This brewer is determined to make the world's 2 best lagers in Biddeford

·13 min read

Aug. 4—On a Tuesday morning during the recent heat wave, Brienne Allan monitored the 100-gallon decoction kettles inside Biddeford's coming-soon Czech-style brewery, Sacred Profane. Steam billowed from the kettles as the wort — or yet unfermented beer — boiled during the decoction process that caramelizes the malt and concentrates flavor, similar to the way chefs reduce a sauce.

Allan, head brewer, was preparing the inaugural batch of beer for Sacred Profane's opening mid-August as the only lager-exclusive brewery in Maine. Sacred Profane will basically offer two beers, both lagers: one pale, one dark. And Allan fully intends to make them better than anyone else does.

To this end, Allan and her fiance Michael Fava, Sacred Profane's operations manager and a former brewer at Oxbow Brewing Co. in Newcastle, take great pains during the brewing process. They triple decoct, concentrating the wort three times at three different temperatures to develop deep, complexly layered flavor in the lagers.

"It's like taking a one-dimensional beer and making it a 3-D beer," Allan explained from inside the brewery, which between the sweltering heat wave happening and the boiling wort felt like a steam room.

Allan remained largely unfazed by the climate. She worked in a black T-shirt and shorts and black combat boots, her gray-streaked hair pulled up in a practical though striking bun, looking like a kind of Marvel super brewer.

The lagers Allan is producing take three times as long to brew as most beers and four times as long to ferment and condition. She racked up about five years of experience with Czech- and German-style lagers at her last job as a brewer for Massachusetts' widely acclaimed Notch Brewing. Allan also travelled to the Czech Republic for a research trip in 2019 with Notch founder Chris Lohring, and studied brew techniques at the University of Prague while she was there.

For the Sacred Profane lagers, Allan and Fava adhere to the Old World, labor-intensive brewing methods traditionally used in the Czech Republic, where they spent two weeks last year on another fact-finding mission.

"Every vessel in our brewery, down to the serving tanks, lagering tanks, primary fermentation vessels, the open fermenters and even the brewhouse — Michael and I custom-designed every one of those vessels to specifically make these two beers," Allan said. "We really wanted to hone in on the traditional aspect of brewing in the Czech Republic: Make it the best you can with the best equipment.

"So much science and engineering goes into making these lagers," she added. "And without the education or experience of making them and the actual equipment designed to do that, it's honestly impossible to create them without it."

"Lagers are a more difficult beer to brew and require extreme attention to detail," said Maine Brewers' Guild Executive Director Sean Sullivan. "There's so much less room for error, since off flavors can't be covered up. It's not just manufacturing, we're talking science."

Allan expects to be working 60-80 hours a week regularly at Sacred Profane, the same grueling schedule she's had since she started her brewing career 10 years ago. Again, she's undaunted, because brewing full-flavored, low-ABV Czech-style lagers is her current passion, practically an obsession. And she has something to prove.

"I've gone out of my way to be like, 'I'm going to be the best at this,' " she said.

ACCIDENTAL ACTIVIST

If you've heard of Brienne Allan already, it's no doubt because of the #MeToo movement she unleashed on the craft brewing industry last year. Spurred by sexist harassment she'd endured on the job for years, Allan took to her Instagram account in May 2021 to voice frustration and ask her social media followers a simple question: What sexist comments have you experienced?

"Then it got shared so many times that people felt really comfortable sending actual stories of actual people, naming breweries and names," she said.

The reaction within the brewing industry to the revelations was explosive, seismic even. The allegations of various forms of misconduct that hundreds of women posted to Allan's account led in short order to internal investigations, firings and resignations at breweries worldwide. New organizations, like the Brewing Respect and Unity Coalition, were formed to fight discrimination and harassment in the industry, while the global collaborative Brave Noise launched to brew a pale ale to raise awareness about gender discrimination and other employee abuses.

"It's actually been a remarkable change in the industry. The table has turned, and there's a lot more diverse hires happening," Allan said. It's significant progress in a largely male-dominated industry, and a beer culture filled with talk of "haze bros" (guys who love unfiltered beers), or crushing some "crispy bois" (pronounced boys, a pet name for crisp lagers).

Most media coverage of Allan since then has focused almost entirely on her almost-accidental turn as a social activist and advocate for equality in the craft brewing industry. What can get lost in the discussion is that 32-year-old Allan, who now lives in South Portland, is a highly trained, expert brewer to be respected for her professional ability.

The lagers she's producing now are like the brewer's equivalent of double-black diamond ski trails. They demand technical expertise, an intuitive feel for the brewing process that comes from years of experience, and a sophisticated, nuanced palate.

"Brienne is easily one of the most knowledgeable brewers I've ever encountered, especially when it comes to Czech- and German-style lagers," said Robert Hughes, marketing manager of Notch Brewing. "No one is as fastidious, passionate, creative or knowledgeable as she is in that field, for sure."

Of course, amassing that wealth of brewing knowledge took years of dedicated work and study, once she first chose to pursue a career in beer.

DRIVEN TO LEARN

Allan is originally from Upton, Massachusetts, where her father worked for a beer distributor.

"He was constantly bringing home craft beers for me to try when I turned 21. We bonded over our love of craft beer," she said.

She would travel with her dad to beer festivals around New England, ostensibly to help pour drafts. But more importantly, she was launching her self-education in craft beer and developing her palate.

"For a 21-year-old to be in the craft beer world all of a sudden, I think I'm lucky I got that opportunity," she said.

Allan has a degree in fine arts from the Montserrat College of Art in Beverly, Massachusetts, though she had originally studied pre-med at nearby Emmanuel College. "I was really into science, but art stole my heart," she said. "And I see craft beer as equal parts of both of those."

She started work as a brewer at Jack's Abby Craft Lagers in Framingham, Massachusetts, in 2012. As her love of brewing deepened, Allan wanted to educate herself more in the field.

Allan said the brewery gave her male colleagues funds for continuing education to boost their brewing skills, while advising Allan to apply for scholarships. "Because they didn't want to waste the money on me," she said.

Jack's Abby Chief Executive Officer Sam Hendler rebutted Allan's claim, and provided documentation of payment for her memberships to brewing associations, a brewing course at Cornell University and expenses to attend a hop harvest in Washington State for educational purposes.

Allan would not address Hendler's response, but had said her treatment at Jack's Abby drove her to win scholarships for courses that would further her career.

"I just wanted to prove to them that I could have more experience than my superiors. In the course of three years, I'd already racked up more experience than the head brewers," she said about the certifications she earned in brewing and malting science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and advanced brewing theory from the Siebel Institute of Technology in Chicago.

"So by winning all these scholarships, I was gaining more knowledge and skills than they were, and becoming more and more respected," Allan said. "Knowing the physics behind heat transfer and gravity is so valuable. It's nice to know why you're doing what you're doing."

"A lot of brewers don't decoct at all, never mind triple decoct," said Carson James, one of the partners in Sacred Profane, noting that the process adds about three hours to brew time. "But there is a discernible difference. If you put the time and education into it, you're going to come out with a great product."

Fava expanded on the appeal of a well-crafted Czech lager. "You get all these aromatics in the finished beer, then the mouthfeel, and you can taste every kernel of grain, bitterness from the hops," he said. "But everything is married together in perfect balance, and as you take it away from your lips, the only thing you're thinking about is your next sip."

CHOOSING QUALITY OVER QUANTITY

Allan and James said the idea of building Sacred Profane around just two Czech lagers came about as a kind of reaction to "overwhelming variety" in the craft beer market.

"In the current beer scene, there's so much chasing variation," James said. "To the consumer, it's almost like chasing hype, as opposed to quality. So our thinking was, instead of making 25 different beers, why not just perfect the two, and make them the best possible examples of those kinds of beer."

Perhaps not surprisingly, Allan's work at Sacred Profane is already under close scrutiny within the craft beer community. Posts on a forum on the Beer Advocate website have mused since February about whether the brewery can be successful without more variety, while some seemed to question whether Allan has the chops for the challenge.

Allan said she reported instances of misogynist comments directed toward her in the forum to the site moderator last month. Todd Alstrom, founder of the website, posted in the forum thread on July 12: "After reviewing reports with the mod team, I cleaned up a handful of replies deemed obsessive, speculative, and petty as the discussion was beginning to cross the line as a personal attack against Brienne Allan. Please keep this thread on-topic and constructive."

"It's like there's no way I could possibly specialize in something they don't know anything about," Allan said of the forum commenters. She has become uncomfortably accustomed to being dismissed for silly reasons that don't tend to be cited for male brewers, including the sleeve ink that covers her arms.

"I've been getting a lot of, 'There's no way I can be a real professional because I have tattoos,' " she said.

The grind of always struggling to prove herself to detractors can be wearying. Allan said some men in the media even seem afraid of her now when they interview her for a story. And though she's become synonymous with the larger #MeToo movement combatting sexual misconduct against women, Allan's fateful Instagram post last year was prompted more by garden-variety sexist condescension.

She was in Boston at the time, building a new brewhouse for Notch. Some random men at the work site, unaffiliated with Notch, were hassling her. They second-guessed her tool choices and made her feel unwelcome, which put Allan in an awkward position.

"Especially when you're upside-down with a huge wrench set putting together a stainless steel brewhouse by hand, and all these men are leaning over you saying you're using the wrong wrench," Allan recalled. "And you're like, 'This is the fifth brewhouse that I've built, so you can (expletive) off.' "

STARTING FRESH

To an extent, Sacred Profane offers Allan a chance to start fresh in Maine. As a female brewing professional, she already feels comfortable in her new home.

"The Maine Brewers' Guild has had a code of conduct for their breweries for years now," Allan said. "Maine is really the leading brewers' guild in the industry, so far as I've seen."

Sullivan said the Maine Brewers' Guild created a new provision in its bylaws a few years ago to allow for the removal of a member in case of gross misconduct. The guild also partnered with a third-party reporting group, WeVow, so that workers at breweries, most too small to have human resource departments, could easily and safely file sexual harassment complaints.

While female head brewers are in the minority in Maine — Sullivan pointed to, off the top of his head, Elizabeth Johnson at Lake St. George Brewing in Liberty, Mary Weber of Monhegan Brewing Co. and Lisa Kellndorfer at Austin Street Brewery in Portland — the number is trending upward. Amid the progress, Allan said she'd like to see more human resources and mental health programs made available at breweries industry-wide, and for brewers' guilds to be established in all 50 states.

In the meantime, Sacred Profane — Allan's first official post as head brewer — needs her close attention, as do its lagers.

Last month, a team of workers from the esteemed Czech-based brewing equipment company Lukr spent a few days at Sacred Profane installing the brewery's dazzling four new 500-liter service tanks, which hang horizontally above the brewery's tapster station, where the beer will be carefully poured using traditional Czech methods and served in glasses chilled to precisely the same temperature as the lager itself.

The $80,000 Lukr tank system at Sacred Profane is the first of its kind in North America, according to Lukr spokesman Jan Havranek, who consulted extensively with Allan and Fava last year while they were in the Czech Republic, and with James and his wife and Sacred Profane partner, Erin Sheehan, while they visited on their own research trip. "People's experience here with the beer will ultimately justify the expense," James said.

"Getting great equipment doesn't necessarily mean you'll be brewing great beer," Havranek said, noting that some American breweries purchase and then misuse their elite gear. "But I believe here at Sacred Profane, Brienne and the others really want to do it the right way."

"I think a lot of breweries in the states are taking one or two aspects of this equipment and engineering style and making it a gimmick, instead of actually utilizing it to make their beer better," Allan said. Again, the difference comes down to experience and education. "We're proud to be one of the only breweries in North America that has the capability and the know-how to do it correctly."

Allan's former Notch colleague Hughes said she has more than earned the respect she has garnered within the brewing community for two main reasons.

The second-most reason she's looked up to, Hughes said, is because of the movement she helped start, steering the industry toward a more inclusive craft beer culture.

"But first and foremost, she's considered a well-respected brewer for the depth and breadth of her brewing knowledge," Hughes added. "And the knowledge seems to come to her so easily and naturally. The way you'd talk about riding a bicycle is the way she'd talk about brewing these incredibly intricate beers."

It's the kind of appraisal Allan could surely raise a glass to, and probably will. Soon as the lager is ready.