LISBON — Christine Cain didn’t just wake up one morning and decide she was going to open a brewery. Rather, it was a long and convoluted journey that brought her to this town of 4,000.
The daughter of educators, she earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a master’s in environmental management from Yale and her master’s in business administration from the University of Rochester.
“I never kind of really knew what I wanted to do,” she explained.
A stint at a not-for-profit organization in Washington, D.C., brought home the reality of how difficult it is to make a living in an expensive city on a not-for-profit salary. Then it was on to a B2B company, where the money and experience were good, but wouldn’t last. The dot-com bubble burst in 2000 and the company she worked for went bust.
“I was just looking for work and it was meant to be something short-term, so I was like what do I like,” Cain continued. “I like sports and I like books so at the time I applied to Dick’s Sporting Goods and (what was) Borders at the time.”
She took the job at Dick’s and soon found herself in the company’s management training program — the beginning of her retail management career. She was poached by the nearby Barnes & Noble before long, where over 10 years she moved up the ranks to become a store manager.
Changes within Barnes & Noble forced another rethink, which led to two more corporate jobs and three years running her own ecommerce site.
In the meantime, she met her future life partner, who had fallen in love with Maine on a trip to see a friend. With nothing to lose, the women set some parameters and in 2015 they put Rochester, New York, in the rearview mirror and made the move to Brunswick. Cain spent the next nearly seven years as a Starbucks manager in Auburn.
She said she’s grateful to Starbucks for facilitating the move to Maine, but the work was physically demanding, being on her feet all day. “That’s part of it,” she said. “I was thinking if I’m going to work this hard at 50, I’m going to work for myself.”
THE PATH TO LISBON FALLS
In October 2018, an idea started brewing in her head. “We were driving around one fall afternoon,” Cain explained. “Because that’s what we did when we first moved to Maine — was to drive and enjoy the scenery — and we happened upon Grateful Grains in Monmouth.” The business wasn’t even open yet, she recalls, but the brewer was there and they talked about the business. That night, Cain had an epiphany. She could do this.
Cain loves the tasting room experience, trying new things. But one trend in brewing in Maine stood out, and not in a good way. Most of the craft brews they came across were very hops forward — something neither Cain nor her wife like. Hops is an essential ingredient in beer and while it adds flavor, hops is also bitter. There’s a physiological explanation to their reaction, but for the sake of brevity the explanation is that women have more bitter taste buds than men. And hoppy beers tend to be more bitter, so it’s not a stretch to conclude most women aren’t as fond of IPA style beers as men are. That set the wheels in motion. For the next six months, Cain set out to problem solve — could she make the financing work, where would she find a building, can she make decent beer? On her birthday in May 2019, sitting around a fire pit near Acadia National Park, she decided she was going to open a brewery.
Now, consider the odds. A 2021 survey by the industry trade group Brewers Association said women account for 23.7% of brewery owners in this country, compared to 75.6% owned by men. Taking that one step further, only 2% of breweries in the U.S. are fully owned by women.
“If I were to give advice to a group of young women thinking about their futures, the biggest thing for me was don’t let the ‘hard’ or the fear stop you,” Cain offered. “There were so many times it was like, ‘oh my God this is hard,’ or ‘this is terrifying.’ And I had to keep telling myself that’s what’s kept me from doing any of these things before I was 50.”
Brewing school was on tap as a must-do, as was drawing up a business plan and finding a building in Lisbon Falls, where she bought a house in 2015. There was no brewery in Lisbon and the closest ones were in Brunswick or Lewiston. She focused on downtown for its visibility and when she approached town officials, she said the response was positive. The economic development officer at the time was super enthusiastic and supportive.
“So, I really became more and more committed to the idea of being in my own community here. Being able to walk to work, being able to create, bring that Starbucks culture of connection and community and creating a third space and bring that to my community.”
Cain found a building, but it didn’t pan out. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. By September 2020, she was introduced to the owner of the building at 16 Main St., and by April 2021 she closed on the sale of the former hair salon that still has rental apartments above the business and a massive parking lot overlooking the Androscoggin River.
Olive Pit Brewing was born and finally opened its doors to the public on New Year’s Eve 2021.
THE REALITIES OF A STARTUP WOMAN-OWNED BUSINESS
Cain started a business in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, which created its own challenges. Then she faced a major downtown reconstruction project this year, which saw lower Main Street completely torn up to install new water and sewer lines, sidewalks, road and streetlights. Some businesses around her, many of which are owned by women, saw up to a 75% decline in sales, while others faced possible closure.
Cain and other business owners banded together to hold a Save Main Street block party to generate some buzz and business in the embattled downtown district. The first phase of the project is winding down and before the snow flies, Cain and other businesses can expect new sidewalks, road and streetlights and an end to the mud, noise and disruption for now.
Asked what it’s been like working in a male-dominated industry, Cain said everyone has been welcome, accepting and supportive. Brewers are a fairly tight group of people and they reach out to each other all the time, looking for a pound of such and such hops or other ingredient.
“I’ve had zero issues feeling welcomed,” she said. “I think what has made that so smooth for me is you have to be comfortable with kind of the boys club. Like for me that wasn’t a big deal at all. I’ve always had groups of male friends that I’ve hung around with.”
She has experienced what she called “micro aggressions,” where another brewer, in a patronizing tone, offered to give her advice on her product. Her response? “If I was a guy, you wouldn’t have called me up to offer suggestions.”
The Pink Boot Society is a national group of and for women in the fermented beverage industry that Cain said serves as an internal support system, which has helped her network with other female brewers in the state.
Beer has long been the domain of men in this country but that too is changing. Industry groups like the Brewers Association do annual surveys and more women are drinking beer than in past years, especially younger women in their 20s and 30s, another factor in Cain’s decision to open a brewery.
All in all, Cain said that despite the challenges, Olive Pit Brewing has been very well received in its first year and her main goals are to continue to get the word out, fill out the brewery’s calendar with events to draw in more zythophiles and putting the infrastructure in place to start canning her beers, something customers have been asking her for.
REFLECTIONS ON WOMEN IN BUSINESS
“When I think about my friends and my generation, I think we all grew up pretty empowered to do whatever we want,” Cain said as the discussion turned to how far women have progressed in the business world in this country over the past 50 years.
“Women end up focusing on different things,” she said. “If you’re raising kids, you do these things later in life. So, the more we get equitable where both the people in a couple are sharing those responsibilities equally and I think that levels the playing field. And I think our culture is changing for the better in that regard.
“My goal, my whole motivation was to create a full spectrum of beers with a less hoppy focus — more malt forward than hops forward,” Cain said. “So, I have an IPA on tap and we have the English Summer Ale which is pretty hoppy, so that I do have something for those people, too. I want to create a situation where I don’t want someone to walk in and have the same experience my wife and I had where there’s not a single beer they like.”
Is her strategy working?
“Seventy-five percent of the women who come in here say, ‘Oh, thank you for not offering all IPAs.’ They generally prefer the more malt forward, less hoppy beers.”
What are they partial to?
“The Pink Boot Sour — that’s huge,” Cain said.