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If you want to know the movers and shakers behind Maine's booming beer industry, getting to know Heather Sanborn would be a good first step. And that's not just because she's the director of business operations for Rising Tide Brewing Co., the Portland brewery she co-owns with her husband, Nathan, the company's head brewer.
Her unique career path — starting out as a high school teacher and then studying law to become an attorney — has led Sanborn to become one of the Maine beer industry's leading advocates. Now serving as president of the Maine Brewers' Guild, Sanborn works with the nonprofit's executive director to promote and protect the state's more than 60 breweries and brewpubs — which, combined with retailers and wholesalers, led the beer industry to have a nearly $1.3 billion economic impact in Maine last year, according to the Beer Institute.
“This is a really unique industry that we get to be a part of,” Sanborn says on a recent morning on the patio outside Rising Tide's facility. “As a result, I think we can have a really strong organization because we can sit in a room and talk about how we wish the world were and often get on the same page, even though we have breweries that are making 100 barrels a year and breweries that are making 150,000 barrels a year within the state.”
Rising Tide was one of the breweries producing on the low end when it started in 2010, making 129 barrels of beer in its first full year while it was “basically a giant home brewing operation,” Sanborn says. That's when Sanborn's husband, Nathan, who founded the brewery out of his love for home brewing, was mostly working by himself out at Portland's One Industrial Way. Sanborn joined the brewery full time in 2012, writing a business plan and preparing for the brewery's move to Portland's East Bayside neighborhood.
In the ensuing years, craft beer enthusiasts have responded well to Rising Tide's variety of pale ales, stouts, hefeweizens and other brews. Now, Sanborn says, Rising Tide expects to produce 3,800 barrels by the end of this year, a far cry from the 129 barrels the first year. That growth has also led the brewery to reach a total of 16 employees, mostly full-time, working in positions like tasting room manager, brewer and director of quality control.
“We're continuing to anticipate double-digit growth for the next several years,” she says, and the company has been profitable every year. She adds that the pay was fairly low when the brewery first started — a problem that disappeared as growth continued.
As director of business operations, Sanborn has been an integral part of Rising Tide's continued growth, covering bookkeeping, human resources, financial planning, production planning and distributor management. In other words, Sanborn says, her job is to get the beer to market once the brewing process is completed.
“The ability to continue to grow the company has been very fulfilling and hiring more people and finding these fantastic people for our team has been very fulfilling,” she says.
Rising Tide's name comes from the aphorism “a rising tide lifts all boats,” and Sean Sullivan, the executive director of the Maine Brewers' Guild, says Sanborn and her company live up to that.
“Rising Tide is not only making great beer, but also using personal time to assist brewers with legal questions and guide them on best practices,” Sullivan says. “As president of the guild she's a natural person to go to. She's so proactive in reaching out to other breweries.”
Sanborn's legal expertise has been especially helpful in pushing Maine lawmakers to adopt laws that protect the beer industry and fight off the vestiges of the state's Prohibition-era regulations. In working with the Maine Brewers' Guild, Sanborn helped draft three major pieces of legislation that have had a significant impact in improving Maine's beer culture.
The most recently passed bill she worked on, which became law without Gov. Paul LePage's signature in June, streamlined the process for breweries, wineries and distilleries wanting to make in-kind donations to fundraising events for nonprofits.
“I think the idea is that our breweries are incredibly community-minded and we are supporting a lot of events,” Sanborn says. “Obviously one of the things that any nonprofit wants to make a good event is to have some beer, wine or spirits for attendees.”
Sanborn also worked on a measure approved last year that made it easier for organizations to run beer festivals, which helped pave the way for craft beer giant Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. to hold a festival at Thompson's Point in Portland in 2014 that attracted thousands of people. The Maine Brewers' Guild recently held a similar event in July that brought in dozens of breweries and nearly 2,000 attendees.
But the first measure Sanborn worked on, back when she was asked to serve on an industry task force, arguably had the largest impact on how Maine breweries do business.
The measure, which was signed into law as part of a larger liquor law reform bill, allowed breweries to charge for beer samples — something that previously wasn't legal, which made it difficult for small breweries like Rising Tide to convince customers into buying their beer.
Getting that measure passed, Sanborn says, enabled breweries to open tasting rooms as part of their business model. Rising Tide and other breweries throughout the state are now using tasting rooms as a way to get customers in the door and support other businesses like food trucks and beer bus tours. Sanborn says tasting room attendance at Rising Tide has grown to a point where the brewery is now planning to roughly triple its size.
As one of the first businesses to take a chance on East Bayside as a re-emerging neighborhood, Sanborn says it's exciting to see how it has attracted a bevy of other food-, beverage- and arts-related businesses over the last three years.
“My parents were pretty uncomfortable with the idea that I might be here alone late at night, at the time,” Sanborn says, referring to Rising Tide's early days in East Bayside, “and now we've really transformed the neighborhood so that nobody would give that a second thought.”
Correction: The print version of this story stated the incorrect number of barrels that Rising Tide expects to produce this year. That number has been updated in the online version.