About four years ago, Alex Zielke quit his job, moved to Berlin, and enrolled in a brewing school. It was a risk—but one that will soon pay off. Zielke, along with Alex Rabe and Ian Chester are launching Boston’s newest beer company, Portico Brewing. The three met while getting their MBA at Babson College, and after Zielke and Rabe discovered a mutual love of craft beer, they homebrewed together for two years. Now they hope to use that combination of business and branding smarts and craft beer passion to find a home for Portico in the marketplace and the beer drinker’s fridge.
They’re tenant brewing their beer at Watch City Brewing in Waltham, and hope to one day open a brick and mortar brewery. The first draft-only release is a Kolsch, called Fuzzy Logic, and they’ve got more lined up that range from classics like a Belgian Strong Ale and an ESB to the experimental like a mango and jalapeno beer. Ahead of their launch at Tommy Doyle’s, they talked to Honest Pint about branding, business, and beer.
How do you think you set yourselves apart from other breweries?
Chester: A lot of what we do is in our branding—besides having a product that is superior to stand behind.
I think our branding just stands out from everything else you see at the moment.
Zielke: At the end of the day, that’s the question a lot of people have—why don’t you call yourselves Belgian, or why don’t you call yourselves this or call yourselves that. There’s a lot of breweries that are opening that are Belgian-focused, or I talked to a guy the other day who wants to start a place that focuses on stouts and porters.
It’s like at the end of the day, I just love beer.
If we saddle ourselves into being just this or just that, we’re probably not going to survive long-term. For us, it’s just about making good beer. Our tagline is, “Put some design in your stein.” So we try to be very deliberate with our beers, our recipes, our whole aesthetic.
What does the name mean?
Rabe: A portico is probably the most universal architectural feature in the world. Basically a portico is two columns with an overhang in front of a doorway. You can find it in any culture in the world—Japanese, Belgian, German—and that speaks to the fact that we draw from a lot of different disciplines in beer.
Where does Portico fit into the marketplace?
Zielke: I think another thing that stands out in a lot of our recipes is accessibility. Craft beer in the past five years has gone into the whole extreme movement. Extreme IPAs especially, really bitter beers, but you know that’s not accessible for this group of people who are really getting into craft beer. So that’s one of the things we try to do with a lot of our recipes, like our Fuzzy Logic.
It’s very easy and very drinkable.
I feel like a big problem with a lot of new buzz breweries is that they have trouble gaining traction in getting return customers. People will try the new, crazy beer and move on to the next thing. How do you get someone to keep on buying it?
Chester: I think most people are kind of at that point. There is a segment of people who are beer geeks, who are going to know what the want, know what they’ve had, know what they’re going to try. I think it’s harder to influence those people in either direction. Whereas that middle ground that are getting into beer, I think that’s the market that’s big and influencable.
I think some people in the craft beer industry can be skeptical of business people starting a brewery—wondering if you’re brand and marketing focused rather than beer-focused.
Zielke: I started this whole process before I met these guys years ago and it’s always been about beer to me. I made the choice to go to business school because I love beer so much and I want this to succeed—the best bet for this to succeed is to go to business school first and learn some of those tools so we can be successful.
Although we are all business students, the beer always comes first.
Rabe: Not to rope us in with some of these guys, but Sam Adams, Harpoon, both of them had MBA. And fine, if you want to put them in the category of craft brewers saying we don’t like them because they’re so successful and we don’t know how they did it—everyone envys them.They sort of say, holy crap how did they scale, I can’t even conceptualize how they scale.
Going to a two-year business program doesn’t give me any kind of klout to figure out what they know about the brewing industry. The business thing gives us the knowledge to know how to manage our books. And brewers figure this stuff out—Chris at Notch is a great resource, we call him all the time.
We’re learning from these guys and we’re not here to say we think we know anything more than anyone else. We just think that our thinking process is a little bit different than some going in saying, I’m just gonna start a brewery and see how it goes and figure it out as I go. But that being said out business plan has changed three times. [Laughs] …
And I’m not going to start tattoing my arms just to fit in, or grow a fu manchu or something like that. If you look at Brooklyn [Brewery], those guys, they were business minded, one was a business guy, one was a reporter. Guys like us—scrapping it up, figuring out how to make it happen, but using our knowledge of the industry to apply it to the beer world. That’s really all we’re tyring to do.
Zielke: Hopefully it works.
Welcome Portico Brewing to the Boston beer scene tomorrow night at Tommy Doyle’s in Harvard Square. Details below!
ON FUZZY LOGIC
Rabe: “Fuzzy Logic” is the idea is that we take ourselves seriously but we don’t really know where we’re going to end up. It’s a mathematical term that means you know that you start here, and you gonna get here, but you kind of go like this [waves finger in a line] to get there. And that describes literally everything about how we run our business.
Beer and Cheese—two great tastes that taste great together (and even better when you’ve got a subtle little buzz going on). The Cambridge Center for Adult Education is offering courses on how to perfectly pair your vices, and the more enroll the more they’ll be, so … get on that. [Fri 5.18.12. 42 Brattle St., Cambridge. 617.547.6789. 7pm - 9pm/21+/$66. @cambridgecenter. ccae.org]