When Sebago Brewing opened for business on June 18, 1998, there were 18 breweries in Maine. Kai Adams, Tim Haines and Brad Monarch dreamed of opening a brewpub and did it in the heart of the Maine Mall parking lot— when craft beer was still in its infancy.
They started with four beers. Frye’s Leap IPA was one of the earliest examples of an American style IPA in the region. Kai Adams, company co-founder and VP, created the recipe after learning to brew in Colorado, where he first learned about hoppy West Coast-style IPAs. Most of the beers available in Maine at the time were English-style beers. When Frye’s Leap was first formulated they used American Barley, yeast, and hops— practically all Cascade hops. Frye’s Leap was the first beer they started dry hopping and the hop profile has continued to evolve and improve to this day.
Northern Light Ale (now called Saddleback Ale) was originally a lager called Portside Pilsner, but with only a 10 BBL brewhouse and four fermenters, they couldn’t tie up a tank for the month it took to ferment! Lake Trout Stout and Boathouse Brown Ale rounded out the small tap list they had, and these are still some staples brewed today.
After opening brewpubs in Portland (2000) and Gorham (2001), Sebago started doing a lot of one-off batches at their South Portland brewpub: Red Ale was a seasonal for St. Patrick’s Day, and Slick Nick was a winter fan favorite from the start.
But at the time, people weren’t always willing to try different beer styles. In 2001 brewer Jon Clegg came up with a German Rauchbier, which was a super smoky ale brewed with 50% Smoked Malt. Customers were unfamiliar with the style and it didn’t sell well, but the brewers kept experimenting.
One thing that has helped Sebago to keep innovating is the brewpubs themselves. There’s no better way to see what people will like than to serve it to them— feedback doesn’t get more instant than that.
In 2004, Kai stepped back from the restaurant side of things and started planning the new production facility in Gorham. When it opened in 2005, they were a small team of four working hard to hold their own against market leaders like Shipyard, Geary’s, Gritty’s, Harpoon, and Smuttynose – and of course Sam Adams, which dominated in those years.
By 2007 they had their production and packaging brewery up and running and kept trying new techniques and flavor profiles. One fall seasonal started when Kai and Brewmaster Tom Abercrombie picked some hops at Old Orchard Beach and combined them with locally grown hops from Mike Dickson at the Great Lost Bear. This beer became Local Harvest Ale…which evolved into the beloved Hop Swap four-packs.
Another specialty beer that started as a draft-only was a double IPA called Full Throttle. The goal was a beer with 7.5-9% ABV with tons of juicy, citrusy hops. Full Throttle evolved into the famous Whistle Punk, now in 16oz 4pk cans. When Whistle Punk was rebranded it was named by Sophie LeBlanc who had just joined the Sebago sales team a few months before. Everyone plays a part in the process.
Sebago Brewing has always appealed to a lot of different beer drinkers, but Kai thinks that broad appeal is a good thing: “It’s been hard to identify exactly who our target market is, so we just keep putting out beers that we like to drink. People trust our decisions— and the beer.”