If you would stroll down the cobbled streets of ‘Old Port’ – the historic district of Portland, Maine – perhaps you would walk beneath a rustic, oval sign bearing this inscription; ‘Gritty’s: Maine’s Original Brew Pub’. Walk through the door and you may feel – as many have before – that you are stepping into a earlier era.
When you enter Gritty’s, you feel like you have entered a seaport tavern that may soon be filled with privateers and fisherman who have just stepped off their schooners and walked up from the docks to spend their hard-earned, if not always honest, loot… It sits in the historic Old Port section of this seaside city and is practically a landmark in itself.
– David McBride
Gritty’s is Maine’s oldest brew pub since prohibition, and the city of Portland has a rather colourful history from that era, as Tom Bedell explained;
[Portland was] the site of one of the first temperance societies, founded in 1815. And in 1851, Portland’s mayor, Neal S. Dow, talked Maine’s governor into signing a statewide prohibition act. It became known as The Maine Law, and it outlawed the manufacture and sale of alcohol except for medicinal and mechanical purposes. I’m not sure what the latter refers to. Seems to me downing a brew after mowing the lawn would qualify as a mechanical purpose.
In any case, by 1855, suspicions arose that Dow himself, the Napoleon of Temperance, had a cache of medical and mechanical goods stashed away. It all came to a head, so to speak, in the Portland Rum Riot on June 2, when Dow had the militia fire in a crowd of a few thousand thirsty rock-throwers, killing one and wounding seven. The Maine Law was repealed the next year, and Dow’s reputation was firmly on the downward path. – Tom Bedell
Ah, yes, times have certainly changed. In today’s post, Thomas Wilson, of Gritty MacDuff’s kindly took the time to tell us a little more about his establishment.
Our building was originally a warehouse, then a seafood restaurant and since 1988, our Brew Pub. There really isn’t a person named “Gritty McDuff” who is involved with our company. When the owners, Richard Pfeffer and Ed Stebbins started Gritty’s they had a corporate name (Brew Associates) but when they went to the state to register their company they didn’t really have a name for the brew pub in mind. But the state required a name for the brew pub to be put on the forms. So, Richard and Ed quickly thought of a high school friend named “Sandy” whose nick-name was “Gritty.” They named the brew pub after him and the McDuff part was just added on to give it a “first and last name.”
We purchased a hand-crafted dimensional sign because it reflects who we are and what we do. We believe the public’s first impression of our brew pub starts with the sign. We wanted a sign that was hand-crafted like our ales, looked substantial, infers “quality” and is creative. It has the “cool” factor we were looking for. It attracts the eye and we stand out on a busy street already full of signs.
Standing out is important, but so is fitting in. It’s a fine balance in a place like Old Port. Portland sign-painter, Will Sears, explains:
Portland has an awesome hand-painted sign scene. It’s dwindling and I know there are still some old sign-painters kicking around, but a lot of the ones I’ve talked to, due to financial reasons have converted to vinyl technology and it’s sad to see that. But if you walk through Old Port, there’s lots of huge painted advertisements, you know, building signs – really, really cool stuff! A lot of them are kind of ghost signs at this point, which is even cooler, and a lot of it has been preserved which is cool, like a business will not paint over it even if it’s no longer their business. There’s a respect for it. -Will Sears (Better Letter Signs, Portland, Maine)
Thomas Wilson continues,
The “Old Port” section of Portland Maine was the original port of Portland. Picture dozens of sailing ships lined at the several docks unloading goods into cobblestone streets where men pushed carts of these items and materials into red brick warehouses to be sold or traded.
In the 1960’s and -70’s the area had fallen on hard times and was one of the roughest parts of Portland. There was very little commercial activity, no residential units and the area was not very attractive. In the 1980’s, however, the area was re-discovered and several dozen blocks of those red brick buildings are filled with shops, restaurants, bars, pubs, hotels, offices and residential units. It’s a lively scene populated by locals and tourists. Cruise ships visit during the summer and fall, there’s a thriving music & arts scene.
Gritty McDuff’s was one of the first places to open in this rediscovered ‘old port’, and Maine’s original brew pub. Which means we were the first bar in Maine to brew our own beer on site and serve it.
We run a great organization. We started a quarter century ago. Today, we have 2 more brew pubs, distribute our beer throughout New England to other bars, restaurants and retailers, have 10 different ales, employ over 130 people, work with dozens of vendors and distributors and have a great time doing it.
To Celebrate Gritty’s twenty-fifth anniversary, a new beer was developed.
The S.O.S. or “Special Oatmeal Stout” was the first beer we brewed in honour of our 25th anniversary. It’s a small batch, limited edition beer. This dark, rich masterpiece combines a mix of toasted malts and hops that results in a well balanced, beautiful beer that is a little “bigger” – more taste and more alcohol. We sold out of the first batch and expect our customers will demand we bring it back next spring.
Years ago, Richard and Ed were the first bar or brew pub to start a “mug club” in Maine. The idea was to build a loyal customer base and it’s worked really well! Today each of our three brew pubs has their own mug club – so there are over 1,800 mug club members between the three locations. In Portland we have a three-year waiting list to join.
Basically to join the customer pays $75 per year. In return they get a numbered mug that hangs above the bar. It’s their mug, they are the only person who can use it. They get discounts on beer and food and the mug clubs take field trips to sporting events or compete against each other in zany games.
Last month, we were visited by John Holl, author of “The American Craft Beer Cookbook”. It was a wonderful event. John’s new book featured a recipe for our Corn Chowder and Blackened Shrimp. John was in town to launch his book tour, so we thought: why not sign some books in the pub? He sold some books, we had some chowder and beer and we all had a really great time.
If you’re considering starting a brew pub, honestly, don’t start one now! There are over 1,300 new breweries coming on-line in American this year alone! There are too many and they all won’t make it. Wait for the shakeout in about 5 years; you’ll be able to buy a brewery cheap. On the other hand, if you just can’t wait our advice is to think globally and act locally. Produce the best, most unique beer you can and sell it locally, build a loyal local base and then think about expanding your market. Become an integral part of your community. Support local causes, work hard and have fun doing it!
We all come up with the names for our beers – usually when we’ve been drinking ourselves. The design work is done by an amazing designer named Chris Hadden. Chris has done beer labels for several breweries all over America and each one has a different feel and look. Chris is over-the-top talented and we’re lucky he works with us.
I’ll end with these words from an anonymous blog writer:
There is something about Gritty’s that, it seems to me, embodies the spirit of Maine. Maybe it’s the wide, scarred tables that invite you to sit down with friends and strangers alike; maybe it’s the way it manages to seem like a rough, tough brew pub and still be welcoming; maybe it’s the way it represents the entreprenuerial spirit of the people of Maine; or maybe it’s a combination of all of these. Regardless, Gritty’s is special and unique – even among the many and varied bars along Fore Street in the Old Port, the original Gritty’s location stands apart with a character all its own. – Maine Roots Blog