Mia and Al Strong balance home and brewing
If you feel a sense of coziness while sipping your flight at Strong Brewing Co., it’s because you’re drinking in Mia and Al Strong’s living room. Or what used to be their living room—before business started booming.
Located off Route 15 on the Blue Hill peninsula, this family-owned brewing company is as laid back as it gets. Cheerful red Adirondack chairs and rustic picnic tables with potted geraniums pepper the front yard. The delivery van and collection of empty kegs fill the driveway. A garden gnome sporting a Red Sox hat sits outside the front door, pointing the way to the good stuff.
What started as a love of beer and a dream has grown into a four-barrel brewing system that has taken over the entire first floor of their home.
Originally from southern New Jersey, the Strongs took their first Maine vacation—to Bar Harbor and Stonington—in 1993. They fell in love with their surroundings and Maine’s craft beer scene. They visited Atlantic Brewing Company on Mount Desert Island and became enamored with the idea of homebrewing. They started reading everything they could get their hands on. “I’ve been in love with beer forever,” Strong says.
They found that the cost of operating a nano brewery in New Jersey was prohibitive. No one was doing it and no one knew how to license the craft. The couple started considering a move to Maine to help make their brewing dreams a reality. Their son Stephen was young, and their small community was changing and growing. “What we loved about this part of Maine was that it was so much like what we experienced as kids,” Strong says. They moved north in 1999.
The first year was hard. The job her husband had secured suddenly disappeared. He picked up work from a local builder while the Strongs opened a small business. “Maine is a challenge,” she says. “If you’re not from here, it’s hard.” Eventually Al joined the Brooklin Boat Yard, a job he held for 17 years. He put in his notice this past May to brew full time.
The Strongs built their brewing company from the ground up. “We knew brewing was something we wanted to do, but we had to figure out how to make a living first,” Strong says. At 49 and 51, Strong and her husband are a little older than most of the brewers starting out today. They raised their kids, Stephen and Olivia, while chasing their brewing dream part time. But in 2012 they decided to try something that would put their business on the map.
They started a community supported brewery (CSB) in order to raise funds needed for licensing and start-up costs. “Home brewers can brew up to 200 gallons a month per adult in the household,” Strong says. “We were brewing beer and just giving it away because we didn’t have a license. We figured if people would spend money to buy vegetables at a CSA ahead of time, they’d probably want to buy beer ahead of time.” Strong says. Annual shareholders were privy to growler fills and tastings of new recipes.
The tastings were held right in their then-living room. “I think there are good and bad things about having a business in your house,” Strong says. “When we started, we were serving beer in my living room. It’s fun to have these customers back and show them how the space has changed.”
Strong Brewing Co. is open seven days a week, and it’s sometimes hard to strike a balance, she says. While the front yard is dedicated to the business and the backyard is for family, the lines can sometimes blur. “I’m waving to people drinking their beer while I’m grilling burgers for my family. It’s a balance to draw the line, but at the same time, we chose this. We chose to run our brewery out of our house.”
Mia and Al are a package, but they know in order to run a successful small business they need to divide and conquer. While they work on creating their recipes together, Al handles the physical act of brewing. When he changes a hop in a batch, Mia can tell. Which, she says, drives him crazy. Mia handles the majority of the business end—licensing, working with the bookkeeper, marketing and making sure the orders are coming in.
The lack of woman brewers in Maine isn’t lost on Strong. “I love craft beer just as much as the next guy,” she says. “Somewhere along the way someone decided that girls wear pink and boys wear blue. A lot of the first microbreweries were opened by men, and it’s just continued. It’s bizarre,” she says. She has experienced a bit of a pushback from what she describes as the “old-fashioned clientele” who don’t take her, a woman brewer, as seriously as her husband. But she doesn’t let it discourage her. And honestly, with a small family business, she can’t.
The Strongs have expanded their brewery twice; their most recent renovation was completed this past winter. “Last summer we closed several times because we kept running out of beer,” Strong says. “We knew things had to change in order for us to draw a living from the brewery.”
It has been a journey filled with challenges, but Strong wouldn’t have it any other way. “My love of beer is my passion,” she says. “This opportunity allows us to own our own business. There’s a lot of sacrifice, but a lot of reward, too, especially when you do it right.”
Strong Brewing Co. has five year-round beers on tap with a rotation of seasonal flavors to fill in the gaps. You can find Strong Brewing Co. at pubs from Scarborough to Old Town to Sugarloaf.
Visit the tasting room at: 7 Rope Ferry Road, Sedgwick
For more info: strongbrewing.com
Melanie Brooks loves to write about Maine. Her work has been published in magazines and blogs throughout New England.