JOHN & SARAH
ODD ALEWIVES FARM BREWERY
Baltimore, Maryland to Waldoboro, Maine
To get to Sarah and John McNeil’s Odd Alewives Farm Brewery and home, you take the former route one road towards downtown Waldoboro, Maine. Their farm is perched on a hillside surrounded by trees, making it feel very private and rural, but it’s short proximity to town, fertile soil and the historic character of the buildings made this former alpaca farm too perfect to pass up when searching for possible locations to build their brewery, farm and home. John, a commercial photographer and professional brewer, had long dreamed of starting his own craft brewery but he knew he wanted to grow and forage his own ingredients, so his dream was on standby in the city. He balanced his time between his job as the photography department manager at the Maryland Institute College of Art and working as a freelance brew master at various Baltimore breweries. Sarah, a puppeteer and stop-motion wizard, worked tirelessly through the ranks at Maryland Institute College of Art and had finally secured a full time position in the animation department that gave her the creative freedom to develop her own classes. Sarah, with another colleague, built one of the best stop-motion labs in the country and she felt like she’d reached a high point her career. Although the couple was flourishing professionally, they yearned to be reconnected to the natural world. Baltimore, although offering a vibrant community art scene, was lacking in green spaces. They opted to buy a small rustic cabin in West Virginia to escape to on the weekends. After several months, they realized that they dreaded their Sunday evening drive back to the city and began to talk about the possibility of relocating back to their home state of Maine.
Sarah, passionate about perusing real estate listings, began casting a net around the Midcoast area of Maine. They spent a month each summer renting in Midcoast Maine and doing copious amounts of research on the different towns in the area; their physical attributes, their rules/regulations, their community offerings, etc. When they came across their farm, they knew immediately that they had stumbled on the right place. The town of Waldoboro, although somewhat sleepy, enthusiastically welcomed their proposal to start a farm brewery and their town government helped them navigate their way through the myriad of paperwork and licenses they would need to open for business. Once they closed on the place, John quit his job and moved to the farm to begin the extensive renovations and set up his brewing room. Sarah would come up on the weekends and during breaks, unsure if she was ready to leave her dream job for an uncertain future. After much deliberation, Sarah decided that ending on a career high note seemed better than leaving the teaching field when the passion had burned out, so she took a huge leap of faith and relocated to Maine full-time to help get the brewery up and running.
Although they never worked together in this capacity before, Sarah and John have settled into their roles somewhat seamlessly. Sarah is the gardener and forager, growing all of their ingredients that go into their beers. John is the master brewer, spending long hours concocting recipes and doing the less glamorous, but essential, sterilizing, cleaning and maintaining of the brewing equipment. As artists, they both see this as the biggest and most multi-faceted creative project either of them have embarked on. Although they don’t have the bandwidth currently to practice their other artistic endeavors, they use their creativity daily- from making recipes, to landscaping, to making their own tap handles, etc. Their entire town has rallied around them and cheered on their success. Sarah and John, from the get go, have focused their business around nurturing those local relationships. One day every month they host a town potluck, where people come and bring a dish, drink beer and visit with one another. Sarah started a weekly knitting night where local fiber artists come to drink and knit; it has become one of their more raucous evenings. While the craft brewing market has seen astronomical growth, John’s distinctive culinary approach to brewing, sets Odd Alewives beers apart; both complex and palatable. Farmed ingredients in their brews include pumpkin, lavender, coriander, tomatoes, beets, carrots, nettle, etc. and foraged ingredients include lilac, maple sap and spruce tips. They are settling into their first open winter season feeling secure that they will be able maintain a steady flow of local business – a necessity for all businesses in seasonal destinations to survive. This confidence has only been manifested through hard work, dedication to immersing themselves and their brewery in their community, and their initial commitment to tirelessly researching locations before planting their roots in the country. (Click here to jump to their interview)
Initially, why did you decide to leave the city?
While living in Baltimore we purchased an 1800’s log cabin in the mountains about 2 hours away so that we could flee the craziness of city on the weekends. We thought it would be the best of both worlds but what we found was that we really missed the people and landscape of Maine, it wasn’t just about living in the country it was about living in a specific place. Having both grown up here we realized how spoiled we were with its natural beauty and although there were many things we appreciated about living in Baltimore (and our cabin in the woods) the pull to the ragged coast became to strong and we decided to not resist it.
Why did you choose Waldoboro, Maine? Did you do a lot of research before deciding to settle in this community?
We really wanted to be in the midcoast Maine region because of the beauty of the landscape, and to be part of a creative community of people who are actively pursuing their own passions. We also knew we wanted to combine our interests in brewing, farming, and as artists and needed a location that had certain physical properties (fertile sunny land, forests, high quality well water, etc.) that would support this endeavor. After looking at many properties we felt the one we found checked the most boxes for us and when we approached the town they were incredibly supportive, which made all the difference to us.
Initially what was the hardest part about making the transition from city to small town? What challenges came later?
The hardest part was leaving a full time secure job to pursue a new business (which sounded crazy and unrelated to most people). Especially since my last job had once been my dream job and I knew once I left it I would never find another one like it. This probably tormented me the most, not knowing if I was making the “right” decision.
I know this sounds weird but a straight forward challenge was the absolute darkness at night. In Baltimore everything is lit so brightly at night and you can see clearly when you are driving. Here it is so dark, many of the roads have no lines painted on them, and there are few to no street lights perhaps it wasn’t one of the hardest parts but it was still a huge shock. The reward was being able to see the stars so vividly again.
What did you both do for work in the city?
I worked as a full time professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art in the animation department. I mostly taught stop motion animation and puppet making classes. My class sizes were small, I worked with super colleagues and students, and I had worked very hard to get to a place where I was finally only teaching classes that I had designed and wanted to teach.
How did you get started in craft brewing?
For the last 25 years John has either been working as a photographer or as a brewer. It started when he was a photography student and took a job at a brew pub, he has since worked as a head brewer at 5 breweries in three different states.
What inspired you to start Odd Alewives Farm Brewery?
When you come to our farm brewery, you are also visiting our home and we wanted to create a beautiful space that would reflect the lifestyle we had chosen. We find a lot of satisfaction in growing, foraging, and brewing farmhouse ales and sharing how we experiment with ingredients with our visitors. You can walk in the gardens to see what we are brewing with, or come to celebrate and unplug with friends and family.
How has the community response been to your new venture?
We get a lot of love and support from the community of Waldoboro. The town is often under-appreciated since it has historically been a blue collar town but that is one thing we really dig. It is so laid back and unpretentious. We are living in a hidden gem full of artists, farmers, soap makers, musicians, and other wonderful eccentrics and feel lucky to have found this place.
Do you feel like you have more creative opportunities in the country or less?
When we moved back we decided our property would be our main outlet for our creative practices. We would no longer rely on showing in galleries or other venues and instead work to transform our home and farm brewery into a creative outlet for ourselves. We hand make everything from our tap handles to our farm brews and find a lot of satisfaction with this.
What do you appreciate most about the life you’ve created here?
The everyday pace of things are really different and more in tune with my personal rhyme. I wake up each morning without an alarm, I don’t sit in meetings all day, and I sometimes spend hours picking lilac flowers from the stem just so we can brew a special beer with them.
Is there anything you miss about living in a more urban area?
There is certainly an electric spark or vibration to being in a city, an energy that is often not found in a small town. I find traveling to cities helps rejuvenate this feeling in me.
Would you ever consider moving back to a city?
We love traveling to visit cities but feel most at home (and at peace) in the country. When I leave I am always itching to get back here.
What advice do you have for people who want to leave the city but don’t know how to start planning their exit strategy?
We are big believers in taking a risk! You can always return if it doesn’t work out and the experience has its own value. We do a lot of research and planning but at some point we just have to trust our gut.
Do you have any advice for craft brewers wanting to take the leap and start their own brewery?
It is a great time to be a beer drinker with so many amazing breweries around. For future brewers you should be true to your own vision and desire and avoid following trends.
What are some common misperceptions about life in the country? What do you want people to know/understand about life in small communities?
Many people ask us if we feel isolated living in a rural location but actually we feel the opposite. The community is rich around here and before we even opened our doors we had many people stop it to say hi and introduce themselves. We also knew that living at a brewery would help us connect with our community….beer has a funny way of bringing people out.
What are your future plans/goals for the coming year?
We hope to:
1. Expand our tasting room into the second floor of our 1800’s barn
2. Develop a barrel aging program and bottle our farmhouse brews
3. Expand the gardens
4. Further develop hiking trails on the property for visitors to enjoy
5. Infuse artwork around the property
6. Have a day off!
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