D.L. Geary Brewing Company: A New England Pioneer Looks to the Future

From the Source by | Jun 2017 | Issue #125
Photos by Andrew Foster

“We didn’t enter the market,” recalls David Geary of the day when he and his wife, Karen, opened their brewery in Portland, Maine. “We had to make a market.”

Billing itself as the oldest craft brewery east of the Mississippi, the D.L. Geary Brewing Company tapped its first keg on December 10, 1986, introducing Maine—and eventually the entire Northeastern US—to locally crafted, small-batch beer. Brewed on a Peter Austin brick kettle open fermentation system with the Ringwood yeast strain, Geary’s Pale Ale set the standard for malty, English-style ales.

At its peak, Geary’s produced about 18,000 barrels per year and distributed to 10 states in the Northeast. Changing tastes and increased competition stunted the trail-blazing brewery’s growth—the same Austin brewing system and yeast strain that fueled its success have been factors in the brewery’s declining sales. Now, a new owner has big plans to revive the pioneering microbrewery.

Bringing England to New England
Intent on opening a brewery but lacking local mentors for guidance, Maine native David Geary spent the winter of 1984 studying styles and techniques by training at various breweries throughout Scotland and England. While in Hampshire, England, he recruited Alan Pugsley, associate of British microbrewing pioneer Peter Austin, to help him establish D.L. Geary Brewing. Pugsley brought the iconic Ringwood yeast with him, and would go on to design and install more than 80 other Austin-style breweries throughout North America, including Portland’s Shipyard Brewing Company.

The proliferation of the Ringwood yeast strain in the Northeast tightened competition among English-style brewers, while a wave of new brewery openings increased demand for new styles and bolder flavors. As the craft brewing community changed around it, Geary’s stuck to tradition, citing concerns about yeast strain cross-contamination for limiting its options.

A workhorse yeast vaunted by English brewers for its fruity, estery flavors and high attenuation, Ringwood has become polarizing among consumers. Once beloved by fans of English-style ales, today’s consumers complain about its tendency to produce buttery diacetyl flavors or associate the yeast with an older generation of beer drinkers.

At Bier Cellar, an artisanal bottle shop in Portland, owner Greg Norton surveys the premium beers on his shelves, noting that Geary’s “laid the groundwork for all of this, but the market moves hyper-fast. I can’t sell beer with Ringwood in it [anymore].”

“It’s not just Geary’s,” Norton adds, “it’s all the Ringwood breweries. [Customers say,] ‘This is what my dad drank.’”

A Changing Market
For years, drivers for the Maine Brew Bus, which offers brewery tours across southern Maine, rolled slowly past Geary’s to tell its history en route to some other brewery. While neighboring breweries courted guests with samples, tours, and gift shops, Geary’s focused on off-site sales. Visitors could schedule tours if they called ahead, but drop-ins were often told that Geary’s was a working brewery, too busy for tourists. Four other breweries (Allagash, Austin Street, Battery Steele, and Foundation) now operate within a half-mile radius, and without a taproom or consistent tours, Geary’s was forfeiting all of that visitor traffic.

Maine Brew Bus general manager Don Littlefield says he pestered Geary’s so often with requests for visits that, “eventually, I got a call [saying that] they were finally converting the old break room into a tasting room.” Small, bright, and cheerful, it’s a sharp contrast to the cavernous brewery. However, the brewery’s distinctive brick-clad copper kettle and massive, frothy open fermentors have become popular photo ops on tours. Since the tasting room opened in 2014, Littlefield estimates that the Maine Brew Bus has introduced over 1,500 visitors to Geary’s.

With a tasting room in place, the addition of a 1-barrel closed pilot system in mid-2015 allowed Geary’s to explore a wider range of styles without risking yeast contamination. In February 2016, Geary’s hired Pete Heggeman as head brewer. With more than seven years of experience brewing at Shipyard, Heggeman was familiar with the Austin system but eager to expand his horizons.

“We have brewed English ales for so long—and we do it well—but we need to branch out,” says Heggeman, who brewed 24 pilot batches in his first year. Pointing to a selection of lagers on the taproom beer list, he adds, “This is the direction we need to go to survive.”

Evolving for Survival
Despite efforts to adapt to the rapidly changing beer market, the brewery’s growth slowed. So Geary turned to Alan Lapoint, a friend and filtration manufacturer who had successfully turned around struggling manufacturing companies in Connecticut, Georgia, and Michigan, for advice. Lapoint says he saw potential in the brewery’s “great product quality, brand recognition, infrastructure, and people.” But at 72 years old, Geary felt he was at a crossroads: shut down the brewery or sell to new owners.

In March 2017, Lapoint and his wife, Robin, purchased D.L. Geary Brewing, jumping in with a plan to “preserve the core [and] stimulate progress,” including brewing to sales projections rather than brewing to order, diversifying brands, and cross-training employees like Danielle Coons, who was hired to work in the taproom but recently began brewing.

“Small breweries need people who can do everything,” Coons explains. “And Geary’s is a small brewery right now. We need to acknowledge where we are before we can get back to where we were.”

Although it’s currently brewing 75 percent of last year’s sales, Lapoint anticipates increased demand. Two new 60-barrel closed fermentors have allowed scaled production of lagers, while two more 1-barrel fermentors have increased pilot capacity. Riverside, Geary’s first non-Ringwood IPA, will be available in kegs this year and in bottles in 2018. OG Lager will follow soon after.

A month after the sale was announced, David and Karen Geary’s son, Matt Geary, returned to the brewery as a partial owner and director of sales and marketing. A Certified Cicerone, master draft technician, and “big beer nerd,” Geary resigned as Pilsner Urquell’s Pacific region manager in San Francisco to move back to Maine.

He fondly recalls his days as a teenager shoveling spent grains from the mash tun with his dad. “I’m so proud of what my parents and sister did over the last 30 years,” he says. “I feel a strong responsibility to protect and grow that for another 30.”

50-barrel brewhouse
24-barrel brewhouse
5 24-barrel open fermentors
6 50-barrel open fermentors
3 100-barrel open fermentors
2 60-barrel closed fermentors
1-barrel pilot system
3 1-barrel fermentors

On Tap
Session IPA: This easy drinking IPA blends toasty English two-row malt with fruity American hops. 4.5% ABV

Riverside: In Geary’s first non-Ringwood IPA, a clean American malt base combines with fruity, citrus hop notes from a blend of Mosaic, Bravo, and Cascade. 7.0% ABV

Hellerbock: A rich lager with a creamy mouthfeel and subtly spicy German hops that give balance to this malt-forward style. 6.8% ABV

Doppelbock: Bready Munich malt character mingles with spicy hops, finishing with a silky mouthfeel and alcoholic warmth. 8.3% ABV

Rye Stout: Spicy, roasty, and fruity flavors play off each other thanks to a complex malt bill with a blend of American hops. 7.6% ABV

OG Lager: A light and crushable American lager. 4.5% ABV