Piney inspiration in Rising Tide’s Maine Island Trail ale, open-air fermentation for Oxbow’s wild ales, and geographically diverse hops at Bissell Brothers, three Portland breweries put their own spin on Maine beer.
“In the past five years, we’ve seen a real renaissance of hops,” says Peter Bissell. Peter is the older of the two brothers behind Bissell Brother Brewing Company, makers of extremely hop-forward brews that are packaged in cans and beloved by beer connoisseurs. “One of the great things about this focus on hops is that it’s brought beer up to the level of wine,” he says.
As beer begins to command more respect in the food and beverage world, drinkers and brewers alike are looking for ways to define and distinguish brews. For some brewers, it’s all about the hops. For others, the best flavors are those that pair well with food. No matter the route they take, these local brewers are doing something exceptional: creating sophisticated, subtle drinks with tastes inspired by Maine.
Fir and Salt
Inside the newly expanded Rising Tide Brewing Company tasting room in East Bayside, the air is thick with steam and the sweet, sour smell of yeast. But head brewer Nathan Sanborn has another scent on his mind: that of saltwater and conifer boughs. “When I heard Maine Island Trail Association was looking to collaborate with a brewer back in 2012, I thought, ‘This is our beer,’” he says.
“It was the dead of winter,” he recalls, “and I set about designing a beer that would taste like Maine in the summer. I brewed toward that, toward pine trees and rocky islands and that salty smell.” The result is one of Rising Tide’s most popular brews, the Maine Island Trail Ale, which has firmly established this small downtown brewery as one of the best in the state.
Nathan’s business partner and wife, Heather Sanborn, agrees that this beer was a turning point for the company. In the spring of 2012, not long after Nathan started working on the Maine Island Trail Ale, Rising Tide moved from the “brewery incubator” of Industrial Way (this is also where Allagash Brewing Company, Bissell Brothers, Foundation Brewing Company, and Austin Street Brewery are located and where Maine Beer Company got its start) to their current space on the Portland peninsula. The collaboration, which was released in May 2013, was lauded by the press, receiving high scores from the aggregate rating website Beer Advocate and praise from the Portland Press Herald, The Boston Globe, and others. It continues to be the brewery’s best selling and most popular beer, and for good reason. It’s light and flavorful with a low ABV (alcohol by volume), which makes it perfect for long summer days. “The MITA beer is a good representation of what we do,” says Nathan. Not only does it represent Maine flavors and scents, but it also displays Nathan’s masterful grasp of contrasting flavors. “Our beers, if they can be grouped together, are all very dry and clean, without a lot of residual sugar. The yeast plays in the background, not necessarily on the forefront of the taste. We work hard to make very balanced beers.”
Another way that Nathan incorporates Maine flavors is through the use of local seawater collected from the Freeport coast, which is showcased in their tequila barrel-aged gose that goes by the humorous name of Mockingfish.
“When I’m creating a beer, I often pull my ideas from the world of food,” Nathan explains when asked about the inspiration behind his drinks. “For example, Ursa Major was inspired by a dessert I had—roasted banana gelato. It was amazing. I tried to harness that feeling and brew the stout to bring out roasted, rich characteristics.” Nathan also likes to create beers that pair well with food. “It’s important to us that our beer doesn’t eradicate your palate,” adds Heather. Consumers have responded well to these subtle, enticing flavors, and the brewery has grown to keep up with demand. In 2011, Rising Tide produced 150 barrels of beer. Last year, they sold over 3,550 barrels.
While Rising Tide has grown quickly, Heather and Nathan maintain that the best place to take risks is in the brewing process—not in the business. “We’ve seen really fast growth, but we’re very focused on growing our company sustainably,” Heather says. A former lawyer, she handles much of the day-to-day business management, while Nathan focuses on producing their quality beers. While Rising Tide beers can be found on tap (and in stores) in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, the couple has chosen to distribute the bulk of their product locally. “We haven’t added a new market in three years,” she says. “We’re really interested in growing locally and growing deep roots. We want our customer base to grow where the beer is the freshest—that means we want people to be drinking it here in Maine.”
Water and Air
Tim Adams of Oxbow Brewing Company thinks that Mainers should take more pride
in a rather mundane thing: our water. While many factors influenced the decision to choose Newcastle as their primary brewing location, one surprising reason surfaced as soon as he tasted the first batch. “I will never forget the first time I brewed using the water up there,”
he says with a smile. “It is so soft, with such a unique mineral content—it took my beer to the next level.”
And Adams would know. Before he opened Oxbow, he spent years working as a beer distributor in Washington, D.C., which gave him plenty of opportunities to sample the field. “I’ve always loved Allagash’s beers,” he says. “They were the first brewery in the country to use wild fermentation, and they have always created these unique, funky, yeast-driven beers. I knew I wanted to create something similar, but to do it in my own way.” Adams furthered his beer education by taking several trips to Belgium and Germany, where he delved into the history of spontaneous fermentation and explored the various European styles of sour beer.
Although not all of Oxbow’s brews are wild fermented, Adams has chosen to create only Belgian-style beers at his farmhouse brewery. Many of these brews are later transported to their Portland location, where they undergo further flavor enhancement. Although it was heralded primarily as a tasting room when it opened in 2014, the Oxbow location on Washington Avenue is far more than a glorified bar. It’s also a “blending and bottling” facility, where Adams can experiment with mixing and aging beers. “I brew the kind of beer I like to drink,” he says. “When I started Oxbow, I was stoked on lambics and sour Flanders red ales.” He takes a sip from his glass of Arboreal, a barrel-fermented American sour ale that Adams created in 2011. “In this glass, you can taste a juicy malt character, bourbon notes, moderate vanilla character, and a pronounced acidity,” he explains. Inspired by the red ales of Flanders, Arboreal has a distinct sour taste that is slightly reminiscent of wine, a comparison that Adams hears a lot.
“Many of our beers have wine-like characteristics,” he says. “And I’ve had winemakers come to the blending and bottling facility and say it looks just like a winery. There is a lot of crossover.” He also points out that, when it comes to making spontaneously fermented beers, there’s an element of chance introduced from the free-floating yeast. Instead of adding brewer’s yeast, the brewers leave these beers in a trough (called a cool ship), where natural yeasts from the local biome can fall into the mixture to begin the fermentation process. Often, these natural, airborne yeasts create strange, funky, truly unique tastes that are distinct to the region and its flora and fauna.
“It’s strange and cool and straight from the air. Talk about the ultimate terroir,” Adams adds.
Soil and Hops
Noah and Peter Bissell don’t mess around when it comes to hops. “I can tell you exactly what variety of hops we’ll be using for 2018,” says Noah. “The hops we’re looking for aren’t easy to come by because we’re not the only ones who want them.” For any brewer, hops are an essential part of the recipe, but this is especially true at Bissell Brothers, where the beers are specifically designed to “showcase the hops flavors in ways that are big and also soft,” as Noah puts it.
The decision to focus on hops, the plant that gives beer its bitter, botanical, and floral notes, was an easy one for the brothers. “When we started back in 2013, we knew we liked hoppy beers, and we wanted to build our business around utilizing those flavors. With over 4,000 breweries in the country, I knew we needed to give ourselves some constraint,” says Peter. “We wanted to focus on doing one thing and doing it very well instead of trying to do everything,” adds Noah. “The entire beer scene is becoming more and more niche. It’s worked really well for us to embrace that.”
Although their beers have floral, botanical, and bitter notes, they’re not “tongue rippers,” to use a term often cited by brewers to describe aggressively bitter beers. Noah, who works
as the head brewer, is the quieter of the two brothers (Peter manages business logistics, delegating and overseeing sales, human resources, accounting, and public relations), but he is exceptionally knowledgeable about the various ways hops can show up in a drink. He cites various strains—plants with names like Mosaic and Amarillo, grown across the country in the Pacific Northwest—and explains how each one will affect a drink. Some add fruity notes, others are sharp and pungent, while others give his beers a grassy, fresh flavor. The Substance Ale, the company’s flagship beer, uses five strains of hops (Falconer’s Flight, Centennial, Apollo, Summit, and Chinook) and several types of malts to create a dank- yet-fresh beer that has hints of grapefruit and lemon to temper the bitterness of the hops.
“One thing people forget is that this is a plant that comes from the ground,” says Noah. “There is so much variation on all these ingredients by region, by soil type, by weather. It’s not mass-produced.” In order to create balanced beers, beers that are at once both bitter and soft, the brothers are constantly tasting their brews and adjusting their recipes. They’re continually experimenting, looking for new ways to reach beer nirvana.
One thing the brothers haven’t done is expand their reach into states to the south. Many restaurants in Portland have their beer on tap, but few eateries outside the city offer Bissell’s beverages. Although they’re moving to a larger facility at Thompson’s Point in May, they plan to keep distribution focused in Maine. “People assume we will just keep growing; they ask us when we’ll have our beer in Boston or in Philadelphia. But we have a really successful family business right now, and that’s what we want,” says Peter. “We’re doing this here for a reason—we’re doing this for Maine.”
Plus, he add in typical Mainer fashion, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”