This story starts with a creative journeyman. As journeymen do, he changes his life’s course, and in this particular case, gets pulled into the craft beer vortex. From there, he spends a couple of decades working for and building from scratch some of the best beer bars in America. And at the end of that rainbow, you get Lord Hobo Brewing Company.
Less than a month old but 20 years in the making, there’s no doubt LHBC (yes, there is a connection to the restaurant in Cambridge) is angled to become a major player in the booming craft beer industry. The brewery’s founder, said journeyman Daniel Lanigan, to put it simply, may be the most dangerous man in craft beer. He’s also a dear friend of mine, and someone who, as a close observer of the micro movement since before all of the welcome fuss over hop culture, I have come to respect immensely.
All things considered, I couldn’t think of anybody better to throw questions to Daniel over some choice pours at his new digs in Woburn, and to retrace his steps on the road that led him to become a Hobo …
Where did this start for you? How did you fall in love with craft beer?
Back in 1994, I was living in Boston and working as a bike messenger. I was also a wannabe beatnik looking for a new path. A friend of mine owed me some money but he couldn’t pay me, so he offered his turntables instead. He lived in New York City though, so I jumped on a bus and headed down to collect. When I arrived, I waited over an hour, but he never showed up. I took the next bus home. There was maybe 15 people and plenty of empty seats, but as we prepared to leave, on walks this beautiful woman, and she sits right next to me. We talked the entire ride home, and at some point she mentioned that the Other Side Cafe was hiring. The next day, I walked in and asked if they had any openings, and was offered a job on the spot. I worked the line and dishwashers that night.
During that time, I had a crush on a girl named Jen who worked at the Deli Haus in Kenmore Square (now Lower Depths), and I would stop over every afternoon to see her. She turned me on to Guinness during those visits, and immediately I developed a taste for it and it became my go-to beer. I was also only 19, and it was the only place that would serve me because they saw me so much and assumed I was 21. At the same time, Sean and Val Collins were teaching me about different bars and had Redhook on tap [from Seattle], but were looking to expand with more offerings. We went from one tap to three taps quickly. But that random bus ride and that random girl who led me to the Other Side, which then led me to the Deli Haus and that Guinness, changed everything for me. It all goes back to that.
How did your time at the Other Side shape your taste for better beer?
I went to see my cousin Phil in Brattleboro [Vermont] around 1996, and while I was there I went to McNeill’s Brewery. I walked in and asked for a Guinness and the bartender said, “We don’t have that.” I was pissed. That’s what I wanted and I couldn’t get it. My cousin told me to try the Oatmeal Stout instead, and to my surprise it was amazing. Then I tried the Imperial Stout and I was wowed. It really opened my eyes further.
I bought some beer and brought it back to Boston, and shortly after Ray McNeill, the owner [of McNeill’s], started selling me his Deadhorse IPA, their Barleywine, and Old Ringworm. It was a hit. At the time I was also talking to Aaron Sanders, who was the GM at Bukowski’s Tavern [now the co-owner of Deep Ellum and Lone Star Taco], and sharing our passion for these beers. He then introduced me to a sales rep from B. United named Dane. He came in, sat me down, and we drank all kinds of crazy beers that night and I was blown away. A huge night for me. Twenty-four hours later, I was ordering cases of these beers. Our bottle list went from 4 to 60 overnight. I started selling the crap out of bottles while I changed the draught list.
Daniel finally left the Other Side in 2012 after rebuilding the brand, traveling the world, and starting two of the best beer bars in the country, the Moan & Dove in Amherst, MA and the Dirty Truth in Northampton, MA. Along the way, he went to Europe and Mexico. He bought the Old Amherst Ale House in Amherst and transformed it into a premier beer destination. Daniel recalls, “I literally picked up the Yellow Pages and called the owner, Eugene O’Neil, and asked him if he would sell me his bar. He said, ‘Meet me in an hour.’ So I met him and asked him how much it would cost, and he told me, ‘$60,000 would be nice.’ That happened to be the exact amount of money I had raised.” Then there was a moment right before he signed the paperwork that made Daniel take pause, and the weight of the commitment and decision almost derailed it. He felt like he was selling out. But he closed the deal, and six months later, he opened up the Moan & Dove.
At one point, the Moan & Dove was rated the number one beer bar in the country. How do you think that happened?
The nationally recognized beer bars at the time had old palates. I was young and passionate and new. I also met the Shelton Brothers [ed. note: importers of exceptional European specialties], and they introduced me to a ton of great beers. I quickly realized I had access to world class beers, I was willing to buy these expensive kegs, and no one else was doing it. I also decided to not carry the standard craft beers many had at the time: Sam Adams, Sierra Nevada, Harpoon, Anchor Steam, for example. If I gave people a choice not to try these beers, some would never try them. So I didn’t give them that choice. Everyone thought I was crazy. People loved it.
Your taste for different beers was obviously growing with success, but how did your palate evolve with your businesses, and how did that lead you back to Boston?
I knew enough not to sell Magic Hat, but I was more tolerant of various styles and brands back then. I’m not like that now. I know what a good beer is, so I don’t drink bad beer. I learned so much from my time with the Moan & Dove, but I needed more. So I sold both bars the same month and moved back to Boston. I’m a city guy at heart, but I also was tired of being overshadowed by other places simply because we were so isolated. I wanted to play with the big boys and be around my peers. People like Dave Ciccolo, owner of the Publick House in Brookline, and many more. Every one of these guys is crazy passionate, and that separates us from other bar owners. We have a niche we care about, and that resonates with people.
So in 2008, I came back to the Other Side Cafe to run it, and with an option to buy. It needed a lot of help, and I did what I could to turn it around. I had to let staff go and revamp the entire place again. With Sean and Val gone, the new ownership lost the vision. I was horrified, but I did it with an eye to ownership.
But that didn’t work out, so … Lord Hobo … how did that happen?
Funny story … I was looking around Boston for a bar to buy, but couldn’t find anything other than shitty bars for $800,000 and a million-dollar renovation after. It was ridiculous. Then I got a call that the B Side in Cambridge was for sale. So I called the owner, and I offered him $500,000 sight unseen. He took it. Then the government got involved; he owed $700,000 in back taxes. After a year of negotiations, the deal fell through and it went to auction. The day of the auction, I walked in and said, “Time to go home boys, no one is getting this place but me.” Everyone was pissed off, but at the time I had so much invested in this project that I had to do it. Bidding started at $150,000 and went to $250,000 quickly, but I stayed quiet. When it got to $330,000, well overvalued, I raised my hand and bid. I didn’t have a dollar more and couldn’t have gone higher. Going once … going twice … sold! I had bought the B Side. In 2009, we reopened as Lord Hobo.
You found success with Lord Hobo as a destination for serious beer lovers. How did that lead you to open Alewife, essentially a clone of Lord Hobo, in Baltimore in 2011 and in Queens in 2012?
I wanted to do more, but I was done with Boston. It was crazy. You had to pay more than a million dollars for a place that could barely do more than a million max. I had two offers to do something with little risk in these markets, so I jumped on it.
Fast-forward to 2013, and you start thinking about opening a brewery. Clearly it’s the next step in your creative evolution with better beer, but what was motivating you personally at this time?
It’s a hard question to answer. Honestly, I’m not sure where the original idea came from, but it was definitely a business decision as much as it was a creative one. The growth of the craft beer industry was explosive. I saw my friends having huge success in it. Sam Calagione from Dogfish and Greg Koch from Stone Brewing were selling their beer everywhere, and their business was growing exponentially. With a bar or restaurant, you’re limited to what you can do financially. Once your bar is successful and packed, there is a limit to what you can do, and with limited margins at best and no growth option, I was looking for more. And I like a challenge. I’m wired to make shit bigger.
It’s well documented that you don’t give a shit about what people think, and not everyone likes that. How do you respond to naysayers?
When you open your own brewery, you can do whatever the fuck you want. People said, “How dare he talk about making world class beers?” and “Your beers don’t even exist yet and you’re marketing a blend called Boom Sauce.” If you don’t like what I’m doing, go open your own fucking brewery.
I’ve been promoting craft beer for a long time. I take my staff to Europe and Colorado as part of that. I’ve done more than most for craft beer. It’s a fact, not an opinion. I’ve done a lot for the business. No one cares about it more than me. Should I take advantage of that investment and experience and do more? Yes. The same 25 guys who talk shit on BeerAdvocate.com because they don’t like the name of my beers, or me, can fuck off. They complain about pricing and say stuff like, “Blending is pretentious.” That’s bullshit. If you knew what you were talking about, you’d know it’s not some new idea and that it’s been around for some time. I’m not the first nor the last. But who cares? All I want to do is make a product that blows people’s minds, and if $4 a can is too much money, there are plenty of other options.
You’ve seen a lot, and experienced almost every aspect of the craft beer growth. Some might say that you’re “the most dangerous man in craft beer” at the moment. I would. Can you live up to that? Do you care?
Most dangerous man in craft beer … [laughs] … I don’t know what that means, and maybe that was appropriate at some point of my career, but not today. What is important now is that we recognize that the top ten rated IPAs are not available in stores for you to buy. Those who covet these beers can get them, but not everyone else can. Our agenda is to be in that conversation, but also on the shelf. We wanted that capacity, and we have it, but we’re not trying to hurt those brands. We’re not going to have an impact on Heady Topper or Tree House; they’re still going to sell their beers, but we don’t [want] people to wait in line to buy them.
Daniel doesn’t hesitate to acknowledge his roots. The fact that he started from the bottom means he knows much more about the industry than most, and has stronger opinions and relationships as well. As a result, he’s allowed to say things as a bar owner that he shouldn’t say as a brewer. “They’re [brewers] a sensitive lot. A lot of people are upset right now. They say, ‘How is this guy getting all of this attention? He doesn’t deserve this attention!’” He adds: “But how many owners of world class beer bars have gone on to open a brewery? None.” Daniel’s relationships and experience give him an edge. Most startup breweries have three major problems when they launch: not enough cash, no credibility, and no customer base. According to Daniel, “I launched with customers. I walked into several locations that I have a relationship with, and they agreed to carry my beers. Why? Because they respect me enough that they know I won’t sell them crap.”
You’re now working with a beer distributor for Lord Hobo Brewing, but it’s very different than working with them as a restaurant owner. You obviously followed the recent pay-to-play controversy with Pretty Things and their distributor, and while things have undoubtedly changed since the investigation, it still impacts the industry. What are your thoughts? Are you concerned?
No one has ever ever come to me and offered me money for tap lines. Maybe it’s because they know that I would never take it, but after 13 years of ownership, you would think it would happen at least once, but it never has. I know a lot of bar owners, and we talk about these things, and no one has ever said they’ve been approached either. In my opinion, it sounds like this had everything to do with Yuengling’s efforts to acquire draft lines when they launched last year. They did a massive push when they entered the market, and they probably had some kind of benchmark to hit―“We need X amount of tap handles, now go make it happen.” The sales guys then go out there saying, “I need to get these, and I can justify any means necessary to do this because of the pressure.” The bar owner responds because they want to help out and they know they can benefit, so they say, “Well this is a good deal for the moment, so maybe for a few months I can do this.” The envelope of cash and checks though don’t exist. Maybe a new sign or a new draft system, but in the end, it’s all about keg discounts. Is that illegal? I don’t know, ask the distributors. They set the price.
The guys that do huge volume buys and placements have a lot more at stake, and are more desirable, so there may be a good reason no one has ever approached me. Is there something happening on a larger scale, say with the Yard House? I don’t know.
The larger question has to do with the nature of capitalism. The idea that “I’m willing to help you out if you help me out” is real, and unfortunately with beer, the little guy loses out sometimes. But that’s how it works. However, if you make world-class beers, you’re not likely the one to be replaced. Hill Farmstead is not getting replaced by Yuengling. Quality and demand trumps a quick buck. If my beers are being replaced though, what does that say about them? That’s my fault. That’s my problem. I’m not going to shoot the messenger or get mad. I’m going to compete. If you do your job right, you don’t have to worry about anyone else.
That’s not what I expected to hear. How does that play into the role of the distributor though, and is there a problem with the model?
I have an idea on that, but it’s a conspiracy theory I guess. The amount of wholesalers keeps shrinking as the big guys buy the little guys. The big guys who have 24 brand SKUs and acquire 200 SKUs now have a huge portfolio, and can control pricing. They realize they can charge more for smaller beers and brands, and since the big guys have massive pressure to sell more of their bigger brands, they make the price of the craft beer artificially high so less people buy it, and by doing so they control the amount of craft beer handles that bars acquire. They control the cost of craft beer, and while it rises and returns a higher margin, they also gain control and growth of the craft beer market.
The new price points and margins between craft and macro brands also allows them to increase their macro pricing, which in return increases their margins on the volume buys and it becomes more profitable. Craft has become a vehicle for increasing the margins and pricing for the rest of the industry. Craft beer was a lot cheaper five years ago when a lot of this started. Since then, wholesale distributors have consolidated and there are now half of what was there was in 2010. It’s all about price control. This is having a huge impact on craft beer growth, and no one is talking about it.
I went back to Daniel a week after we chatted for this interview, and asked what we had missed. His answer: “We have to talk about where craft is headed. People keep talking about the ‘bubble.’ San Diego County has 95 breweries; why are there so few breweries in Boston? There seems like there are a million small breweries popping up by the hour, is that good for craft beer?”
Clearly, the interview wasn’t over. Aside from what it’s like to be a polarizing figure in this industry, I still wanted to know about his dreams for the brewery, where he sees Lord Hobo in five years, and how it feels to walk into a bar and see his tap handle next to Harpoon, or some of his idols like Stone or Dogfish. I guess I’ll have to follow up and find out. At this point, if nothing else, it seems like Daniel will be staying in the Boston area for a while.
And that’s a great thing.