Maine’s brewfest licensing and the underlying problems

In the wake of The Festival US we are left with a glaring problem, a problem that our local craft brewers and brewfest organizers have been dealing with for years, a problem that they’ve had to learn to deal with because sometimes it’s just not worth rocking the boat.  When your events are on the line, it’s hard to raise a red flag and stand your ground. Maine’s liquor laws need an upgrade; to call them antiquated may be an understatement. Maine’s beer scene is constantly evolving, Portland is becoming an East Coast craft beer destination, and I’m left to wonder what are the possibilities and how is the growing craft beer scene being stunted by the laws or the way they are being enforced. I’ve been spending some quality time reading Maine’s liquor laws and licensing information to try to wrap my head around it all. I don’t think it makes sense to try and tackle every problem in this post, I’ll look specifically at brewfest licensing as this is the hot topic right now.

There are three different ways to license a brewfest in Maine

  1. Special taste-testing festival license

This license allows licensed small breweries and wineries to apply jointly for a license that lasts no more than 3 days and can be issued once annually. The conditions of this license are as follows:

  1. Total samples cannot exceed 48 ounces in one day
  2. Minors are prohibited at the event unless accompanied by a guardian
  3. Sampling must occur within normal retail hours
  4. No other fees can be assessed (can’t charge for samples)
  5. Cards, tickets or some other form of tracking must be in place to record samples
  6. Licensee must record samples served
  7. Anyone who’s reached maximum samples cannot continue to be served
  8. Anyone “Visibly Intoxicated” cannot be served

This license basically works out to be the Maine Brewers Festival, a ticket based event with a 48oz cap that consists of only Maine Breweries or Wineries. Notice that nowhere in the license conditions does it mention volunteers or that brewers are not allowed to pour their own beer.

  1. Special Food and Beverage industry taste-testing event license

This license is for an event to promote the food and beverage hospitality industry, vendors must be licensed manufacturers in the state of Maine. The conditions of this license are as follows:

  1. Sales representatives licensed to manufacture in Maine can pour samples
  2. Certificate of approval holders can pour (Brewers Can Pour)
  3. Minors can be in attendance with a guardian or if the alcohol is segregated from the food area
  4. Sampling can only occur during retail hours
  5. Anyone “Visibly Intoxicated” cannot be served

Notice in this license that it specifically calls out brewers and distributors being allowed to pour samples, it also does not put a volume cap on samples or require tickets.

  1. Off premise catering at planned events or gathering

Class A caterers can obtain license for an event off the licensed premise. This is a very broad license that does not call out conditions, there is nothing about brewers not being able to pour, no volume cap, no ticket requirements, and it doesn’t even call out “no serving of the ‘Visibly Intoxicated’”.

To the best of my knowledge at the time of writing this, The Festival US was licensed under a catering license, this being the license that does not specify that brewers must be licensed Maine manufacturers. This license as I stated above does not have a set of conditions and would appear to be the type of festival the Shelton Brothers were intending on having: no alcohol limits; no tickets; brewers pouring,  just like the event they put on the year prior in Worchester, MA, but that wasn’t the case. In this year’s situation in Portland, with an event licensed with minimal conditions, it appears Liquor Control enforced rules on the festival that were drawn from the other two licenses. The 48 ounce alcohol capacity and the ticket requirements came from the “Special taste-testing festival license”, and not allowing brewers to pour seems to be an enforcement of a non-statutory rule because the rule isn’t written like it is in the “Special Food and Beverage industry taste-testing event license”.

I have attended other festivals in the state of Maine that were licensed under the catering license.  Those festivals did not require tickets, there was no alcohol volume cap, the brewers were pouring and they were extremely successful events.  It is unfortunate to see that unequal enforcement of the laws would cause such a problem with The Festival US.

The fact that there are three different ways to license a brewfest with varying conditions makes it difficult to plan a brewfest in Maine.  Local organizers don’t seem to have a clear set of guidelines to abide by while planning their events and are left at the mercy of Liquor Control and how they decide to interpret the laws for that festival. Depending on the festival in Maine you might find brewers pouring their beer or an untrained volunteer off the street; you might find yourself with a pocket full of tickets that limit the number of samples you can try or no tickets at all. I’ve reached out to organizers and others involved in planning for brewfests and asked to see what they follow for rules, I received back multiple links, none of which had much for information and in the end determined that there is no such “Guidebook” or set of constant rules set in place to help brewfest organizers remain in compliance with the law.

As a craft beer enthusiast, beer blogger, and resident of the State of Maine it troubles me to hear Dan Shelton say they won’t be returning to Maine because of the current laws. The Festival US was a high profile event that drew beer lovers from all over. A conservative estimate said that The Festival US would generate somewhere around $750,000 in revenue for Portland area businesses, and that could have gone up over $1 Million; I’m unsure where it ended up falling. Let’s not kid ourselves and think that this isn’t going unnoticed.  The Festival US isn’t the only large brewfest out there and organizers who may have been considering Portland or Maine in general as a potential spot for another large brewfest are going to think again. We need to take a hard look at our liquor and licensing laws and upgrade them to be more receptive to brewfest organizers from here and from away, it makes no sense that we would continue to think that the way we are currently operating is alright, that driving away business from the state is a good thing. The laws should not be a hindrance, they should be in place to outline clear boundaries and make the event safe but should also be accommodating in the fact that they are understandable, anyone can operate within them and they are enforced equally and fairly.

This is my call to action, I need your help.  The brewers and festival organizers in the state and those who might consider bringing a festival to Maine need your help. The laws need an upgrade, the rules need to be clearly defined, and Liquor Control needs to enforce the laws equally from festival to festival. I have nothing at stake, I am not a brewer, I am not a brewfest organizer.  I am a beer loving resident of the State of Maine and I want to continue to see new and interesting festivals.  I want to see local business benefit from large festivals coming to town. I ask you, the other beer loving residents of Maine to raise your voices, contact your local representatives and be heard. Let’s continue to evolve the Maine beer scene and continue to be an East Coast beer destination!



Chad Lothian

About Chad Lothian

Chad Lothian lives in Old Town, Maine. He is a craft beer enthusiast and homebrewer. Chad has travelled to brewpubs, breweries and brewfests all over New England.