Rising Tide Brewing Co. moved into East Bayside 10 years ago, spurring the transformation of the neighborhood into a brewery district, though it’s retained some of its old characteristics. Photo courtesy of Rising Tide Brewing Company

It’s been a decade since Rising Tide Brewing Co. relocated from Industrial Way to Fox Street in East Bayside. In some ways, the neighborhood retains some of its historical characteristics stretching back over a century, as a home to the center city’s affordable housing and a gateway for immigrants to Maine. But in other ways, it continues to evolve, shaped by an influx of beer tourists and more monied residents.

Owner Heather Sanborn recalled that the brewery’s move in 2012 made a “ton of sense” from a brewery production standpoint: the western third of the neighborhood was zoned for light industry and the building possessed floor drains and high ceilings, lofty enough to host brewing tanks.

The previous year, in 2011, An Act to Amend the Liquor Laws of the State had been passed, which allowed breweries to sell beer for consumption on premises (previously, they could only give away samples as part of brewery tours, in addition to selling packaged beer for takeout). A new business model emerged in Maine beer, as breweries could make better profit margins by selling directly to consumers, while also generating cash flow early on. Additionally, breweries could have more control over how their beer was served, while also connecting more directly with their customers. The tasting room became a sort of three-dimensional branding device, as well as an instant feedback channel.

As a Maine Brewers’ Guild board member, Sanborn helped craft the law itself. Even so, she recalls, “the idea that folks would someday walk down to East Bayside to visit us seemed like a long shot” in the early 2010s. She remembers long lines of tractor trailers parked along Fox Street, blocking the view of Kennedy Park. “When we were first building out our space, there were very few other businesses that were open nearby other than a few auto repair garages. There was virtually no foot traffic during the day and none at night.”

Rising Tide would be joined by Bunker Brewing, which opened a couple of blocks away off Anderson, that same year. Down the street from Bunker was Urban Farm Fermentory, which opened in 2010 (in the same space that was formerly occupied by Maine Mead Works). Tandem Coffee opened next door to Bunker in that fateful year as well. Maine Craft Distilling opened up next to Rising Tide in 2013. Coffee by Design moved in across Diamond Street in 2014, and Oxbow’s Portland branch appeared nearby on Washington Avenue, adjacent to the relocated Mead Works. A “destination” was being born.

Brewery districts like these have become quite common over the last decade, as the tasting-room model has proliferated nationwide. Economic geographers have examined the upsides of industry “clustering,” one of which is the creation of a critical mass of breweries that draws outsiders into the area to explore many places at once (something like an arts district). And industrial areas in inner cities, in the wake of decades of deindustrialization, have proven to be fertile grounds for small-scale makers like many start-up breweries. Many of the most celebrated beer districts – places like Denver’s RiNo, Richmond’s Scott’s Addition, and Asheville’s South Slope – are repurposed industrial areas located near downtowns, just like East Bayside.

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This pairing of industrial space for brewing plus situation near consumers has proven fortuitous indeed for craft brewing. David Redding, co-owner of Goodfire Brewing Co., which opened on Anderson Street in 2017, notes, “Proximity to the downtown hotels, waterfront, and classic attractions of Portland is a major advantage. You could easily enjoy a beer at Goodfire and then walk to Washington Ave., Fore Street, or the Eastern Promenade.”

The tasting room at Austin Street’s second Portland brewery, in East Bayside looking out onto Kennedy Park. Photo by Ray Routhier

This also distinguishes East Bayside from Portland’s original beer district at Industrial Way. Austin Street Brewing Co. opened in that famed incubator in 2014, then launched a second (and larger) location in East Bayside in 2018. The brewery on Fox Street is stitched into a more textured drinking context – with producers of kombucha, cider, seltzer and wine – along with “easier access to the city,” according to Will Fisher, co-founder and chief executive officer of Austin Street.

Sanborn also points to the broader business and cultural community in the area. “It’s not just about the alcoholic beverages,” she said. “The neighborhood also boasts two world-class (locally owned) coffee roasteries, several important arts organizations, community wellness centers like yoga studios, gyms and physical therapy practices, Portland’s only mosque, and home decor and building supply shops.”

Wrapping around this blend of businesses is the residential neighborhood, which both Sanborn and Fisher call “special.”

“It’s Maine’s most diverse census tract,” Sanborn noted, “with a substantial amount of public housing as well as some of the fanciest condos in the city and just about every kind of housing in between.”

Goodfire’s Redding also points to this “unique confluence” of working-class residents, recent immigrants, tourists and makers. “I like the idea that there are people living in East Bayside,” he said. “I like seeing community members leave prayer on Fridays together. I like seeing the Kennedy Park soccer league in action.”

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While the area’s cultural and economic diversity is one of its most distinctive features, it can also make Fox Street feel something like a social trench, particularly given the relative priciness and whiteness of craft beer. Noting his appreciation for the rhythms of the local community – kids waiting outside the brewery for the school bus and Kennedy Park Football Club matches across the street – Fisher hopes to develop a better connection with area residents: “I wish we could close the gap a little bit with the neighborhood, do a little more, and I hope that we are welcome there.”

Another concern focuses on future development in the area. Redding notes the construction of upscale housing in the area, which could signal changes: “I have some concerns if the face of the community begins to change.” Sanborn hopes that “the area will continue to support a vibrant locally owned neighborhood of businesses that make things.”

“There will undoubtedly be increasing development pressure on the neighborhood,” she said, but the industrial zone needs to maintain its identity as a home for local craftspeople.

How the area around the brewery zone develops will certainly have an impact on those breweries themselves – and the distinctiveness of East Bayside as a place to visit or live. While in many ways these brewery districts can seem to resemble one another to the point of becoming clichéd shorthand for urban “renaissance” (or gentrification), each is shaped by local contexts that are economic, political, cultural and geographic.

To some degree, the emergence of East Bayside as a brewery district was a function of organic happenstance. Portland’s Downtown Vision plan, completed in 1991, marked the city’s commitment to steering redevelopment and economic growth through culture industries, according to geographer Loretta Lees. With that came the active promotion of the arts and attempts at preserving affordable spaces for artists to live and work. East Bayside fit the bill. But the industrial spaces were also likely protected from new-build gentrification given the city’s development priorities focused more on India Street, the Eastern Waterfront and Bayside (west of Franklin).

Even so, the city has impacted the area’s development through sidewalk improvements for brewery visitors as well as zoning tweaks to empower local manufacturers there. That has allowed breweries to sell their own beer (as well as branded merchandise), host events and offer snacks. These are relatively minor regulatory changes that can have massive impacts on urban geographies and the societies that shape them.

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Compared to other brewery districts, one of East Bayside’s distinguishing characteristics is the balance struck between new development and social preservation. It isn’t marked by massive new housing projects in the ways that Denver’s RiNo or Scott’s Addition in Richmond have been – or even those of India Street or in-development in (West) Bayside and the Eastern Waterfront, for that matter. And in that sense, in spite of the many changes in East Bayside over the last decade, it retains a sense of authenticity.

“Authenticity” is a term that is often used in relation to craft practices, but ambiguously defined. If we take it to mean a rootedness to place and its history, aligned with a certain intentionality and humility in process, then we should do our best to shelter East Bayside from the violence of gentrification in all its facets – residential, industrial and commercial.

“There’s something kind of magical about making the products yourself on site and then watching customers be delighted by them,” Sanborn observed. The same could be said for a neighborhood, a geography that is both produced and consumed by its residents.

Ben Lisle is an assistant professor of American Studies at Colby College. He lives among the breweries in Portland’s East Bayside, where he writes about cultural history, urban geography, and craft beer culture. Reach him on Twitter at @bdlisle.


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