Episode #3: Foundation Brewing’s Christie Mahaffey
on the Compound Effects of Clean Water
By late morning on an overcast, damp summer weekday, visitors to Foundation Brewing Company’s tasting room on the outskirts of Portland have already begun lining up to order one or more of the 14 beers on tap to enjoy at outdoor tables. While they may note the subtle fruitiness of the Bumbleberry’s My Jam sour ale or the crisp finish of the Wolfgang lager, they likely don’t realize that what allows the flavors to shine, and what enables the brewery itself to thrive, is water—the ingredient that makes up 90% of beer.
“One of the reasons we came to Portland was for the water,” says Christie Mahaffey, one of four partners in the craft brewing enterprise who met as homebrewers in the Bangor area. If the water from Sebago Lake “wasn’t so clean, we would have to do a lot more filtration just bringing water into the brewing process. And then we would have to do various manipulations to the flavor profile. There’d be a lot more work involved. With Portland water, we have a basic carbon filter for water cleaning, and that’s it, it’s good to go,” she says.
Christie brought her scientific acumen—including a PhD in mechanical engineering and materials science—to Foundation a year after the brewery was started by her husband Joel Mahaffey and business partners John and Tina Bonney. Because of her background and interests, she naturally fell into the role of quality control, quality assurance, and process-improvement maven. Names of bacteria that can spoil beer, such as Lactobacillus and Pediococcus, roll off her tongue as quickly as Foundation’s popular IPA Ephiphany comes off the canning line.
In a behind-the-scenes tour of the brewery, it doesn’t take long to see Christie’s impact. She has collaborated with the production team to improve brewery operations in numerous ways. These include the tidy laboratory where daily tests for several different types of bacteria are performed on beer in various stages of production, the spent hops draining in sacks to reduce the total suspended solids the brewery disposes of, the streamlined tank cleaning process that reduces water use, and the replacement of carbon dioxide with nitrogen to push beer from one tank to another.
Christie’s science background and focus on quality control also help give her a deep appreciation for the Sebago watershed forests that are responsible for naturally filtering the water before it flows into the brewery’s pipes. “It’s a very valuable, tangible service that we’re getting out of the forest. In terms of water quality, the real work is done in the watershed,” she says. The recognition that the forests benefit the brewery’s bottom line and allow it to produce great tasting beer prompted the partners to create a Double IPA called Pale Blue Dot in honor of Earth Day, the proceeds of which support Sebago Clean Waters’s forest conservation efforts.
A healthy Sebago Lake watershed contributes to the brewery’s success in ways beyond the streamlined brewing process. “When we have tourists coming into our tasting room in the summer, they’re going on to camping, kayaking, hiking. They want to be in the Maine outdoors and the woods, so we’re getting compounded effects of protecting our resources,” Christie says.
While her tasks at the brewery are mostly focused on making the best beer as efficiently as possible, Christie is keenly aware of the growing potential for, and necessity of, the business fostering a more inclusive environment. “There’ve been a lot of really interesting and valuable conversations about improving diversity and accessibility because craft breweries have become a big piece of the community,” she observes. “So it isn’t really all about the beer—it’s more about a gathering space.”
For Foundation to continue to thrive as a valued member of the Portland community, great tasting beer and a welcoming atmosphere are critical. And those things aren’t possible without an ample and pristine supply of the main ingredient in their tasty brews. “We all are dependent on clean water—our employees, in our own homes, everyone who is drinking our beer—we’re all benefiting from this resource, so we absolutely have to make sure it’s protected and cared for,” Christie says. “We don’t get another shot at that.”