Bissell Brothers Brewing Company: Pushing Limits in Portland
The Bissell brothers, Peter and Noah from Milo, Maine, are brash young entrepreneurs in charge of one of New England’s hottest breweries, a hop-mad magnet for local and national attention. They came roaring out of the gate in late 2013 with a drink called Substance, a citrusy, herbal ale designed to be drunk fresh.
Peter Bissell, a 32-year-old whose self-confidence and intense self-study of business principles informs the brewery’s ethos, doesn’t hesitate to proclaim Bissell Brothers Brewing Company’s countercultural chops: “A company like us has never existed in Maine before.”
He’s referring to what he considers his Portland, Maine-based company’s uncompromising blend of branding and ultra-hoppy beer styles. He talks about “core tenets,” like making “beer that isn’t out there,” and committing “wholeheartedly to Maine [over] endless expansion.” He says he and his brother have “poured ourselves into the brand.”
Noah Bissell, the 26-year-old head brewer and co-owner, describes himself as “a lot more conservative” when it comes to business decisions than Peter. Comparatively, he comes across as humble, but both brothers admit the inspirational role Maine Beer Company’s hop-focused brews and its drinkable flagship Peeper played in their development. Noah considers it “drier and more nuanced” than his beer, which he calls “raw by design.”
In two and a half years, the Bissells have positioned themselves as pioneers pushing limits: their own, their customers’, the beer world’s. Their company’s design and mentality seem to appeal to fans as much as the actual product does. Theirs is a lifestyle brand, selling a signature triangular logo and the image of the carefree cool crowd, which happens to drink dank, hoppy beers that are hazy as hell.
Hazed, Not Confused
Along with their friends at Trillium in Boston, the Bissells are at the forefront of the New England murky movement, selling opaque hop bombs with aroma for days. Though Peter says “it’s not something we’re deliberately trying to do,” the brothers’ beers are getting cloudier. To the chagrin of anyone concerned with clarity, the final products resemble thick orange juice or milkshake. Pushing back against detractors, Noah says, “It’s a little confusing when people are mad because a beer looks a certain way.”
Peter is more aggressive, calling critics of his beers’ appearance “fascists for the status quo. A lot of the backlash is fear of this new type of thing,” he insists. “Run fining agents and isinglass, do it if that’s how you want it to be done. But it’s impossible to ignore that a lot of these breweries that produce beers that are hazy are in high demand. So who’s right? The customer’s right. We are not smug, we’re not trying to tell the establishment they’re wrong, but we’re doing this our way and we found our people.”
So-called “fascists” complain of muddled flavors and yeast bite. But drumming up long lines even on the coldest of days, the Bissell brothers sell their beer in limited quantities, which spreads the love and increases the likelihood fans will actually finish what they purchase in a timely fashion. The Bissells sell their coveted Swish Double IPA only in the winter, they say, not just because other breweries in the area have enough summery offerings in the warm weather, but also because they want to prioritize local access. They even hold some releases mid-week “so if you’re a server or a cook or a medical staff person, you have a better chance of being able to come out for it.”
Their tactics are working well for their former employer, too, Allison Stevens, owner of The Thirsty Pig. Thanks to the internet, Peter says, the barriers to business entry are lowered, and “the need for a mentor is largely eroded.” Nevertheless, Stevens says the brothers learned plenty while working at her craft beer and homemade sausage bar before they opened. She saw the pair develop their business plan, learn how distribution works, and “figure out what people want.” She says her relationship with the Bissells “started as employee-employer, then [became] mentor-mentee, and now it’s kind of a brother-sister.”
Demand, Meet Supply
Stevens says it’s been great to have such a close connection with the enterprising duo, not least of which because she has access to something everybody craves. “I don’t want to brag but now I get first pick of the Bissell. They’re helping pay my rent right now, big time.”
Another of her former employees, Josh Schlesinger, has his own evolving relationship with the Bissells. Known by his nickname, Sniff, Schlesinger is about to go from handling Bissells’ self-distribution in-house to spinning off his own boutique distribution company called Sleek Machine.
His first account? Bissell Brothers, which has now surpassed Maine’s production cap on self-distribution. Though for legal reasons a distributor needs to be a company independent of a brewery, it’s clear the brothers feel more than a little sense of ownership over Sleek Machine.
“I think he’s going to get a lot of attention when we open…when, when he opens,” Peter catches himself. “I think people are going to see there’s a new way of doing things, where you’re one of a small portfolio and you’ll be given the due promotion and care necessary. This is the last aspect of brewing that has undergone a revolution. It was the beer bars first. Then the breweries themselves, the taproom culture. Distribution and means of beer transportation are very old school, so it’s time to shake things up.”
To meet the demand for its turbid beers, the company opened a new space in June at Thompson’s Point, soon to be a fresh destination in Portland’s food and drink landscape. Bissell will be the only brewery clustered with a winery, a distillery, restaurants and an events venue.
The 10,000-square-foot warehouse means a 40 percent production increase and a tasting room expansion from a 4-foot service window to a 40-foot bar with a second-floor mezzanine. Noah was wary of such a big move so quickly, but concedes, “It’ll be good to have a proper brewery.” Peter, chomping at the bit to upgrade, says of their original facility, “I stand in our tasting room and it’s so fucking small. The difference is indescribable.”
10-barrel steam-jacketed brewhouse
8 20-barrel fermentors
2 40-barrel fermentors
2 20-barrel bright tank
1 40-barrel bright tank
Substance Ale: Bissell’s first beer, packed with five types of hops and blending citrus fruit flavors with residual dankness on the finish. 6.6% ABV
Baby Genius: A citrusy summer seasonal, this Blonde Ale has a huge mouthfeel that drinks much bigger than its alcohol content would suggest. 4.0% ABV
Swish Double IPA: A winter seasonal with huge fruit flavors and limited bitterness. 8.0% ABV
i-Lucky IPA: Inspired by and designed to pair well with Japanese cuisine, this beer is brewed with fresh ginger and rice, plus Sorachi Ace and Lemondrops hops. 7.0% ABV
LUX Rye Ale: Born in the dead of a super snowy Maine winter to escape to a tropical state of mind, it pushes the fruity envelope. 5.1% ABV
Reciprocal American IPA: Brewed with all Australian hops to showcase grapefruit rind, guava and passionfruit. 7.3% ABV ■