolutely last, final, not-to-be-repeated Heavyweight goodbye gathering (or maybe not) will be at one of the region's top beer bars, The Drafting Room in Philadelphia's western suburbs, on August 5, where all 15 taps will be pouring Baker's beers.

Copyright (c) 2006 Jack Curtin


Return to Archive Listing