A Ride With Vacationland Brew Tours
When I was told I had an opportunity to go on a bus tour of several Lewiston/Auburn (affectionately known as L/A) breweries through my boss at the Maine Brew and Bev Guide, my immediate response was, “sign me up, buttercup.” But since it was my boss offering, I didn’t actually say “buttercup.”
I was given two tickets for a Vacationland Brew Tour on a Northeast Charter & Tour bus, so I brought my brother along for the ride. I discovered the hosts of these tours were the Maine Beer Geeks, a local trio who, animated by their affinity for craft beer, blog about - you guessed it - Maine beer.
We all rendezvoused at The Vault in Lewiston, a store carrying a dizzying array of Maine craft beer and more. Kevin Sullivan and Rich Bateman, two of the Maine Beer Geeks, were present to facilitate everything (we were informed their third Geek, PJ Plummer, was absent for the day).
Once we had our group - seven of us, not including Kevin and Rich - we all began loading up on the bus, a jovial feeling in the air on this overcast day as we were treated with snacks and prompted to answer the question, “What’s your favorite style of beer?” after we all found our seats. I confessed mine, like Rich's, is trendy: those ever-popular, ubiquitous New England-style IPAs.
The first stop was Side By Each, a brewery in Auburn that just opened up this year and paired itself with Pinky D’s Poutine Truck for delicious - and rather indulgent - food. Of course we took advantage of the free popcorn available, reminding me of the same provision offered by Three Dollar Deweys in Portland.
Side By Each was founded by Matt Johannes and Ben Low, and according to their website, Matt and Ben became brewers via wildly different routes, but both worked most recently at nearby Baxter Brewing Co., Ben as Director of Brewing Operations, and Matt as Head Brewer. Matt and Ben earned professional brewing certifications at the American Brewers Guild.
We were each given five samples ranging from lagers to a red ale to an IPA, my favorite being the Porch Couch IPA, a beer brewed with Blue Ox Malthouse malt from Lisbon and finished with Vic Secret hops from Australia and Cascade hops from Maine. The description on their website accurately captures the beer: Light but not boring, with a refreshing bitterness and citrus and tropical aromas. The beers were coupled with a description of each one courtesy of the employee from SBE, Willis Coninger, who also went over the history of the brewery.
Near the end, Johannes came out to pay us a visit and enjoy a beer, which he did with a smile.
Of course, my brother and I couldn’t walk away without devouring some of Pinky D’s poutine. I opted for the one that’d remind anyone of Grandma’s cooking: chicken pot pie poutine. YUM!
The next stop was Oxbow Beer Garden in Oxford, about a 20 minute drive from Side By Each.
This ended up being the highlight of the tour for me. Situated in a 200-year-old barn on Main Street, Oxbow effused a beguiling quality that would enchant even the roughest blue collar type: beautifully renovated with plenty of wood, tile and stone to please the eye, and smelling like fresh garden herbs cooking in a stew as the staff prepared food by a copper-topped stone oven.
Oxbow has locations in Portland ("Oxbow Blending and Bottling") and rural Newcastle, Maine. As I write this, the Beer Garden has only been open for about four months, and while there was still progress to be made (with its garden, storage shed, and store), it was nonetheless so charming that just being there, even sans a beer, would tickle my fancy.
We were given enough beer samples that I can’t even remember what we had. I will say, however, that the farmhouse style - which Oxbow exclusively specializes in - isn’t particularly my go-to beer type, though I can enjoy them all right. Consequently it was the atmosphere that stole my affection.
After we all tried the beer, we were given a tour of the place (not the brewery, because it's the only Oxbow that does not brew on location). This included the backyard, which was ample in size and has all the potential for a rad backyard party, as well as the garden. Yes, the garden, as I mentioned above: they’re actually growing their own herbs and vegetables in their backyard to be used in their food! The bartender, Gabriella, was both friendly and informative as she guided us. I already can’t wait to go back, especially during the upcoming colder, darker seasons!
The third and final stop was Lost Valley Brewing Co. in Auburn, a brewery that helps serve not just thirsty patrons but skiers, as Lost Valley is also a ski mountain. We tried a small variety of beers and they all stood out quite prominently to me: one tasted so smoky it was like drinking liquid beef jerky (which I had no qualms with), and another was the best-tasting IPA of the whole tour, the Otterslide IPA. According to LVB employee, Riley, it’s their most popular beer, and I can see why as its hop-heavy flavor was outstanding.
After the samples we got to take a peek of the brewery - the first and only time on this bus tour - which was quite humble with its small size, but was nonetheless intriguing. Following this, we all went outside to explore the back patio area, which I quickly fell in love with. Situated at the near-bottom of the ski lifts, it’s well-constructed, charming and definitely sizable.
A large deck runs alongside the building as the brick patio awaits people who are excited to huddle around the fire pit in the center, which dons “MAINE” in cut-out letters. Very cool.
This marked the end of the Vacationland Brew Tours experience. After it all wrapped up, we got a group picture taken - compliments of geek Rich - and hopped back on the bus (get the pun?), where we were treated with VBT koozies and water bottles that if used properly won’t ever hold actual water, if you know what I mean.
Many thanks to Northeast Charters & Tour for such a wonderful experience, and the Maine Beer Geeks for hosting!