Gritty’s celebrates 25 years — despite yours truly

This Saturday will mark 25 years since Gritty McDuff’s opened its door in Portland’s Old Port. The pioneering brewpub, which has since expanded into Freeport and Auburn, plowed the way for Maine to become the craft beer mecca it is today. That’s one of many reasons I’m glad I didn’t burn it to the ground four years ago, but more on that later.

Together with David Geary, Dave Evans of The Great Lost Bear, and Alan Eames of Three Dollar Dewey’s, Gritty’s founders Richard Pfeffer and Ed Stebbins deserve a significant amount of credit for the scores of breweries, thousands of jobs and millions of dollars the microbrew movement has brought to Maine since the 1980s. For that alone, Pfeffer and Stebbins deserve the key to the city and a big bear hug from Gov. Paul LePage (which, mercifully, they do not expect to receive).

But the contribution these guys have made to our city and state goes well beyond economics. Their brewpub’s cultural impact is enormous beyond measure. Gritty’s has done more to make Portland a cool place to live than any other business in town.

Portland’s cultural ascendance began three decades ago, when the Old Port transformed from a dangerous to a desirable place, and Gritty’s, located at the corner of Fore and Exchange streets, was at the heart of that renaissance. “There were a lot more 20-somethings living right in the Old Port, trying to make a living, trying to build their careers, and having a good time doing it,” Pfeffer recalled when I called him the other day.

Dewey’s, then located at the corner of Fore and Union streets, gave those thirsty Portlanders their first taste of the marvelous world beyond the watery dominion of Budweiser and Miller. When David Geary and his wife, Karen (who passed away in late November), began selling their ale in 1986, “It all started to gel,” said Pfeffer, but “we had to teach a whole generation how to drink craft beer. That was a challenge.”

During the second or third winter of the brewpub’s existence (memory, understandably, is a bit foggy on this detail), Pfeffer and Stebbins, who’d recently bought out two other founding partners, needed a way to attract more customers. Pfeffer knew of a bar in Florida that promoted a nickel-beer happy hour — “People drove for miles and miles to go to this thing,” he said — so Gritty’s did the same, selling their custom-made brews in 10-ounce plastic mugs for five cents, every Wednesday night from 4 to 7 p.m. The response was “so crazy” within the first month, Pfeffer said, that they were compelled to up the price to a quarter, but that hardly diminished the promotion’s popularity. The line stretched down the block and around the corner, with customers waiting two or three hours just to get in the door.

The quarter-beer promo was discontinued after a couple years, but by then the pub was established enough to be a sustainable enterprise. More than that, though, Gritty’s had become an iconic destination for tourists and locals alike. It’s the place Portlanders in the know take visitors from out of town. For untold thousands of newcomers, myself included, Gritty’s was the first place they raised a pint, and its very existence was proof that Portland was different — more innovative, more enlightened, cooler — than every other city its size.

To fully appreciate the contribution Gritty’s has made to local culture, contemplate the millions of momentous interactions that have happened in this gathering place over the past quarter century — all the first dates, second dates and last dates; all the friendships formed and solidified around the bar; all the business deals sealed and crazy ideas hatched after the first or second or third pint.

Gritty’s has played a pivotal role in my life since my first visit in 1997. Most notably, The Bollard’s first office was the third floor of the building next to the brewpub, which we rented from Pfeffer and Stebbins beginning in the fall of 2008. A year later, the wooden fire escape outside the office caught fire, quite possibly as the result of a cigarette I failed to properly extinguish. Luckily, the fire department subdued the blaze before it consumed more than the wood.

Gritty’s is celebrating its 25th year this Friday night, beginning at 4 p.m. There’ll be tours of the brewing side of the business, music and special anniversary beers on tap. “The party should be good,” Pfeffer said as our conversation wrapped up, then added with a laugh, “as long as the place doesn’t burn down.”

Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.