The big boys have brewing kettles capable of producing almost that much beer in a single run. What Heavyweight lacks in physical size, it more than makes up for with the strength of its lineup and impressive growth in its reputation in the craft beer community.
It takes dedication to run an operation so small, a trait Tom Baker has in spades. But Baker does not ignore or gloss over the difficulties involved with his love of craft beer. As the brewery's only full-time employee, he lugs around heavy bags of grain, does a ton of manual labor, and manipulates his brewery's simple technology. And those are the things he enjoys about the job. What frustrates him are the business end and constant challenges of running a small brewery. The operation remains a tenuous, omnipresent struggle between the dream of the brewer's art and the reality of financial toil and economies of scale. It's a heavyweight's burden on the shoulders of a lightweight operation.
While it may sound disturbingly cliche, Tom Baker is in this business for his love of brewing. Despite the pains of being a small outfit, Tom Baker would not have it any other way. Heavyweight produces three year-round products, the Belgian influenced Lunacy, the deep, rich yet fruity Baltus, and the bruiser of the line, the huge Baltic porter-style Perkuno's Hammer (a beer brewed with help by Beverage Business's own Lew Bryson). Heavyweight also produces a notable line of seasonal products, including a delightful smoked bock beer, an alt beer, a take on the ultra-obscure gruit style, and his Old Salty Barleywine.
Heavyweight now distributes in Massachusetts, New York, Philadelphia, New Jersey, and Maryland. While his current line is new to many of his markets, Baker hopes to soon release some one-off products, including an oyster stout. I recently spoke with Tom Baker about his tiny brewery and its burgeoning reputation.
ANDY CROUCH Thanks for speaking with me. To start off, tell us how Heavyweight Brewing began.
TOM BAKER We started in 1999. The idea kind of festered from working in a local area brewpub in making some more assertive beers than you would find in most New Jersey brewpubs. I definitely sensed a clientele for those kind of products. People were asking me to make more of them, and unfortunately the pub scene here is more geared towards the mainstream. The owner didn't really want me to brew those styles of beer as they spent too much time in the tank and were too expensive to make. I wasn't really happy there anyways, so I quit and started thinking about where I could brew where I could do those sort of things. It just seemed like doing my own project would be the right thing. So I spent about eight months researching and writing a business plan and trying to find financing. We started in March of 1999 renovating this space and we started brewing in August.
AC Where did the name come from?
TB It's tongue-in-cheek because of the bigness of the beers. Brewers measure the sugar content of a beer by checking the specific gravity with a hydrometer. People think that it is just because we do big beers that it is Heavyweight, but it's more of an inside joke. We were going to be the Behemoth Brewery, but my wife said it didn't roll off the tongue as well.
AC What was your background before starting Heavyweight?
TB I worked at a couple of brewpubs. My career before that was computer programming. I did that for about eleven years. Then I caught the homebrewing bug, and my wonderful wife let me pursue this by going to school out in California. I came back and worked in a brewpub in New York City for two years and then did some consulting work. I helped people get started on their own systems. Then short stints working at a couple more brewpubs. I wasn't really happy working for anyone else.
AC What differentiates Heavyweight from other brewers?
TB I think the biggest thing is that we don't really have a flagship, bill-payer beer. That's the hardest thing, especially in the summer time. Things then slow down because we don't really make session beers. There are other breweries out there making assertive, bigger beers, but I don't think they have the guts to do it exclusively. That's our thing. If we do make a beer that is lighter in alcohol, it's usually something unusual like the gruit. We once made a wheat beer with 95 percent wheat malt, which is kind of an unusual thing to do.
AC So you don't make any light summer kolsch beers?
TB No. We do make an alt beer, which is kind of like a drinking beer. It's a sticke alt, so it's supped up. It's about 6.7 percent alcohol, but it's loaded with hops. Alts are pretty bitter but they're not really hoppy beers with flavor and aroma. It's about the only hoppy beer I've made here at Heavyweight. Our beers tend to be much maltier.
AC So your business actually goes down in the summer? That's completely the reverse for most breweries.
TB Yes, exactly. We're just the opposite. We find December, January and February are really good months. Although March and April have been good for this year, but I think that is because of some of the expansion we have done. Who knows? Maybe this summer will be good too, but the past years have been fairly slow.
AC Why did you get into brewing?
TB I don't know. Actually, I haven't given it a lot of thought, which is a terrible thing to say for a career move. I guess I thought I could do it. I wasn't really happy programming. It's funny because my wife was in the same situation. She had a really well-paying job and really hated programming. We always say, "you shouldn't stay in a job that you hate." I really like doing this. I don't like owning the business because it is really too much work, but I love the brewing, designing my own labels. I hope that in a year or two, I can have someone do the selling and the things that are not all that enjoyable for me. I'll concentrate on the science and the art of it, which are the things that drew me to it in the first place.
AC So you have two employees running Heavyweight?
TB Yes, but my wife still has a full-time job. We have a core of real zealots who love our beer and help us out. Like today, I have two friends who are volunteering to bottle. Ordinarily, I'd probably do it on my own and it'd be slower. Mainly, it's still just me.
AC So you have volunteers helping to run your operations?
TB Yes we do. They work for beer. We have friends who actually do festivals for us. We trust them enough with our products and talking about them. Last night, we had conflicts with a tasting at a package store and a charity event. So we had two friends of ours go out to the charity event. There are some really hard-core beer lovers out there that love our beer. That is really the thing that has kept me going for these four years. There have been a lot of times where I just wanted to pack it in. But these people kind of convince me that we are going to reach that bend.
AC So are these supporters all homebrewers?
TB A lot of those people are just fans of the brewery. I don't really know that they are associated with homebrew clubs. But I still think that their creative energy really spurred our industry.
AC So what is Heavyweight's mission?
TB Geez, I don't know if I have a mission. I guess I have a philosophy. I don't want to get too big. We're at capacity now and we'll probably do 600 barrels this year. I'd like to double that. I think 1200 barrels is a good amount. It would make me a living and still allow me to be creative enough, and on the fringe where I wouldn't be tempted to sell out by making something I don't really think there is a need for. There are a lot of really good pale ales and hoppy beers out there - and pilsners - and I don't really feel the need to make another one. Initially, I had a couple of investors who wanted to be part of this project. I'm kind of glad I didn't, because I think that during the really lean times they would have been pressuring me to do some of the things I didn't want to do. I don't really want to go too much further in terms of geographic distribution. I want to saturate where I'm at and concentrate on this regional thing. I like what Hair of the Dog Brewing Company is doing (a very small brewery in Portland, Oregon which produces 500 barrels a year and distributes in markets across the country), and I love tasting their beer. But I don't have an interest in that.
AC How are things in your home market?
TB New Jersey is pretty much a dead-end for us, believe it or not. There are not a lot of multi-tap bars and that's a place where we really do well, like in New York City and some places in Boston. We're also in Maryland, but we haven't distributed beer there in six months. I'm having problems with my distributor there.
AC How goes it in Massachusetts?
TB It's going great. We're selling a lot of beer up there. We just got another order from our distributor, and he's going to take a good amount of draft this time. We're really pleased with how things are going up there. I've always felt that Boston was an enigma in terms of all the great pubs that have gone away. So I didn't really know what the beer scene was like. It has far out-distanced our expectations.
AC So what happened in Maryland?
TB It's the distance. We we're selling a lot of beer initially in Maryland as well. Maybe the same thing will happen in Massachusetts because of the distance. We can't really get up there as much as we'd like. That face time is important. So far it's been two months in Massachusetts, and it's been great.
AC So you told me at the Boston Beer Summit event that Massachusetts is now your biggest market?
TB (Laughs). Yes, believe it or not. In terms of the volume, I was very impressed with Atlantic, my distributor. They have a very sleek operation up there, nicer than a lot of distributors. They're also a lot bigger.
AC While Heavyweight makes some bigger beers, there are a handful of American breweries competing to top each other in alcohol content. Is there such a thing as a beer being too big?
TB I definitely think so. I want someone to be able to drink a pint and want another. I respect Dogfish Head a lot, but some of their beers are, too . . . Like two years ago, World Wide Stout at 18 percent alcohol was an amazing beer. It was drinkable. All the brewers I spoke with were in awe of it. Then they went around and changed it and made it bigger, and I don't know why because it ruined the beer to me. I don't like it this year. It's interesting, and I'll have a sip of it or a small measure of it. But they took something that was truly incredible and all for the sake of, as far as I can see as an outsider, making something that is bigger than the next guy. So Dogfish Head also has the hoppy thing, hoppier than the next, and there are people who really dig that. So they are riding that. I just don't find hops all that interesting on their own. I think you can do a lot more with malts than you can with hops, so I've shied away from making a really hoppy beer. But I have no interest in making a ridiculously strong beer . . . I guess I still want it to taste like a beer too. Eight percent seems to be a really good thing for me.
AC What are your plans for expansion?
TB We have followed Dogfish and Victory around this part of the country with a lot of success. I don't even really feel like I compete with those guys. I mean, I know that I do. The people who drink our beer, they want something different. They're going to buy Victory Storm King tonight, and then tomorrow they're going to pick up some Dogfish Head, and maybe a couple bottles of Heavyweight. It's just people who want something different.
AC How many barrels does Heavyweight now produce?
TB We will do 600 barrels this year, which is double what we did last year. We have some room here, so when we get some money we can buy some more tanks. I would also like to update my packaging line. We did 80 cases today, which isn't a lot of beer.
AC What other hurdles do you face as a small brewer?
TB One of them is that you don't get taken seriously by anybody, until somebody writes about you. So that's been a problem. The places we buy our materials from don't want to deal with small brewers . . . We run into the same dilemmas with places not wanting to take small orders. Like crowns . . . we'd love to have printed crowns. To make an order, we'd have to buy four years worth of printed crowns. We're actually going to do it because I think it would mean so much to our appearance on the shelves. But that's the problem. Whereas most places would go through that - Flying Fish probably goes through that in six months - and it'll take us four years. Distributors have been tough and bars have been tough. Everyone wants something for free, which is tough for a small business. We haven't been able to do a lot with point of sale, which kind of hurts us. And that's what everybody wants, posters and things to put up in the store. I make all my own tap handles because it costs so much for them. So that involves a lot of time.
AC Have you had trouble getting consideration from distributors?
TB Not in recent times. Now they are calling, which is a really nice thing. There are not a lot of small distributorships, and the big ones don't really want anything to do with small breweries when it's only a small amount of their business. A place that is a Bud, Miller or Coors shop, I wouldn't even bother to approach.