If you think you know Gritty McDuff’s in the Old Port, give this a thought: there is the rockin’ Gritty’s of Saturday night, when you stand shoulder to shoulder with other beer lovers, barely able to hear your friends talking, never mind hear the commentary on whatever game is on the TV over the bar. The noise of the crowd washes over you and bits of laughter and anguish increase suddenly when someone’s team loses. This is a communal experience and the sound of many voices together is a language all its own.
Then there is the serene, sun-kissed Gritty’s of a Monday noon in late March, where a few parties of two sit by the large windows and talk quietly, sip at beer or a cup of tea and the lone drinker at the bar contemplates whatever thought rolls around in his head at the moment. This is the Gritty’s I found last Monday when I visited for an interview with the owners, Richard Pfeffer and Ed Stebbins. I came to talk to the guys about their lives since my last book came out in 1997, the changes in the beer business in those intervening years and their thoughts about life in general.
Although I had a page of typed up questions to ask, our talk meandered and the conversation became an organic one, as if three friends were gathered at the local pub to catch up after a long time. That quality of a public place, a place that isn’t home and isn’t work, where no one expects anything of you except to relax and enjoy yourself, is what sociologist Ray Oldenburg calls “the third place.” And Gritty McDuff’s has it in spades.
“You’re not getting all J.K. Rowling on me, are you?” Ed Stebbins teases when I mention this “third place.” No, there are no Hobbits or wizards involved. It’s a quality of public gathering that people have been engaged in for hundreds of years in the bistros and cafes of Paris, the coffee houses along the Ringstrasse in Vienna, the enoteca or wine bars of Italy and in the taverns and pubs of Ireland and England.
If a place doesn’t invite me to come in, spread out a book or a journal and enjoy whatever beverage I order, whether I be in a coffee house like Bard or Crema in Portland, or in a pub like Gritty’s, it’s a place I don’t return to.
There is a slight buzz of voices, the music is just the right volume, the temperature is cozy and warm in winter (preferably with a fireplace or gas stove) and not so air-conditioned in summer that you’re driven to wish you had a shawl to wrap around you. And yes, like in the fictional bar “Cheers” on the TV show of the same title, people actually get to know your name, your “usual” and can turn a phrase or two with direct eye contact. Gritty’s mug club is testament to the hordes of people who call this bar their “local.”
This was a Monday where we all sipped pint glasses of water with lunch. It wasn’t “beer-thirty” for me. I had to drive home to Waterville afterward, nor for Richard or Ed, who actually work to run their business, even though they bill themselves in their commercials as “just a couple of guys who are really into beer.” There’s a time and place for everything, and in that special third place, if you want water, water it is.
We talked a lot about the current state of affairs in the local beer scene, and the influx of nano-breweries in Maine and the rest of New England, that make enough beer to sell out of their taprooms or tasting rooms, but don’t serve food.
“We have to deal with issues like the Americans with Disabilities Act,” Richard said, between bites of his sandwich, “making our pubs wheelchair accessible. We pay sales tax and comply with other rules, like replacing a 3-bay sink behind the bar with a 4-bay sink. We have both breweries and restaurants to run, not just a tiny brewing system and a tasting room.”
Ed nods in agreement. “People come in and ask what we have that’s new in the way of beer. I tell them that we made twenty different beers just for this Portland pub last year. But we don’t make trendy, flavor-profiled beer.”
I asked, “What about pumpkin?” I had heard that pumpkin ale accounts for a huge portion of the sales for some regional breweries.
Richard laughs. “We’ve had a Halloween Ale for twenty-five years, but there has never been pumpkin in it and there never will be.”
“It’s an ESB,” Ed says, “a traditional extra special bitter.”
“We’ve been here for twenty-five years,” Richard concludes, “and that’s a good thing.”
The lunch goes on and brewery talk becomes interspersed with talk about our kids and our backgrounds and I ask them what they’d like to see in a new beer book. I ask to take a few photos, and Ed pulls two pints of stout for props. I realize I’ve eaten all of the delicious lemon-dill seafood chowder. They’ve polished off their Rachel sandwich and a veggie flatbread. The light has that gauzy feel to it, and I can see through the enormous window straight down to Portland Harbor. It’s dreamy and I wish I could linger.
But the guys have to work, and after two hours of talking and eating, we part ways, pledging to keep in touch. I leave this special place reluctantly, yet promising myself I’ll return, perhaps not on one of those “rocking” Saturday nights. I’ll leave that for my son, who knows the Portland bar scene as well as anyone. But on a quiet Monday at noon, Gritty’s in the heart of the Old Port has a special allure: not home, not work, just a great place to be.