On change, growth, and keeping it funky
As a nanobrewer making 15-20 gallon batches of beer in a Hooksett, New Hampshire warehouse unit with no sign out front, Bill Herlicka of White Birch Brewing had that kind of freedom that comes with being small. He could brew one-off batches, pilot projects, and barrel-aged experiments. Then, they started to grow—first taking over the space next door, then moving into a former used car dealership, and expanding from 20-gallon batches to one or two barrel batches.
Now that they’ve move into microbrewery territory, brewing seven-barrel batches and selling their beer at over 600 accounts in 12 states (with beer on the way to Alaska), things had to change from a production standpoint, in a big way.
“We’ve matured a lot,” says Herlicka, who founded White Birch in June 2009 with his wife Ellen. “We’ve tried a lot of different recipes over our period of history so far.”
The man behind many of those big picture production changes is Head Brewer Chris Shea, who joined White Birch in November 2011 via Morgan Street Brewery in St. Louis. After talks with the Herlickas and the team, they focused on how to go from brewing big bottle beers on a whim to creating an annual beer schedule, with three different beers released every season.
“There’s never been a lot of money and we’ve always had to make do with what we had, good or bad. It’s been a long year of buying new equipment and improving the brewery,” says Shea on the phone after a day of brewing White Birch’s Hop Session, one of their flagship beers.
He hopes that the seasonal releases, many of which he created himself, are the kind of beers that people can come to look forward to.
“People can feel it in their bones when it’s time for breakfast stout to come out and we all know when Narragansett Porter’s going to show up. It’s something you can sense and I want that for the beer we make,” Shea says.
Shea also slimmed down the number of barrels they were aging beer in to a more manageable amount. At the peak, they had more than 24, says Herlicka. Now they have nine—five with a sour stout and four which will have a brown, Rodenbach-esque ale in them week. Shea also hired a cellarman, Keenan Blum, to supervise them.
“We’re fluffing off all of the older barrels and getting new stock that’s more precisely what we want out of the barrel character,” says Shea.
The sales reflect the changes too, along with better marketing, thanks to director of marketing and sales Brian Parda, and a growing distribution network. Sales of their flagship beers, Belgian-style Pale Ale, Hooksett Ale, and Hop Session Ale, have more than doubled in the last year, Herlicka says.
But even as they grow, they haven’t lost any of the signature White Birch weirdness.
“Even beers we brew in a genre or a style are not to style. We get ragged on a lot on Beer Advocate for that because our Berliner Weisse is almost 7 percent and our Witbier doesn’t have coriander or orange peel. Even though we’re standardizing things and making it more systematic, our portfolio is still pretty far in the left field of craft brewing these days,” says Shea.
The beer that Shea talks most animatedly about is his barleywine, Ol’ Cattywhompus a 9.1 percent ABV English-style barleywine, which even has its own Twitter account, @Ol_Cattywhompus. The name, Shea says, is “a term for something that’s off-kilter, like a creaky staircase that leans to the left, all cattywhompus.”
I asked if he was happy with how the barleywine turned out. He replied:
“I’m never happy with any of the beers I make. You can’t be, otherwise you’re never going to get any better. It’s a really good barleywine. Can I make it better next year? Yea, I can make it better next year. I’m going to. That’s just how it goes.”
As for White Birch, Herlicka says they hope to eventually upgrade their brewing system to a 15-barrel system, increase their draft presence, and keep growing. That’s just how it goes.
WHITE BIRCH BREWING
1339 HOOKSETT RD.