To say Heather and Nathan Sanborn followed a winding path to Rising Tide Brewing is a bit of an understatement. After graduating from Deering High School, they went west and became ski bums for a while; she taught high school; he designed books; she got a master’s degree in education and decided she didn’t want to teach; he did freelance graphic design and was a stay-at-home dad; and she graduated from law school and became a lawyer. Then, four years ago, they decided it was time to open a micro-brewery. They expanded two years later into East Bayside and now employ 11. Their beer is available in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts. On Monday, Rising Tide Brewing was named Small Business of the Year by the Portland Development Corp. and the city of Portland. And in September, Heather was tapped to join the board of directors of the Maine Small Business Development Center, which advises the state on fostering entrepreneurship.

Q: How did you get started?

A: We started on a nano-scale, with a one-barrel system, essentially a triple-sized home brew system. We started on Industrial Way (in Portland), where Allagash (Brewing) is just up the street and (D.L.) Geary Brewing is around the corner. Nathan was doing everything, and we did that for about a year and a half and were able to put in a larger system, with 15 barrels and a 30-barrel fermenter, and moved to Bayside in 2012.

Q: What is the output?

A: On any given day we can make 15 barrels of beer at a time. So we make two 15-barrel batches of beer and put it into a 30-barrel fermenter on a brew day. We’re able to make beer more efficiently and on a bigger scale.

Q: How did you make the leap from home-brewing to a commercial operation?

A: Nathan had been home-brewing with accelerating levels of passion. He’s a great chef as well, and we’d have dinner parties with home-brewed beer. Soon, he was making more home brew than any dinner party could use up.

It was at a time, 2010, when starting at that scale and without experience of working in a brewery could be done. But if you ask him, he would say, “Don’t start that way.” There’s a lot to learn, and a lot of mistakes (could be avoided) by working for someone else.

Q: Is it expensive to gear up?

A: It’s not prohibitively expensive and every piece of equipment you buy lets you make better beer. As a small brewer, you don’t have control over all the variables the way a bigger brewer could. It’s more difficult if you’re brewing on a cobbled together nano-scale. So you can get in on a small scale and it’s tens of thousands of dollars instead of hundreds of thousands. But when you get to that next level, the beer quality improves by leaps and bounds.

Q: Is there a downside to getting bigger?

A: No, it’s all pretty much upside. One of the things we’re focused on is making improvements for the safety for our employees and improving workplace environment – get rid of the jobs that are no fun to do, automate those as much as possible.

Q: Safety? I never envisioned beer-making as a dangerous pursuit.

A: We use hot chemicals to clean our tanks and cleanliness is job one, because that’s where the quality comes from. Working with chemicals is certainly dangerous and climbing ladders can be dangerous. It’s a factory and there are risks.

Q: But clearly safe enough for daily tours?

A: The tours allow us to tell our story and show people what we do and the passion we have. We run tours every day and several times on Fridays and Saturdays. All of our beer is made right here and everything is done in our facility in East Bayside. You can see people brewing a pilot batch of beer, labeling beer, and our tasting room is open as well.

Q: Since the business has grown, have you stepped back from the actual brewing?

A: As we’ve grown, I have been able to do less and less on the production side. Back when we had one employee, I would work on the bottling line and clean out the tanks and brew a pilot batch now and then, but now I can focus on other things I like. And I can say, “I want a beer that tastes like this,” and Nathan and the others can come up with the recipe and try that. The thing I enjoy doing the most is working on financial projects – how we can finance the next tank and making sure everyone gets paid and working on hiring plans. We’re a team of 11 right now and we hired our first full-time employee in 2012. So there’s an HR role and CFO role that falls to me as well.

Q: What’s next?

A: We have seven 30-barrel fermenters and this winter we’ll be adding out first 60-barrel fermenter that will allow us to continue to increase the amount of beer we make, particularly for our summer brew, Maine Island Trail Ale. It’s canned in a lightweight, light-proof package. Perfect for a backpack or a kayak, and we partnered with the Maine Island Trail Association, which is a great organization and the beer is a fundraiser for them.

Q: Part of the fun of the business has to be tasting how the latest recipe turned out.

A: An attraction of working with beer is we get to drink what we make and we wouldn’t be in this business if we didn’t love beer and we wouldn’t sell beer we didn’t love. So tasting is important, but we also rely on science and we have a lab here to process each batch of beer. But ultimately, it comes down to whether it tastes good. There’s a science to beer, but it’s an art as well.

Q: How did you come up with the name?

A: It comes from the concept that a rising tide lifts all boats and that’s what’s happening in the beer world now. As more people make better beer, more people drink great beer and then we all win.