MA brewers on labor, love, and beer.
BY THE TIME I MEET JEFF LEITER AND CAITLIN JEWELL,
the founders of the Somerville-based brewing company Slumbrew, at 7 p.m., they’ve already done more work in a day than I’ve done in a week.
“My day started at 6:30 a.m.,” begins Leiter, before launching into a rundown of a typically atypical day which includes everything from working on their financial model to writing copy for the labels of their new Flower Envy Saison to dealing with curveballs, like running out of labels in the middle of a bottling run because the label vendor didn’t print them.
“Major fire drill, but I’m used to that stuff so it’s okay,” says Leiter calmly, holding on to a glass of his Slumbrew Flagraiser IPA at Johnny D’s in Davis Square.
Tomorrow brings brewing Flower Envy at 6 a.m. at Mercury Brewing Company in Ipswich, where they tenant brew all of their beers, silk-screening Slumbrew t-shirts, and hosting their first-ever beer dinner, at Cambridge Common.
“I don’t even think about days ahead because so much is packed in. I’m always feeling like we’re just on the edge of forgetting something very critical. Like we’re always just barely not completely screwing up,” says Leiter.
They’re doing a bit better than “just barely not completely screwing up.” Since brewing their first batch of beer in October, they have launched seven different beers, are on track to produce 2,000 barrels of beer this year, and are looking for a permanent space in Somerville to open a small brewery.
Slumbrew’s story is just one of 15 new breweries and beer companies that have opened in Massachusetts in the last three years. Together they form a new class of local craft breweries that continues to snowball in size, and are a reflection of craft beer growth across the country.
According to the Massachusetts Brewers Guild, six Massachusetts breweries are in planning, but there are others who have not officially notified them or are still in the early planning stages. A search on the Brewers Association’s U.S. Breweries Database, for example, brings up 22 Massachusetts breweries-in-planning.
Behind these new breweries and ones still in planning are young homebrewers, industry veterans, and even an Abbey in Spencer, Mass. working on opening a Trappist brewery, (making it the eighth Trappist brewery in the world and the only one in the U.S.).
But whether you’re a Trappist monk or an experienced homebrewer, opening and running a successful brewery is a round-the-clock, seven days a week, stressful, chaotic job that requires the owner to have a hand in everything from sales to social media to cleaning kegs—the irony being how little time you spend brewing.
“Brewing is actually only about 20 percent of the work I do. You get pulled in a million directions. You spend less time brewing than any other part of the business,” says Christopher Tkach of Idle Hands Craft Ales, a less than a year old nanobrewery in Everett.
What I wanted to find out was what happens the other 80 percent of the time—what it’s like to actually run a brewery and what it takes to do it.
“THE THING YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT DAY TO DAY LIFE is that nothing is normal here,” Mystic Brewery founder Bryan Greenhagen tells me soon after I arrive at the brewery in Chelsea on a late Wednesday afternoon.
Mystic, which opened in fall of 2011 and specializes in everything yeast and fermentation, is a hybrid of two models for opening a brewery: they brew the wort (unfermented beer) at Pioneer Brewing Company in Sturbridge, then truck it to their “fermentorium” in Chelsea, where they ferment it, bottle, and keg it.
Earlier in the day, Mystic Head Brewer Adam Threlkeld filled kegs with Vinland One, Mystic’s new Saison made with native yeast, and now was cleaning the empty tank, kneeling on the edge and peering in, brush in hand.
While Threlkeld scrubs and sanitizes, Greenhagen shows me around the 12,500 square foot space, chattering about Mystic’s new projects like the yeast laboratory they plan on opening, called Flora Fermentation Laboratories, and their new Quad, Day of Doom.
The yeast for Day of Doom is currently propagating, or multiplying, in their “crude propagator,” so Threlkeld, who came to Mystic after working at the Modern Homebrew Emporium in Cambridge for four years, goes to count yeast cells under the microscope to monitor their health and growth.
“They’re a little bit more dead than I want, but big and budding,” he says, with an eye on the microscope lens and a clicker in hand to count the number of yeast cells.
With three full-time employees—Threlkeld the head brewer, sales representative Nicole Mandala, and Steve McPherson who is in charge of deliveries—Mystic has a sizeable staff for a young brewery.
COMPARATIVELY, EVERETT’S IDLE HANDS CRAFT ALES is a one-person operation, run by Christopher Tkach, with support from his wife Grace, who works a full-time job. Tkach opened the 1,250 square-foot brewery after homebrewing for more than a decade, and was just recently able to quit his part-time job as a software engineer to focus full time on the brewery, where he does everything from brewing the beer to cleaning kegs to distributing bottles and kegs to bars and liquor stores.
“Our philosophy is we want to stay local—”
“within [Route] 128—as long as we can and distribute our own products as long as we can,” Tkach says, standing in his small tap room during the weekly growler hours, when people can purchase fresh beer straight from the brewery in a growler.
The brewery, which cost more than $50,000 to start and is one of the smallest in the state, pays for itself, says Tkach. “I’m not drawing any kind of salary. Any profit from sales goes straight into the brewery.” His recent investments include a label printer for one-off specialty beers, and a new keg cleaner (before, he had to clean them at another local brewery).
Small breweries like Idle Hands and their next-door nanobrewery neighbor, Night Shift Brewing, also rely on a small but loyal legion of beer geeks and homebrewers eager to help the brewery however they can—coming straight from their day jobs to bottle beer for six hours, holding weekend tastings at liquor stores, or helping build out the brewery before it’s even open.
TONIGHT AT NIGHT SHIFT BREWING, VOLUNTEERS ARE HELPING TO FILL CORK, and cage bottles of their new spicy rye ale, Viva Habanera, while head brewer Rob Burns finishes brewing a batch of Trifecta, a Belgian-style pale ale aged on vanilla beans.
Rob Burns, Michael O’Mara, and Michael Oxton opened the three-and-a-half barrel brewery in March, with an initial investment of under $250,000, from friends, family and personal investment.
Burns still works a day job as a software engineer, which means he starts his day at 8 a.m, and works in an office downtown, then takes a train and a bus to the brewery after work, and stays there until midnight—
totaling his workweek at about a hundred hours,
he estimates. For the first two months they were at the brewery until 2 or 4 a.m. every night Oxton tells me, after we finish bottling 32 cases of 750-mL bottles of Viva Habanera.
It’s 11:30 p.m. by the time we leave, but Burns and Oxton will probably be there for another hour or so to prep for the release party tomorrow night at the brewery.
“Get some sleep!” shouts a volunteer.
From inside the brewery, Oxton replies: “Maybe.”
IPSWICH ALE BREWERY, A 30-BARREL BREWERY LOCATED IN THE COASTAL TOWN OF IPSWICH, has become a hub for contracting beer for breweries like Cisco and Clown Shoes and for hosting brewing companies like Slumbrew and Notch Brewing, who drive down to the brewery several times a week to brew their beer and check up on their fermenting beers. Called tenant or gypsy brewing, it’s a significantly less costly alternative to opening a brewery that allows the brewer to still have control over their product while giving them time to build their brand.
For Leiter of Slumbrew, that drive is about 30 miles north of Boston to Mercury Brewing Company in Ipswich. By the time I get to the brewery at 9:15 a.m., Leiter of Slumbrew is already well into the boil of the third batch of their Flower Envy Saison. While he weighs out hops and peels ginger, workers hustle around the brewery folding Cisco Grey Lady boxes, preparing the 22-ounce bottling line for a run of Slumbrew Porter Square Porter, and taking samples of beer from the fermentation tanks.
“I’ll stand in front of this for hours figuring everything out,” says Lipke, who has worked for the brewery for eight years and manages 16 brewhouse employees.
A series of diagrams and lists on the boards tell him what’s in the tank, what they need to brew, the daily schedule, the bottle schedule, and orders.
Currently there are 11 different brands and 45,000 gallons of beer that are at some point in the brewing process. Lipke’s job is to figure it all out—when to brew what beer and how to empty the tanks as soon as possible to make room for more beer.
“You’re eternally monitoring fermentation so you can find out where beers are in the process, so you can empty the tanks out,” Lipke says between samples of an Imperial Amber Ale called Third Party Candidate, a collaboration between Clown Shoes Beer and Rochester, New York based Three Heads Brewing.
Managing these kinds of logistics requires a specific skill set: multitasking, working under stressful conditions as a team, and the ability to consistently create a high-quality product, which Lipke says he learned working as a line cook in Vermont for many years—except now the orders are several hundred gallon batches of beer and the kitchen is a 30-barrel brewery.
“It’s fun. It’s absolutely crazy. Every single day something gets thrown at you,” he says.
Today, for example, a glycol chiller (used to maintain fermentation temperatures) was accidentally turned off. The truck that was picking up the 22-ounce bottles blew its engine. And he was worried that the bulk malt delivery wasn’t ordered, but thankfully, it was.
The chaos is also due to the small physical size of the brewery, which will be solved when they are able to move into their massive new 60-barrel brewhouse a few streets over. The brewery, which is projected to open in late fall or early 2013, will allow them to double their production, brew more beer for existing contracts, and take on even more—Lipke says they already have a few new brands lined up and ready to brew there.
DAY-TO-DAY CHAOTIC STRUGGLES ASIDE, THE NUMBER ONE CHALLENGE every small brewer faces is the balancing act of brewing enough beer to supply the market, without having beer stay unsold in the warehouse.
“Volume is what really pushes a brewery forward and enables breweries to be competitive in the craft beer landscape,”
says Rob Martin, president of Mercury Brewing Company and of the Massachusetts Brewers Guild. He estimates that a brewery needs to sell 10,000 barrels of beer annually to become profitable. For nanobreweries making higher-end, higher-priced beers, the number could be lower—around 5,000 or less—but it’s still a long road ahead for any small brewery.
Lighting the long road ahead, however, is news that the craft beer market continues to steadily grow, across the country and the state. In 2011, for the first time in history, craft beer volume share in the beer category surpassed 5 percent and continues to grow while large brewer volumes are in decline, according to statistics released by the Brewers Association. Local support has grown too—at the Craft Beer Cellar in Belmont (see sidebar), co-owner Suzanne Schalow says that New England beer makes up about 35 percent of their daily sales, with some days pushing 45 percent. When they opened two years ago, it was around 25-30 percent.
Once someone’s sold on craft beer, brewers face the next challenge: keeping them as a loyal consumer. As Massachusetts beer industry veteran Matthew Steinberg, who opened Blatant Brewery in September 2011, points out, today’s craft beer geeks and enthusiasts are often a fickle bunch, eager to try a new brewery or beer.
“I think that the biggest difference now is this ‘ticker’ mentality, that I gotta try every single beer. Which is cool, and I don’t discount it as a value, but it doesn’t really offer each small brewer any real value, except today’s sales. It doesn’t give me anything for tomorrow.”
Considering it all—the stress, the enormous financial investment, the competition—might beg the question: why even do it?
It really is as simple as that, seconds Dan Lipke, of Mercury Brewing.
“In the end, we’re making beer. That’s the only reason we’re doing it.”
As for the future of the Massachusetts craft beer scene—how many more breweries will open, who will succeed, and if there will be a big enough market to support them all—only time will tell.