I’d love to spend a great deal of time commenting on the news now breaking that the Buzzards Bay Brewing Company, maker of fine lagers, is ceasing part of its brewing operations. Unfortunately, I’m on several deadlines so that discussion is going to have to wait, probably for a while. The more I read the short Herald piece, the more ridiculous the whole situation seems. After a half-dozen false starts, many detailed in a previous article on the subject, things started looking up for the brewery about a year ago. Its products started showing up in Boston again for the first time in years and the brewery suddenly appeared to have a focused approach: brew solid lager beer. But the steering has been unsteady at Buzzards Bay for as long as I’ve been familiar with the company. And now the affable manager, Bill Russell, is quoted in the Herald giving some pretty poor excuses for the brewery’s failure.
But the greatest challenges facing the firm were ongoing difficulties with distribution and a business climate in Massachusetts that is not friendly to small entrepreneurs, according to Russell.
â€śOur best years were when we distributed it ourself,â€? he said. â€śItâ€™s hard to compete with national brands, representing huge corporate interests, that muscle their way into the marketplace.â€?
Additionally, a piece of legislation sponsored by the Massachusetts Farm-Winery and Growers Association, which would have allowed the tasting and sale of wine and beer at local farmers markets, emerged from committee this week â€śeviscerated,â€? Russell said.
â€śIt was a really solid piece of legislation that would have allowed us to get our name out there,â€? he said. â€śFarmers markets are exploding in popularity. It seems to me the best way to stimulate the economy is to foster entrepreneurship, but in this state we are hog-tied by the laws.â€?
I’m not even sure where to start. Craft brewers around the country are working in the same environment and succeeding to the tune of nearly 6-percent growth so far this year, in a terrible economy. In 2004, craft beer grew at 7-percent, 9-percent in 2005, nearly 12-percent in 2006, 12 percent in 2007, and 6-percent in 2008. Buzzards Bay’s staff told me when I was writing The Good Beer Guide To New England in 2005 that the brewery produced 5400 barrels of its own beer, a statistic I doubted at the time. Just two years later, according to statistics from the Brewers Association, Buzzards Bay made 1450 barrels in 2007. In 2008, that number had been cut nearly in half, to 750 barrels. By way of comparison, the Cambridge Brewing Company, a brewpub with a 10-barrel system, brewed 1900 barrels in 2008, up from 1500 in 2005. The excuses are merely that, excuses, as the environment has never been better for craft brewers.
Add to this rapid industry growth rate that Buzzards Bay is located in an area that is nearly opposition free in terms of other craft brewers. The few that are located near there, Cisco Brewers, Offshore Ales, Cape Cod Beer, and Mayflower Brewing all appear to be enjoying remarkable success. To think that a brewery with a 50-barrel brewhouse, the albatross long hanging around its neck, would rest its hopes for expansion, growth, and the future on sales at farmer’s markets is simply beyond ludicrous. In the end, Buzzards Bay made good beer but had no idea how or where to sell it and despite the hopes of many fans, myself certainly included, the blood has long been in the water surrounding the brewery.
The Herald also dropped this jaw-dropping tidbit:
The surprise announcement yesterday was influenced by a number of factors, Russell said, primarily a drop in demand. Sales fell from a high of 5,000 barrels of Buzzards Bay brews in 2002 to a projected sale of around 100 barrels in the next seven months.
100 barrels? I’d love to know how much the brewery produced in the last six to twelve months but I think I’d cry over the minuscule amount. With a 50-barrel brewhouse, that is two brews in seven months. Wow.
The news is also a touch surprising because one very well-regarded brewer on the scene, Dann Paquette of the upstart Pretty Things Beer & Ale Project, has recently moved his brewing operations to Buzzards Bay, long a contract brewing location. I imagine Paquette, who brews his own beers on the systems belonging to other people (previously at Paper City Brewery in Holyoke), probably won’t be pleased at indirectly being called a contract brewer (which he is not) by Russell and it will be interesting to see whether his arrangement changes at all (here is hoping not…)
And I have to admit that the new torques me off because I also selected two of Buzzards Bay’s beers for inclusion in my Great American Craft Beers book. And while travel and tasting books are usually out of date even before they hit store shelves, mine didn’t even get to the point of submitting the damned manuscript before the info went stale. Better now than next week I guess, at least I can give two other beers their due.
All told, this is disappointing but not surprising news. Beyond the mere disheartening feeling, there is also one of anger at opportunities lost. Remembering back nearly a decade to conversations I had with the brewery’s founding brewer, the passionate Chris Atkinson, it’s sad to see how quiet and inconsiderable the brewery’s end came to be.
UPDATE: Someone sent me a link to the new brand operations that Russell discussed in the Herald piece. I have no idea whether the brand idea and the website are some sort of joke but the brand name and better yet the prices must be. The Just Beer Brewing Company is offering its flagship John Beere (wow…) for $70 per half-barrel. By way of reference, a keg of Budweiser, a beer that can manage a lower price point due to its extreme volume, costs $88 per half-barrel. So if Buzzards Bay manages to sell as much of its new beer as it did the old brands this year, it will fall well below the poverty line. No word on whether food stamps can be applied to malted barley purchases.