Words by Kate McCarty
Maine’s Fermentation Caucus
Female legislators make laws and beer in equal measure
Brewery owner Mattie Daughtry spent the morning of April 11, 2018, perfecting the recipe for Moderation Brewing Company’s first batch of barleywine, a strong beer with rich flavors and a high alcohol content. The process went smoothly and wrapped up in just enough time for Daughtry to swap her overalls and bandana for a flowered dress and smart black blazer, then high-tail it to her next gig: serving as one of Brunswick’s two representatives to the Maine Legislature.
Plenty of Mainers have a side hustle (or two or three). The seasonal nature of the economy here forces many residents to cobble together a living wage from a variety of jobs. But Daughtry is one of only two women in the state who both brew beer and legislate.
That April morning two years ago, Daughtry was feeling good about job-juggling, because she’d filled the fermenters in Brunswick and made it to the State House in Augusta on time to caucus with fellow Democrats. It wasn’t until State Senator Heather Sanborn, who owns Rising Tide Brewery in Portland with her husband, Nathan, leaned over and whispered “nice boots” that Daughtry realized she’d forgotten to change out a critical part of her kit. Seeing the spent grain flaking off her green rubber muck boots onto the carpet, Daughtry chuckled at the joke made of her cockeyed business attire.
All kidding aside, Daughtry and Sanborn both understand governing and beer making are serious business in Maine. When a customer steps into a local tasting room, the laws allowing her to taste what’s on tap probably aren’t top of mind. Luckily for brewers and beer drinkers alike, Daughtry and Sanborn have bellied up to the legislative bar to change some of the rules and regulations governing the state’s now-vibrant, local beer scene. Combined, these women have a dozen years (Sanborn 10, Daughtry 2) of commercial brewing experience and a dozen more (Sanborn 4, Daughtry 8) of legislative tenure.
Before 2012, the 70 Maine breweries in operation looked very different than today. There were no groups of beer lovers staking out a table on the patio, no cute pups sleeping in the shade, no kids crawling on cornhole boards, and no food trucks slinging tacos or lobster rolls. The laws then—some in place since prohibition was lifted in 1933—dictated that beer consumed on-site had to be offered free of charge and only as part of a brewery tour. Flights of beer weren’t for sale, so there was no real reason to linger.
By early 2020, the Maine Brewers’ Guild says independent breweries in Maine numbered 155. That increase can, in part, be attributed to efforts of a group of brewers and small business owners, many of them women like Daughtry and Sanborn, who worked to change rules pertaining to sampling restrictions, food truck operation, and employee health care coverage. Since coronavirus social distancing measures have been in place, they’ve also worked to help fellow brewers pivot distribution schemes and tap into COVID-19 financial relief measures.
Sanborn, who was a teacher and a lawyer before starting Rising Tide, was instrumental in bringing about the changes to tasting room laws. Her success on that front fueled her first run for office in 2016, when she was elected to represent Portland as part of a historic wave of women ushered into the Maine Legislature. Seventy-two of the 154 legislative seats in Maine are currently held by women.
Daughtry, who has termed out of her state representative seat after holding it for eight years and is running for the state senate seat representing Brunswick, Freeport, Harpswell, North Yarmouth, and Pownal, was first elected in 2012 on a progressive platform of health care reform, environmentalism, and expansion of Maine’s local food system. A month before the muck boot incident, she opened Moderation Brewing Company with childhood friend Philip Welsh, after the two reconnected post-college over a shared love of elaborate culinary projects like sourdough bread and cheesemaking.
When a legislative issue comes to the floor in Augusta, “there [are] tons of brewers [who] come in person to champion different causes,” Daughtry says, illustrating the collaborative nature of the brewing industry in Maine.
When COVID-19 hit, Maine breweries saw markets evaporate as bars and restaurants closed and tasting rooms shuttered. Jenn Lever, president of Baxter Brewing Co. in Lewiston, retooled her business model by self-distributing Baxter Brewing’s beer rather than using a wholesaler. Lever says Sanborn’s advice helped to guide her through the unprecedented upheaval: “She’s been wonderful in her leadership and communication back to us about what can be pretty complicated legislation,” says Lever.
In early April, Lever canned a beer called Muddy Boots Trail Mix Brown Ale for an event sponsored by the Maine chapter of the Pink Boots Society, a professional association for women in the brewing industry. This beer—as well as Uncharted Waters from the women at Rising Tide, A Lager of Their Own from the ladies at Lone Pine Brewing, and Majestic Splendor, a dry-hopped lager made by women at Mast Landing Brewing Company—was scheduled to be released at Rí Rá in Portland, but the event was canceled due to social distancing restrictions. When Lever should have been hoisting a glass to fellow women in the beer industry, she was working alone on the canning line. But COVID-19 did not dampen Lever’s enthusiasm for the female camaraderie on tap in this line of work.
Women have long brewed beer—it was a domestic chore until the Industrial Revolution, when mass production of beer began to replace homebrew. Today, you are just as likely to see a woman in safety glasses and rubber boots on the production floor of your favorite Maine brewery as you are a man. Sanborn says gender equality is a core value across her company, “not just in the public-facing part of the brewery, but even the way coworkers interact on the production floor.”
“As with any job, it’s about the quality of work, rather than what gender it’s coming from,” says Lever. And when we’re talking about beer, we can all drink to that.