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Three Tides and Marshall Wharf Brewing Co., two iconic Belfast establishments that have helped usher in the craft beer wave and remake the city’s waterfront, are for sale.
Owners David and Sarah Carlson, who have spent the past 19 years building their businesses from the ground up, said this week they are ready to do something new.
“We’re really excited about this,” Sarah Carlson said. “This is something that’s really good for us. It’s taken us a couple of years to get to this point, and we are ready to step away. … I’m proud of it, but it’s tired right now. It needs new blood. It needs someone to take care of it.”
The next step for Three Tides, a cocktail bar and eatery that is perched on the edge of the harbor, and Marshall Wharf remains unknown, the Carlsons said. The businesses will stay open as usual for the time being, but are actively being marketed for sale, initially to large brewery owners that might be interested in purchasing them as connected turnkey operations.
“A brewery supporting a bar in that setting is perfect,” David Carlson said, adding that he will be meeting with several brewery owners this week.
If they don’t find any buyers who are able to meet their $5 million asking price, they will move on to plan B, with an end date in mind. David Carlson said he would like to move away from running Three Tides and Marshall Wharf by July of this year, when he turns 50.
“Our brand is strong, and it does really well here,” he said. “But I can say confidently that at the end of the day, if my businesses don’t survive, I’m OK with it.”
In 2000, David and Sarah Carlson moved home to Maine from Wyoming to see if they could find the right place to open the cocktail bar they had dreamed up. After scoping out locations all over the state, they knew right away that two derelict 19th century buildings in a quiet part of Belfast Harbor would fit the bill: the former city granary and the boat barn next door.
Then they got to work, first opening the granary as a lobster pound, which they ran while they were renovating the other building.
There was a lot to do. Wayne Marshall, the director of code and planning for the city of Belfast, said that he was stunned when the Carlsons first talked to him about their desire to resurrect the boat barn and turn it into Three Tides.
“All the challenges they were confronted with,” Marshall said. “The building was in the flood zone and had to be raised 8 feet off the ground.”
But he learned that the Carlsons had the kind of grit and imagination necessary to overcome those challenges.
“David and Sarah are exactly the type of people you’d want to have come to Belfast and start a business,” he said. “I can’t speak positively enough about what they created and what it’s meant to the waterfront.”
The Carlsons had envisioned a particular kind of place, and held fast to the vision as they readied the building and poured the long, curvilinear concrete bar for their customers to sit around when it opened in August 2003.
“We opened the kind of place we like to go out to,” David Carlson said. “No smoking, no TVs, small plates, cocktails. We put beer on as almost an afterthought, which seems funny to say.”
The bar was tucked away in a quiet corner of the waterfront, and at first was a bit under the radar. But as people found them, many shared their opinions about what they wanted.
“They wanted to eat a lobster, drink a local beer and sit by the water,” Sarah Carlson said. “So that’s what we did.”
As they expanded Three Tides to an outside deck and a large beer garden by the harbor, complete with a chiminea, a bocce court, and space for bands to play and movies to be shown, they also grew their family. Daughters Luna, 13, and Story, 11, lived over the restaurant when they were little and have spent a lot of time there over the years, Sarah Carlson said.
“For years, I’d have one of them on my back while I was cooking,” she said.
“I’d make cocktails with Luna asleep in one arm,” her husband added.
More growth happened in 2007 when the couple opened Marshall Wharf Brewing Co., the 25th brewery to open in Maine (currently, there are more than 100). Marshall Wharf was able to carve out its own niche, the Carlsons said, and with the initial help of Maine brewmaster Danny McGovern, focused on brewing strong beers with unusual flavors, such as the Pemaquid Oyster Stout, made with oysters, and Sea Belt Scotch Ale, brewed with Maine-grown sugar kelp.
They kept the brewery small, last year brewing just 400 barrels. Most of it is sold at Three Tides and at the brewery, although they do sell cans elsewhere.
Sean Sullivan of the Maine Brewers’ Guild said that David Carlson has long been an important part of the Maine beer community.
“David really set the bar a long time ago,” he said. “The trends that you see now, David was really far ahead of them. He created a destination brewery long before that term existed. It’s a community gathering space. David’s one of those guys who really thought creatively and showed how much more a brewery can be than just a place where beer is made.”
Sullivan, who worked with David Carlson to bring the Maine Beer Box idea to life, counts himself among those who would miss Three Tides if it closes for good.
“I love the brewery. I love the brand. I love the whole vibe there,” he said. “The crushed shells, that crazy chiminea, the raging fires, the movies they show. It’s definitely cool.”
If no one steps forward to purchase the businesses as a package, the Carlsons are willing to split them. They can easily imagine a scenario in which the Marshall Wharf Brewing Co. building, which has flooded many times over the years, needs to be torn down. It would take a lot of work and money to lift and fix the old granary out of the flood zone (Three Tides was lifted in 2003).
Right now, flood insurance costs $24,000 per year, and their premiums are expected to increase as ocean levels rise.
“In all reality, it’s a tear-down,” David Carlson said.
If a purchaser wants to take the brand and move the businesses elsewhere, that would be OK, too. Then the Carlsons will have their two waterfront lots to play with, and David Carlson, ever an entrepreneur, has an idea for that space.
He dreams of making it a ferry terminal for high-speed, Norwegian-designed and Maine-built boats. To make this a reality, he envisions working with private businesses, the University of Maine, Maine Maritime Academy, state government and other entities.
“What can we do to get us back to transporting freight and people on the water?” David Carlson said. “We’d look … to develop a new sea-based resource that kind of goes back to our roots, and what made Belfast in the first place.”
But that’s down the road. In the short term, both Carlsons are looking forward to catching their breath and taking a break. It will be bittersweet to leave Three Tides behind, they said.
“There are so many stories,” Sarah Carlson said, ticking off the names of people who married after meeting while working at Three Tides and local businesses that got their start there, such as the Neighborhood restaurant.
She talked about strangers who became friends that feel more like family and a sense of community that is just as strong in winter as it is in the lively, crowded summers.
She and David Carlson said they owe a lot of thanks to their families for believing in them and proudly named one beer, “Phil Brown Ale,” after David Carlson’s stepfather. They also were grateful for Belfast officials who worked with them as they turned their quirky dream into a reality.
Marshall, the director of code and planning, said that what the Carlsons built has become a Belfast institution.
“The waterfront now is a place where people go to, and one of the reasons is because of what they created,” he said. “The atmosphere is welcoming to people who are younger, older, from away, locals. It’s always been a great place to go.”
But it’s time, the couple said.
“Life had become unmanageable,” David Carlson said.
Hopefully, Sarah Carlson said, that will change.
“We’re really excited to spend some more time with our children,” she said. “And maybe David and I will have a date.”