The Bissell Brothers website warns people there is almost always a line on beer release days and that they regularly run out of cans. It also lets out-of-staters know they can’t expect to find Bissell Brothers beer outside of Maine anytime soon because they simply can’t keep up with the demand, even in Maine.
The brewery has become not just a successful business, but a phenomenon.
Noah Bissell started brewing as a hobby, with no intentions of running a brewery. He was simply a twenty-year-old looking for a hobby and also trying to get beer other than the cheap stuff his over-21 roommates left in the fridge.
When Bissell started experimenting with homebrews, he was still a student at the University of Maine Farmington (UMF), where he was initially studying psychology and intending to become a professor or a school counselor. But the summer he spent living with his brother, Peter, in Portland changed all that.
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The two brothers, originally from the Piscataquis County town of Milo, were sharing an apartment just up the street from a homebrew supply store. Unable to join his brother and their other roommates on nights out in the Old Port, Bissell had time on his hands to experiment with brewing.
Allagash White was his favorite beer; he remembers drinking it and being blown away by its taste. Shipyard and Geary’s were his other drinks of choice, but Bissell wasn’t content to drink only the beer made by others. His first batch of homebrew was undrinkable, but he didn’t quit because of that first failure. Instead, he bought every book he could on homebrewing and learned as much as he could.
“I’ve always been somewhat of an obsessive person, if I have a hobby I don’t have 80, I have one that consumes me,” Bissell says of his need to learn all he could about brewing.
When that first summer in Portland ended, Bissell moved back to Farmington, but he lived off campus so he was able to keep up his hobby. He continued studying psychology, but was finding it less and less appealing. Peter was working as a wedding photographer but getting bogged down by the monotony of the job. The two started talking about the changes they wanted to make in their lives, and Noah told Peter, “I know damn well that I love beer and I love making it.”
Peter had a mind for business and marketing, and Noah had the love of beer. So the two started to develop the idea of getting a brewery up and running when Noah graduated from college. Noah spent his senior year of college focused on brewing, even doing an independent study that allowed him to study the microbiology behind brewing. This experience was formative for his understanding of beer.
“It gave me a deeper understanding that there is an element of art to brewing, but it is very much yin and yang with scientific facts and rules and boundaries,” he says.
But as much as Bissell loved brewing, there were practical aspects of starting a brewery that had to be attended to. Primarily, finding a location and finding capital. When Bissell graduated from UMF, he moved back to Portland and the brothers worked with Bangor Savings Bank to get a loan for the brewery. But to do so, they had to raise a matching amount to get the loan. Leaning heavily on friends and family for this investment and going deep into debt was not easy.
“It was the scariest time of my life,” Bissell recalls. But, he says, at least both brothers were terrified. “It would have been a hell of a lot worse on my own.”
While they were preparing the foundation of their business, Bissell was working at the Thirsty Pig on Exchange Street in Portland. Bartending there gave him access to the local beer industry that would prove essential for the eventual launch of Bissell Brothers Brewing. And it was at the Thirsty Pig that the brothers met David and Dan from Maine Beer Company.
Fortuitously, Maine Beer Company was planning to move out of their space at Industrial Way in Portland, an area of the city that’s become an incubator for those looking to break into the brewing scene. David and Dan wanted to make it work for Bissell Brothers to move into the space; a move that would make getting their brewery up and running much easier as everything they needed was pretty much set up for them.
And, it was right across the road from Allagash Brewing.
It took about a year and a half from the time Bissell graduated college to get the brewery up and running. Neither he nor his brother had any industry experience, and they learned a lot from the team at Allagash, who Bissell describes as being incredibly helpful. In fact, the night before the brothers were set to fill their first beer order, they realized they didn’t have the right tool to measure the carbonation of their beer. Allagash came to their rescue, giving them the necessary tool. And, after their first batch was brewed, Rob Tod and Jason Perkins joined the brothers in a celebratory round of beers, something that still astonishes Bissell to this day.
“It wasn’t just the mere fact they knew that was happening at the podunk operation across the street, but then for them to take the time out of their day to do that…,” Bissell reminisces.
That was only four years ago, in December 2013. Soon after that first batch, Bissell says, they went from hoping their beer would be liked to thinking, “We’re going to need some more tanks.”
Initially, they sold just kegs of beer to bars who sold it on draft. Then, they purchased a canning line and started selling cans. It was then Bissell says that they “had to start to hustle very hard.”
Now, they’re not even four full years into business, and they’ve had to move to a larger location on Thompson’s Point, where their tasting room is always packed and their cans sell out as fast as they can make them.
So what is it that makes Bissell Brothers’ beer stand out? Bissell points to the aromatic nature of the beer, an attribute they attain through a process called dry hopping that helps to lock in flavors. Because smell and taste are so intertwined, increasing the aromatics of a beer will also increase its taste.
While the beer’s flavor is certainly a primary part of the brewery’s success, Bissell also credits his brother’s design and marketing acumen with helping them build a strong, visible business in Portland. He’s also quick to credit the entire brewery staff, noting that good customer service can make or break the experience someone has with their beer.
The success of the brewery has Bissell looking towards expansion, but their location in Portland is bounded on either side by other businesses, so they can’t grow there. Instead, the brothers are looking back home, two-and-a-half hours north of Portland.
Bissell says they want to bring something back to the community that has been so supportive of them and so excited for their success. They’ve found a location in their hometown of Milo that’s smaller than Portland, but will fit their old brewing equipment nicely, and will give Bissell the chance to start experimenting with new small-batches again. Right now, he can’t do that because all of the equipment in Portland is dedicated to brewing their already-popular styles of beer.
Though Bissell is seven days a week dedicated to his work, he is clear that’s not the life he wants for his employees. Beer is his hobby and his career, but the company’s philosophy wants employees to be able to work a regular schedule with regular hours, and that’s part of why he and his brother have invested in new equipment rather than just adding shifts. With the new equipment that’s staying in Portland, they can brew 600 gallons at a time, making the entire operation more efficient.
Bissell has turned his college hobby into a booming business before the age of thirty. He’s quick to give credit to others, though his passion and dedication is undoubtedly key to the success of Bissell Brothers Brewing. He cares about his employees, about the success of his hometown and is always striving to improve his product and his business.
That’s why Noah Bissell is an Emerging Maine Icon.