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How two brothers brewed success by 'doing what's right'

Brothers Daniel and David Kleban created Maine Beer Company with a mission to do what’s right by their employees and the planet.

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/ Source: TODAY
By Anneke Foster

David and Daniel Kleban don’t walk around like they own the place – though they quite literally do. Instead, you can find them at the end of the bar, casually chatting with patrons – a pint of their favorite beer in hand. The only indication of their elevated status is unrestricted access to the bar taps – which they help themselves to regularly.

It’s been ten years since the brothers started Maine Beer Company in a humble one-room warehouse in an industrial section of Portland, Maine. At the time, David was an independent financial advisor and Daniel, a new associate at a local law firm. In law school, Daniel discovered a passion for home brewing and David, discouraged by the greed in the financial industry, developed a passion for small businesses trying to do social good. Their interests coalesced and they bought a single-barrel system to try their hand at brewing – just 30 gallons of beer at a time.

That’s not to say the timing was perfect – Daniel had just finished law school and with it, graduated with tremendous student debt. To make matters worse, he’d just been laid off from his new job – and like many Americans, was feeling the financial crunch of the recession. Determined to prove there was another way to run a business, David told Daniel if he could figure out brewing, he’d figure out the rest.

On the front page of his proposed business plan was a three-word phrase, “do what’s right” — not just an organizing principle but a guiding one — that would inform every aspect and decision of their business.

In 2009, the craft brewery industry wasn’t nearly as ubiquitous as it is today – especially in Maine. There were less than 30 breweries in the state but David believed they could carve out a niche in the market by doing things differently. Instead of selling 6-packs, David suggested they only make individual 16.9-ounce bottles – sold for a premium. This pricing structure would allow them the revenue they needed to accomplish their real goals: benefiting the environment and taking care of any future employees. But in order to do both, they’d have to come up with a drinkable (and sellable) beer. They wanted an approachable pale ale with low alcohol content – an easy drinker that couldn’t get anyone into too much trouble if they had more than one or two. After some significant trial and error and more than one batch that ‘wasn’t safe for consumption,’ they came up with their first beer: Spring Peeper. They hoped to one day be able to make 3,000 barrels of beer a year. But 3,000 barrels felt like a dream that was unlikely at best and impossible at worst.

They could only make one batch every two weeks yielding just over 700 bottles they then filled and labeled by hand. Unable to afford a distributor, David packed his Honda Pilot with the cases of beer and his 5-year-old daughter, Zoe, and drove around to local bars and restaurants – selling directly to business owners and building meaningful relationships in the process. Quickly, buyers began asking when they’d be releasing their summer, fall and winter versions of the Spring Peeper ale. But they were still operating with just a single-barrel system and didn’t have the resources to brew different varieties. Spring Peeper became just “Peeper.”

Though they continuously sold out of their product, their equipment prevented them from being able to make enough beer to pay themselves for the first two years. But that didn’t stop them from giving back right away. From day one, Maine Beer Company participated in 1% for the Planet, a non-profit initiative where companies pledge to donate 1% of their revenue to environmental causes. The first year, they donated $300. But as the company expanded, so would that contribution.

To make ends meet, Daniel took a new job at another law firm and David continued his financial planning business. The two worked seven days a week – Monday through Friday at their day jobs and then all weekend brewing beer together. But by 2012, Daniel decided to leave formal litigation behind and in 2015, David too closed his advising practice. In 2013 they moved their operations to Freeport, Maine. A small tasting room was constructed that could fit 40 people and the brothers wondered how they’d ever sell all the beer they were going to be able to produce. But sure enough, they couldn’t make it fast enough and in 2018, Maine Beer Company expanded again – adding 30,000 square feet and transforming the former beer production space into a new tasting room that can accommodate upwards of 500 people, a wood-fired pizza oven and 20 tap lines to fit their growing portfolio (which includes beers named after their children, an infamous uncle and a whale that’s been seen off the coast of Maine since the 80s). Additionally, the ‘Black Barn Program’ was created to encourage staffers to come up with new kinds of beer – available only in the brewery. Any staff member can submit a recipe for a potential new beer. In the center of the tasting room, perhaps the most unexpected addition of all – a larger-than-life weeping willow tree made from copper and surrounded by a rippling fountain … a nod, perhaps, to the promise they made to the great outdoors to protect it as much as possible. A promise they’ve made good on – year after year.

What started as a $300 contribution in 2009 has now turned into donations totaling $170,000 last year alone.

As the company grew the brothers were able to complete more parts of their original mission. The duo making beer in a one-room warehouse turned into a full-fledged brewery – now with a full-time staff of 50, who together make more than 25,000 barrels of beer a year (far surpassing even the brother’s initial dream). Each full-time is employee is paid a “living wage” – a minimum of $18 dollars an hour (a 40% increase from Maine’s minimum wage), 100% of their health benefits are covered and 5% of their salaries are contributed to a 401K whether or not they are able to contribute themselves. Accordingly, Maine Beer Company attracts some of the best talent in the industry and experience very little turnover. One employee, who left a major city and a bar more than double Maine Beer Company’s tasting room’s size, overheard David talking to a health insurance agent who kept telling him he could “get it cheaper,” to which David replied, “I don’t want what’s cheapest. I want what’s best for my employees.”

On a Thursday night in the middle of a February cold snap, those employees are scurrying around the floor – several bartenders continuously pouring beers as children run around the fountain chasing each other while their parents happily enjoy flights and wood-fire pizzas. The snowstorm earlier in the day has deterred no one. At one side of the room, Maine Oyster Company is serving freshly shucked oysters – including Love Point Oysters, a small oyster farm in southern Maine that was so inspired by the mission of Maine Beer Company, they too joined 1% for the Planet.

As for David and Daniel, they hang in the background – sipping Peeper, the beer the brothers always come back to, as they chat with friends and joke around with employees. You’d never know, watching them, that they run the place or that it was their vision, 10 years ago last summer, to bring this all to life.