September 16, 2019
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How climate change helped force a beloved Maine brew pub to close

Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
David Carlson the co-owner of Marshall Wharf brewery on the Belfast waterfront said he is busy cleaning up his building after two floods over the winter caused severe damage that led to the brewery having to be shut down. He said that things are still up in the air, but he is hoping to sell beer again there soon.

David Carlson, co-owner of Three Tides & Marshall Wharf Brewing Co. in Belfast, knows that since his waterfront businesses abruptly closed in mid-April, most people want just two things from him.

One is answers. The other is beer.

At this moment, both are in short supply, but he’s still willing to do what he can to solve the mystery of why one of Maine’s best-known breweries and best-loved bars is not open for business in the busy summer season.

Like any good story, it’s complicated — David Carlson and his wife, Sarah Carlson, had in February announced their intention to sell, or close, Three Tides & Marshall Wharf this summer. But the immediate reason why they made the decision to close this spring is located right outside the two buildings.

It’s the ocean.

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The water in Belfast Bay is beautiful and blue on a calm June day, but it looked quite different in January and again in March of this year. That’s when high tides and flooding twice came into the low-lying brewery building, ravaging the contents and leaving destruction in its wake.

In January, the flood ruptured and ruined the large stainless steel tanks used to store finished beer. In March, another flood did a number on the nine smaller, 200-gallon tanks that the Carlsons were using while waiting for insurance claim to be processed. In that second flood, the seawater was so high it came pouring into the walk-in cooler, where they were storing 1,800 pounds of pelletized hops and 130 dozen oysters.

“Everything floated,” Carlson said. “This is disaster land.”

The two floods together became a cascading disaster for the businesses. In March, the smaller beer storage tanks also ruptured, and in the smelly mess in his walk-in cooler, the fan unit on his refrigeration system choked, killing that system, too. Altogether, Marshall Wharf, which had supplied most of the beer for Three Tides, lost 3,500 gallons of finished beer storage, with the cost to replace all the tanks more than $100,000.

Without beer, the Carlsons could not successfully run the bar. One key employee quit, and then they had to let the rest of their employees go and close the bar and brewery, David Carlson said. The couple still owe a handful of their employees for their last week’s paycheck — a sharp reversal of fortune for a business that has been doing about $1 million in gross sales annually.

“I have sadness,” he said. “Sarah and I don’t know what’s going on. We don’t have answers, even for ourselves.”

Loss for the community

The closure also has been sad for many community members, who had been looking forward to more summer evenings in the beer garden, more nights around the chiminea or bocce court and more of the friendly, inclusive atmosphere that Three Tides was known for.

“I loved that it was quirky. And friendly,” Brook Ewing Minner, a Bucksport resident who especially enjoyed visiting Three Tides in warm weather, said this week. “It was the kind of bar you could go to alone and make a new friend.”

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Charlie Dufour, a Belfast photographer and professor, had elegiac words about the closing of Three Tides. He said that for many in the community, it was the place to go to visit friends and catch up. The lack of television sets in the bar meant that there was more space for camaraderie, conversation and even finding solitude within the crowd, he said.

“We went there to celebrate, to grieve, to unwind, to converse, and to enjoy good food and drink,” he said. “The evening light on the harbor was mesmerizing, the night fires always roaring and the starlit skies were our outdoor canopy.“

When it closed, all that was suddenly gone, he said, leaving sadness and questions behind.

“It’s like we lost our own community room, our personally shared space,” he said. “Three Tides didn’t just belong to the Carlsons and their staff — it belonged to us. To say some of us are grieving that loss is not an overstatement. When you love something, including a special physical space, its sudden loss is heartbreaking.”

‘Really good at flooding’

David and Sarah Carlson are all too familiar with high tides sneaking into Marshall Wharf, an old, solidly constructed building that originally had served as the granary for the city of Belfast. But the intensity and frequency of the flooding events have gotten more intense since 2000, when they first started working, and sometimes living, there.

“I’ve seen a 3-foot surge come in, and it’s terrifying,” David Carlson said. “I have harvested crabs, seaweed and some fish from my building.”

People ask them why they don’t make efforts to prevent flooding, but they don’t know what they already have done, or about the sheer power that happens when the winds, tides and waves are just right.

“Everybody says the same thing — why don’t you put sandbags up? Why don’t you get big pumps? No one can wrap their heads around the fact that this is the ocean,” Carlson said. “I hate to say it, but Marshall Wharf is really good at flooding. We’ve weathered dozens and dozens of floods, including one big enough to shut us down for four months.”

That was in December 2009. He considers it their first big test. Since then, they have taken every opportunity to elevate their systems to try to make the building flood-proof. But the seas are getting higher and floods are getting more extreme. He believes that, because he has seen it himself.

“Climate change and ocean level rise is real. It’s happening,” Carlson said.

The Carlsons raised Three Tides 8 feet before opening it in 2003, thus lifting it out of the flood zone. They pay between $20,000 and $24,000 every year for flood insurance coverage for the Marshall Wharf Brewery building through the National Flood Insurance Program, which is run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency They have flood insurance both for the contents of the building, which has a $76,000 limit, and for the building itself, which has a $500,000 limit.

Previously, FEMA had considered the steel beer storage tanks, which are built in, as covered under the policy for the building. But this year, that changed. The insurance company did send the Carlsons a check for $76,000 to replace the tanks damaged by the January flood. But the claim was covered under the contents policy and maxed it out for the year. The Carlsons believe that this was a miscategorization and are appealing FEMA’s decision.

As well, by the end of February, when the check came in, the couple and their businesses were “running on vapors,” Carlson said, and the money was needed to pay other things than replace the storage tank. When the brewery flooded again in March, there was no money left in the insurance policy to replace the other tanks, the refrigeration system, supplies and other equipment that had been ruined.

“It was really bad timing, with an excruciatingly, painfully slow process with FEMA,” David Carlson said.

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The couple are appealing some of their insurance claim decisions, and while their lenders have been great, David Carlson said, it’s a waiting game. In the meantime, the Carlsons are keeping busy cleaning out the brewery building and trying to figure out what’s next.

“This is so out of my control,” he said.

‘An opportunity’

Even though the Carlsons are short of funds, they still have ideas. Three Tides & Marshall Wharf Brewing Co. remain for sale, and the family is working on reopening the brewery store and tasting room as soon as possible. There, they plan to sell seafood and beer that may be contract brewed for them by Danny McGovern, Maine brewing legend and former head brewer for Marshall Wharf Brewing Co.

He stopped by on a recent day to visit Carlson at the brewery building and they reminisced together about memorable floods of the past.

“I was in there one day when the water just started coming in,” McGovern said.

“It just became part of our routine,” Carlson responded. “Our original dry, single-style stout was even called ‘sea level.’”

But the damage caused by this year’s floods — going from 3,500 gallons of finished beer storage to just 200, which is all that remains — was exceptional, the brewer said.

“It’s terrible. You’re talking about a gag-hold on your throat. You’re done,” McGovern said. “Nobody needs that kind of hassle in your life. That’s catastrophic.”

In addition to reopening the brewery store, Carlson also dreams of shifting gears entirely and doing work that would help address climate change.

“I have an opportunity,” he said. “I have no money, but I want to connect the people and the entities and the resources that can help.”

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