PORTLAND – Sean Ellsworth popped into Rising Tide Brewing Co.’s new space on Fox Street with a growler ready to be filled with the brewery’s latest special release, Entrepot, a farmhouse ale featuring lots of oats and hints of citrus and pepper.
“It’s got a nice spicy note,” said Ellsworth, who comes in to get his 64-ounce container filled every couple of weeks.
Ellsworth also buys craft beer from Maine Beer Co., another small but fast-growing brewery in Portland, and he works at Allagash Brewing Co.
“This is pretty typical, that we would have somebody from another brewery stop in,” said Heather Sanborn, who started Rising Tide two years ago with her husband, Nathan, making his dream of earning a living off his home brew a reality.
Rising Tide is one of several small breweries that are riding the second big wave of the craft beer movement in Maine.
The late 1980s and early 1990s brought Geary’s, Gritty McDuff’s and Shipyard, now the granddaddies of the industry in Maine even though they’re still much smaller than “big beer.”
The growth of the industry has paved the way for more competitors and more specialization. A second wave of “beer geeks” is brewing small batches at home or in tiny rented spaces, using unconventional ingredients to develop a diversity of flavors that could only be dreamed of two decades ago.
In 2009, Maine had about 20 licensed breweries, said Dan Kleban, president of the Maine Brewers Guild and co-owner of Maine Beer Co. Today, it has more than 30.
Most of the startups have been tiny, he said, falling into the nanobrewery category, a fluid term that generally covers businesses brewing fewer than 1,000 barrels a year.
“The whole second-generation thing, I think, is partly because a lot of those brewers grew up on that first generation, and so people’s palates are now already open to something that’s different than Bud, Miller, Coors and those sorts of things,” said Tom Bull, brewmaster for Bull Jagger Brewing Co., who sold his first beer on Oct. 19 last year.
This second wave of brewers is being welcomed by the beer-drinking public. And it’s fueling their growth.
CRAFT BEER ON A GROWTH SPURT
Figures from the Maine Department of Public Safety show that beer production in Maine reached 6.4 million gallons last year, up 30 percent over 2010 and 56 percent over 2009.
Rising Tide produced one barrel — 31 gallons — at a time until June, when the scrappy little brewery took a giant leap: It shot up to 15 barrels and moved from a 1,500-square-foot space in the Riverside Industrial Park to a 5,500-square-foot space in the city’s East Bayside neighborhood. Last month, it began selling its beer in Massachusetts.
The brewery expects to increase its production from 149 barrels last year to around 800 this year, and potentially 1,200 next year.
“Life would be pretty boring if you just drank the same four beers all the time,” said Heather Sanborn. “I think we all appreciate the amount of energy and enthusiasm there is in this industry right now, and the amount of amazing beer that’s being created in Portland.”
Nationwide, craft brewers sold an estimated 11.47 million barrels of beer in 2011, up 1.3 million barrels from 2010. But big beer is still king. Sales by producers of more than 6 million gallons a year reached almost 200 million barrels in 2010.
Craft beer commands just 6 percent of the overall market, which is why craft brewers view big beer, not each other, as their competitor.
According to the national Brewers Association, there were more breweries in the U.S. as of July 1 than in the past 125 years — 2,126 breweries, up from a low of 89 in the late 1970s.
Maine ranks fifth in breweries per capita, behind only Vermont, which is first, Oregon, Montana and Colorado.
“The Maine beer scene is on fire right now,” said Tod Mott of South Berwick, former head brewer at Portsmouth Brewery and creator of Kate the Great, a Russian imperial stout that beer geeks wait in line for hours to sample.
Partly for that reason, and partly because he wants to set out on his own before age slows him down, Mott hopes to open his own brewery and tasting room in southern Maine by early spring. He has his eye on a spot in Kittery, where he plans to start small and stay small, brewing no more than 500 to 750 barrels in the first year.
Brewers say the increased interest in craft beer in Maine is, at least partially, a byproduct of the local foods movement, and it’s probably why the industry appears to be growing a little faster here than in other parts of the country.
But mostly, brewers point to America’s changing palate and its growing foodie culture.
Most baby boomers remember when ordering a beer in a bar was a simple thing. In the 1970s, you could grab a Bud or a Miller from one of the taps — and you could count the number of taps on one hand.
Today’s beer drinkers are different. Their idea of a good beer bar is Portland’s Novare Res Bier Cafe, which has 25 rotating taps. They can have a farmhouse saison, a chocolate porter, an India pale ale or a stout.
Many know who brewed the beer they’re drinking, and where the hops were grown, and that the rye malt came from one of the only artisanal malt houses in the country.
“It’s like they’re redefining American brewing,” said Ken Collings of Freeport Brewing Co., who recently relaunched his own brand out of a tiny rented space at Spring Point Marina in South Portland after being out of the business for a couple of years.
Oxbow Brewing Co. in Newcastle, which celebrated its first anniversary in August, specializes in traditional Belgian-style farmhouse beers with a contemporary American twist.
Tim Adams and Geoff Masland launched the home-style brewery in a renovated barn, and its beer became so popular so fast that after six months, the owners brought a Philadelphia brewer, Mike Fava, on board. They bought new tanks that doubled their capacity last spring, they’ve expanded their retail hours to meet demand, and they’re building a new tap room.
Masland said the first year “greatly exceeded our expectations.” He said Maine is the ideal place to open a brewery because the market still feels less crowded and more manageable than others.
Bull, of Bull Jagger, started home brewing in the early 1990s, around the time the first generation of craft brewers began to take hold in Maine. Bull worked for a couple of those brewers and dreamed of having his own brewery some day. Then he found his niche.
“We’re the only dedicated lager brewery in the state of Maine,” said Bull. “We do all lagers. It’s a little different fermentation process than ales, which is what just about everybody else does.”
Bull, who has kept his other job as a theatrical stage hand, is happy that he made the jump into the craft beer business when he did.
“It’s one of the only industries in the country that grew steadily through the recession,” he said.
AN ENGINE FOR JOB CREATION
The new breweries are doing more than slaking beer lovers’ thirst — they’re creating jobs.
The Maine Brewers’ Guild did an informal survey last year that showed its members employ more than 1,200 people, not counting the industry’s ripple effect.
“If you take my brewery, we directly employ seven people,” said Kleban of Maine Beer Co. “But every time we order new equipment — because we’re all growing — we hire electricians, plumbers, stainless steel fabricators.”
The rise of craft breweries is responsible for spawning Greg Norton’s business, the Bier Cellar on Forest Avenue in Portland, which stocks more than 400 beers and educates its customers on the differences in beers.
“As there are more products on the shelf, they’re more varied, more complex,” Norton said. “They’re more expensive, so you’re taking more of a risk when you buy them. There was a hole there for somebody who really wanted to have an intimate knowledge of the product and explain that to the customer.”
While Norton stocks craft beers that are now widely available, such as Geary’s and Shipyard, most of his customers come to the Bier Cellar to try brands and styles they’ve never had.
“There is a big split now,” he said, “and it’s getting bigger, between the first generation and the second generation, the English-focused beers that we had here first, and then now this second generation, where they’re all over the map for style.”
A few years ago, Rising Tide’s brewer, Nathan Sanborn, was a graphic designer and stay-at-home dad who was an avid home brewer “with increasing levels of obsessiveness,” said his wife and business partner, Heather.
“We got to where we had two or three, sometimes four kinds of beer on draft at the house all the time, and we couldn’t have enough dinner parties to drink it all,” she said.
Nathan Sanborn said the idea of starting his own brewery was in the back of his mind for years, “but I never thought it was feasible or reasonable, honestly.”
Then he saw Maine Beer Co. get off the ground with a one-barrel system and start to expand, and he decided he could do it.
Sanborn said it has been harder than he expected to grow his brewery, not because of the beer but because of all the other aspects of the industry he had to learn. He said that if he had it to do again, he would work in a couple of breweries first before launching his own.
But he doesn’t for a moment regret his decision.
“I’m thrilled to be here,” he said on a day when he and a couple of employees were bottling 80 cases of a bourbon barrel-aged stout by hand. “I come into work every day, and can’t believe how lucky I am to be doing what it is I love to do.”
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: