In less than a decade in business, Nathan Sanborn has modified, disregarded, or completely shredded his business plan, all while trying to keep up with the whipsaw machinations that have been craft beer of late. Throughout it all, the founder, co-owner, and director of brewing operations at Rising Tide Brewing Company in Portland, Maine, has focused on quality about all else.
That sounds quaint, or like something that every brewer should say, but Sanborn and his brewery walk the walk, and it’s one reason that as Maine’s beer industry has grown, they’ve managed to grow and thrive in a crowded, often-focused-on-flash-in-the-pan market.
“In the grand scheme of the third wave of craft, we’re Old School,” he says. “When we started, there were maybe thirty breweries in the state, and now we have 130. Back then, there was a focus on your core beers, the ones that anchored your portfolio. Today we’re doing that, but we’re also producing a lot of one-offs. We need to balance between those things.”
Listening to the Market
The brewery started off packaging in 22-ounce bottles and because of state laws at the time wasn’t able to offer beer for consumption at the brewery, so everything went out to the market. A longtime workhorse for brewers, these bomber bottles were a way for craft brewers to stand out on shelves and offer consumers an attractive alternative package that could be shared (or not). Sanborn filled all the bottles by hand in the early days at their first location, but as they moved to a new space after just a year, he realized that sales of the 22-ounce bottles were soft, a sign of the changing times. Rising Tide then moved into 12-ounce bottles, which again did well, but as he started to see the move into cans, Sanborn began to work with a mobile canner to put out some of his beers, such as Maine Island Trail Ale (MITA)—a hoppy session ale—and a gose in cans. Soon enough, the brewery could justify purchasing its own canning line and about 2 years ago went exclusively into aluminum.
“We’ve been in every package, but this one works best,” Sanborn says.
What has also worked well for the brewery is something that the younger-than-him generation has already mastered: limited releases. Like any brewer, Sanborn likes to experiment and try out different beers, but he also knows that his customer base was built on the lineup of core beers and reliable seasonals that have been turned out since the beginning.
The customers who want to seek only the new or rare make up just one part of his consumer base, but still it means releasing limited beers fairly regularly. Be the limited releases fruit-forward or IPAs with a single-hop addition (although many skew toward the West Coast model rather than the New England–style because that’s where his heart lies) or lagers, Sanborn sees the benefit of bringing in new people and also hopes that they’ll leave with cans of the core lineup—and often they do.
“It’s a huge portion of our business,” he says of taproom sales, “and it drives innovation within the brewery and gives us an outlet for these small batches that in turn gives us immediate and direct feedback.”
Still, he knows the reason that people come back is not for something that is good for one time or in small doses; they want beers they can have reliable pints of time and time again.
Commitment to Quality
Within a few weeks of opening, Sanborn got a fright. Residual yeast was hanging out in the 22-ounce bottles, causing unintentional secondary fermentation that turned the glass bottles into virtual bombs. Beers were recalled and dumped, and the cause was rooted out, but the shock and fear of it all caused him to immediately hire a quality-control expert, Haley Campbell, to work at the brewery and make sure that every single beer and package that left the brewery was as clean as possible.
“It was scary as hell, and it was a wakeup call,” Sanborn says of those bottles. “Someone could have gotten hurt, and I’m not happy it happened, but I’m glad it happened early on in the business.” Since then, quality has been top of mind for Sanborn, and it’s drilled into the staff.
The current quality-control director, Merritt Waldron, is working on a quality-control book for Brewers Publications.
“Even when we do something trendy or data-driven, the core focus is always on high-quality, drinkable, and technically sound beer,” he says. “It is the key to what we do regardless what we create.”
The constant banging of the quality drum has paid off. Customers know that if they get a can of Zephyr, the brewery’s IPA, it will taste exactly like the previous one and then the next one.
“I think that sometimes people forget that we’re producing food and that we have a real responsibility to produce something that’s safe. Quality goes beyond just asking, ‘Did you ferment it all?’ [to avoid exploding packages] to ‘Is it free from contaminates?’ and ‘Has everything been properly rinsed every step of the way?’ and so much more.” Without the rigid commitment to quality, he says, “we wouldn’t be where we are today.”
Importance of Local
Mainers are intensely loyal to their state and that extends to its beer. For Rising Tide, being on the peninsula of Portland, the largest city in the state, has its advantages. They get not only the year-round residents as customers but also the serious influx of tourists who come through two-thirds of the year.
But it’s not just location; it’s a commitment to all things Maine, including using state-grown or processed ingredients in every batch of beer. This usually means malt and any non-malted adjunct grain, such as oats. Hops play a smaller role because of locale, but there are various herbs and plants that are grown in the state that make appearances in beer. And Sanborn points out that each year, the brewery releases an all-Maine-hops wet-hopped IPA.
“We source local ingredients because it harks back to what Maine is all about—supporting other local businesses,” he says. “I’d like to see agriculture continue to be a part of the Maine economy, and this is the best way to support it.”
In fact, one local maltster, Maine Malt House at Buck Farms, has even increased its production because of the brewery. It had been a potato farm that grew barley as a rotation crop, but as the tuber business declined, the newest generation of farmers decided to embrace the beer staple.
“All in all, we use about 25,000 pounds of locally grown and processed grain each year,” Sanborn says.
Not bad for a brewery that is averaging about 4,700 barrels annually.
Looking to the Future
Talk to just about any brewer, and they’ll tell you they are concerned—if not outright worried—about the future. It’s a crowded market with competition coming from not only the national level but across the street. Add in wine, spirits, and flavored-malt beverages, and it’s tough out there for a beer maker.
Some brewers are doubling down and investing in infrastructure in the hopes of gaining more market share. Others have begun throwing in the towel.
Sanborn and his wife, Heather, own the brewery outright without any outside investors, so he’s taking a wait-and-see approach to the next few years. The 15-barrel brewery is keeping up with demand, and the taproom—complete with a relatively new event space that is host to both private and public parties, concerts, and more—is thriving.
“We’re a little more risk adverse,” he says. “We’ve reached a point where we’re making beer, we’re profitable, and we’re happy. In the next year or two, I’m not really interested in chasing both growth and what I think might be the next great thing. We’ll see adjustments in the market, and for us it’s about being more cautious and less bullish. We have a good thing going, and we’re going to be really careful to make sure to not dump a huge capital expenditure on something unless it’s going to help us improve the quality of our beer.”