For a long time, when someone said “Portland” and “beer” in the same breath, the assumption was they were referring to the craft scene in Oregon. But more and more, a question follows instead. “You mean Portland, Maine, right?”
The Portland of the East has become one of the best cities for craft beer in the U.S., anchored by mainstays like Allagash Brewing Company and Maine Beer Co. But while newer outfits like Bissell Brothers hog much of the spotlight these days, one brewery deserves a lot of credit for putting the city on the map: Rising Tide Brewing Company.
Rising Tide was founded in 2010 by husband and wife Nathan and Heather Sanborn. It got its start at One Industrial Way in Portland, a site that’s served as the incubator and launch pad for at least seven breweries in the area. Before opening shop, Nathan was a former graphic designer and stay at home dad; Heather was a high school teacher and lawyer. In addition to serving as Rising Tide’s director of business operations, she’s also currently an active member in the Maine House of Representatives.
Nathan, a long-time homebrewer, is the man behind the beer. I caught up with him to talk about the brewery’s explosive growth, Portland’s position as a craft mecca, and, fittingly, whether the old moniker “a rising tide lifts all ships” still applies to the competitive beer industry.
Alex E. Weaver: How would you describe the craft scene in Portland right now? How does it differ from, say, Boston, MA, or Waterbury, VT?
Nathan Sanborn: Maine in general, and Portland, in particular, has a really vibrant scene. Not living and working in those other areas it’s hard for me to say what makes them different. But some of the things that make Maine’s scene great are a vibrant tasting room culture; engaged and passionate craft beer fans; and a hugely collaborative ethos, both between brewers and bar and restaurant owners. Couple that with one of the best food scenes anywhere and you have a recipe for excellence!
AEW: How does Rising Tide continue to stand out in what’s become a sea of craft breweries and beers? How do you stay relevant?
NS: We are focused on doing what we love, and being authentically ourselves, and I feel like people really respond to that. I think it’s always important to keep an eye on trends in the marketplace and changing tastes, but we’re careful about following our own passion and trying to express that in the beer rather than chasing the next hot thing. I think that puts us in a natural, organic development position and allows us to make the best possible beer that we can. If we’re not making beers that we love to drink, we’re not doing justice to our consumers and fans.
I love beers that push the flavor boundaries, but the beers I want to drink day-to-day tend to be more balanced, supporting interesting or unique flavors rather than focussing on them exclusively.
One of the things that we have become well known for is well-balanced beers, and that is something that we always strive for, even in our hoppy and sour beers. I think that balance is always relevant, and people come back to it again and again. I love beers that push the flavor boundaries, but the beers I want to drink day-to-day tend to be more balanced, supporting interesting or unique flavors rather than focussing on them exclusively. Again, for us, it’s about doing what we love and sharing that with our customers.
AEW: Any advice for someone thinking of making a similar move?
NS: If your reasons for opening a brewery don’t focus on a passion for exceptional beer, don’t bother. Craft brewing isn’t a get-rich-quick scheme. At least not for the vast majority of brewers. It’s instead an opportunity to live a life of passion for creative work. If that’s where you see yourself, then spend the time to really learn the craft. Many of us have come up from a home brewing background and had success, but having done it that way I always recommend to people that they get involved in the industry and work for/with other brewers first.
AEW: A common refrain in the craft brewing industry has always been “a rising tide lifts all boats” — but with 5,300 American craft breweries right now and thousands more in the permitting stages, are we approaching a time where this can no longer be the case?
NS: Will we reach that point? Probably eventually. However at this point craft beer still has a very small piece of the total beer market, so there’s still a long ways to go in converting macro beer drinkers into craft beer drinkers. Speaking to our own experience, we have found that each new brewery that opens in our neighborhood brings more people to the area for beer. We still see the impact of a rising tide.