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It Takes More Than A Love Of Beer To Make A Brewery Work

Craft breweries and distilleries may be on the rise across New England, but some of the region’s biggest players stress only authentic brands are poised to succeed.

Castle Island Brewing Co. founder and President Adam Romanow, Bully Boy Distillers co-founder Will Willis and Somerville Brewing Co. co-founder and co-owner Caitlin Jewell

“What we’re going to see next is people who are getting to the industry because they have access to capital and nothing better to do because they think beer is great,” Somerville Brewing Co. co-founder and co-owner Caitlin Jewell said. “But they may not realize what the day-to-day life is like and may not be coming into it for the right reasons. Destinations that are really fun to go to will survive.”

More than 6,000 craft breweries opened in the United States in 2017, and 83% of Americans over the age of 21 live within 10 miles of a brewery, according to the Brewers Association. Attendees at Bisnow’s Boston’s World-Class Brewery Industry event turned out Wednesday to see what some of Greater Boston’s leading craft brands do to stay afloat, and they may have been surprised to learn camaraderie is key. 

“One of the things that drew me to beer is the friendly competition that drives the industry,” Castle Island Brewing Co. founder and President Adam Romanow said. “There’s still, with craft beer surging, this David versus Goliath mentality where we’re going up against the [Anheuser-Busch InBev’s] and Miller Coors of the world. There’s not necessarily a feeling of sharp elbows or ‘it’s them or me.’”

Somerville Brewing Co. co-founder and co-owner Caitlin Jewell

Castle Island won a gold medal at the 2018 U.S. Open Beer Championship for its American Lager. Romanow said working together with fellow craft brewers is what helps advance each brand, be it asking for advice on finding space or working together on the brew deck to develop a co-branded product. His fellow panelists agreed that a love of the craft and innovative ideas are needed to flourish. 

“Folks that come in for this big shiny small brewery that isn’t that fun, doesn’t have a lot of programming, the owners aren’t around, and it doesn’t have a community core — those guys aren’t going to make it,” Jewell said. 

The panelists agreed that beer brings people together, but they are adding more experiential elements like lawn games, ax throwing and food trucks to sustain the interest. Somerville Brewing transforms its brewery into a comedy club on Sunday nights and hosts 70-person seated dinners while a local comedian performs for guests. Bully Boy Distillers, which expanded in 2017 from its original Roxbury warehouse to include an 8K SF tasting room and distillery across the street, hosts cocktail classes for people to learn how to make drinks with Bully Boy products (and taste them after class). 

Bergmeyer President Mike Davis and Mass. Bay Brewing Co. CEO and co-founder Dan Kenary

“We try to take a different tact than the brewery guys who offer cornhole,” Bully Boy Distillers co-founder Will Willis said. “Education has been a big thing for us in addition to the fun ax throwing.”

Robust programming is one thing, but on an increasingly crowded playing field, some may wonder how much craft beer a market can realistically support. New Hampshire-based Smuttynose Brewing Co. had a tough start to 2018 with rising competition from smaller breweries. The company was eventually sold in a foreclosure auction but is making a comeback under a new CEO, former Boston Beer Co. Chief Financial Officer Rich Lindsay. 

The stumble had several audience members Wednesday asking if craft beer was facing a similar overbuilt retail fate as the cupcake and frozen yogurt craze. Panelists remain confident in the industry, with Backlash Beer Co. founder and President Helder Pimentel saying any potential contraction might result in the U.S. having more European-style outlets with multiple beer brands served under the same roof rather than an overall halt to production.

Night Shift Brewing President and co-founder Rob Burns, Backlash Beer Co. founder and President Helder Pimentel and Feldman President and CEO Michael Feldman

Others think the desire for beer is a daily craving unlike what was seen with frozen yogurt or cupcakes and point to other cities like Portland, Oregon, as proof Boston still has plenty of room to grow before it is tapped out.

“They can have 10 breweries on the same street,” Jewell said. “We may not have figured that out here in Boston yet, but there are places in the world where it exists, and I think we can get there.”