Opportunity Lost: Buzzards Bay Brewing Is Finished…

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.

“Our best years were when we distributed it ourself,� he said. “It’s hard to compete with national brands, representing huge corporate interests, that muscle their way into the marketplace.�

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 “eviscerated,� Russell said.

“It was a really solid piece of legislation that would have allowed us to get our name out there,� he said. “Farmers 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.�

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.

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The Matt Steinberg Interview…

Matt Steinberg is a rare breed in the beer business, an individual who understands the intricate details of how to both brew and sell beer. Derived from entrepreneurial stock—his father Barry founded Direct Tire and Auto—Matt understands the artistic and business sides of the business and has long demonstrated a keen ability for salesmanship of his quality beers. Having developed a passion for homebrewing while in college, Matt briefly worked for his father before finding his way into the beer industry through a job with the Harpoon Brewery in Boston. Many years later, Matt helped design the Mayflower Brewing Company from the ground up. Along with owner Drew Brousseau, Matt and Mayflower recently played host to brewers from around the country during the annual Craft Brewers Conference, which was held in Boston this year. Along with brewer Will Meyers of the Cambridge Brewing Company, Mayflower brewed the conference’s Symposium Ale, called the Audacity of Hops, which was a hit with attendees. I recently spoke with Steinberg to hear more about his background and his thoughts on issues facing the industry.

Andy Crouch: How did you become interested in brewing?

Matt Steinberg: I developed a passion for it by brewing at home. I tried all sorts of experimental beers using alternative ingredients that fifteen or sixteen years ago weren’t all that popular and available. It became fairly obsessive behavior and I was brewing brewing up to three times a week in five to ten gallon batches. And then I graduated from college and sort of thought, “Well, now what?� I visited the idea of working for my father in the tire business and did that very briefly before getting a job at a brew on premise in Denver, Colorado. That lasted about fifteen but it was a tough business model and he was having a hard time surviving. At that time, Harpoon started up another batch of its six-pack program, which is basically a paid apprenticeship where they send you around to each department and see where you fit. I enjoyed the people there but didn’t fit into their corporate culture and it just wasn’t what I was looking for. I then started building a Direct Tire in Natick and then popped into the John Harvard’s in Framingham and learned they were hiring for the Cambridge location. I applied and got that job.

AC: You have also been heavily involved in the sales side of the business. How did you get that experience?

MS: Between John Harvard’s and Offshore Ales, I briefly took my boots off and went to work for Concord Brewing and Rapscallion. While working with Dann Paquette and Mike Labbe, I was really sad not to be brewing. I helped out in the brewhouse a little and knew I had to get back into brewing. I was contacted by Bob Skydell, the owner of Offshore and he said he was looking for a guy who could make his beer, sell his beer, and represent his company out on the mainland as well as on the island. I visited Martha’s Vineyard and he offered me a job and I took it and moved to the island. That was my first job where I had to hit the road and learn the ropes. I knew nothing about the distribution culture in Massachusetts, in that most breweries distribute through the three tier system. And we were a self-distribution brewery so I was learning as quickly how to sell at accounts like Cambridge Common and Bukowski’s in Cambridge and Anam Cara, now the Publick House. And those guys loved what we were doing and I would go in there and they would welcome me with open arms, which helped my confidence. It sparked excitement for me to know I had found the people who loved what we were doing. And I had been searching for with the sales of Concord and Rapscallion. I don’t necessarily want to be in every store, just the ones where people care about us. That’s good and bad in that you miss out on some of the other accounts that may do well even though you don’t know those people. I learned a ton in those jobs.

AC: How did you arrangement with Offshore work?

MS: My main focus was redeveloping the beer brands for that company and as you know I created a number of new styles the brewpub as well. I also managed the contract at the time with Casco Bay Brewing. It was a much broader approach. Since we distributed through L. Knife and Sons and Craft Brewers Guild rather than dealing with retailers I was working with distribution representatives. I was going on ride-with’s and making friends with those guys so they would mention my beer when they were out at an account. I also offered incentives to them to sell our beer, so if you hit a certain threshold of how many cases you sold this month, you received a bonus. That helped but I learned very quickly that was the wrong approach. The right approach is to form the relationships even if you have ninety sales guys doing four hundred sku’s.

AC: How did you get involved with the Mayflower Brewing Company?

MS: At the end of my position at Offshore, I still wanted to stay employed with them. I wanted to move off the island to be with my then girlfriend and now wife. We were trying to figure out a way to make that work. The person who bought the brewery was great to work for and had a real vision for his packaged product. He was willing to let me move off the island and become director of operations and represent the brand on the street, while overseeing the new brewer. I was going to be sort of an absentee head brewer. It was a tricky position I never quite figured out. Simultaneously, we were looking for another contract. I had been in touch with Drew Brousseau who was looking to build a brewery in Plymouth and was looking for a brewer. I called him because I wanted to keep my options open or perhaps to brew Offshore’s beer. After talking with Drew a few times, it was clear he wasn’t interested in contract brewing but he was interested in talking to me about a job. He had a few concepts originally but after finding the location in Plymouth he knew that Mayflower was the way to go. He wanted to brew traditional English-style session beers, drinking beers and that is right up my alley. I was excited to try and brew a packaged product that was consistent and delicious and also not mind-blowingly bitter and high alcohol. We wanted to do some session beers, which was not the popular approach in the craft beer market at the time but it may be coming back. He liked me not only for my background in brewing but because of my sales experience and relationships with distributors and my understanding of the Massachusetts marketplace. And that was his plan, just to sell beer in Massachusetts for a while.

AC: That runs counter to what a lot of breweries are doing today, with some making as little as a thousand barrels yet distributing far from home or in eight or ten states. What are your thoughts on this distribution model?

MS: I’m sort of torn on it. I understand why a brewery such as The Bruery, which is in California and sells its beer in Massachusetts. I can appreciate that small batch spread it thin approach in the sense that owner Patrick Rue knows that people want to try his beers so why not just give it to them. Adam Avery [of the Avery Brewing Company] had the same issue where he was shipping beer all over the country out of a brewery making less than five thousand barrels. Luckily for him, his beers have held up in the marketplace and he’s grown to a point where he can supply those markets with beer. His brands do well because of the brand recognition that he’s built over the years. I think a new brewery with zero brand recognition is taking a huge risk placing beer in a market where they have no support. That’s my blanket statement. If you have a guy out there every week or once a month and your beers stand up, then I think it’s fine to be out in the market. It seems the West Coast beers tend to be more successful with that model. And I think it has something to do with the hype that surrounds those beers and the sort of lifestyle that those breweries have shown to the industry. For some reason, there are very few East Coast breweries that ship their beer to California. Besides Dogfish Head I can’t really think of any, maybe Shipyard. None of these really cool, niche breweries are doing it. Maybe Smuttynose would be one but I don’t think they ship that far. My goal now as a brewer and as someone who manages a distribution company, I like to keep it as close to home as possible. That is the way to go with this brand. Sure people know about the Mayflower in Nebraska but what do they care about the Mayflower besides they like the beer. Beyond that, there is really no hook or connection and I think that is why keeping it in Massachusetts for now is the way to go. We do plan on expanding beyond our own distribution abilities and we will be signing with distributors eventually. But I think the model is a really smart and practical approach and is bound for success.

AC: Boston’s South Shore has not really been known for craft beer in the past. Tell me about Mayflower’s experience in the region and what you see for the future of craft beer there.

MS: We’ve been welcomed with open arms, certainly in Plymouth. When I first came here, I expected that people would be sick of the Mayflower. Isn’t everything Mayflower? I mean find a Bostonian who goes on a duck boat tour. I thought they would be tired of it but they love it and its historical significance and connection to the local area. We have locals who every week bring more and more friends to the brewery to show what is happening here. The South Shore particularly is a very strange market as you mentioned. There are good package stores and consumers down here who want to drink craft beer. You have some larger chain stores that are bringing in most of the Craft book and the Atlantic book as well as ours. They don’t have everything but they have a good mix of quality beer that can get people excited. And now that they have their own local brewery they are totally jazzed about it, both at a consumer and retail level. We walk into a store and they say, “Wow, you’re local and you bring it to me yourself, alright, I’m on board.�

AC: Of all the beers in Mayflower’s portfolio, the most buzzed about offering has to be the porter. Tell me about how you developed that beer.

MS: It’s probably my favorite style to make. I’ve spent time thinking about how beer styles developed and every beer style came from somewhere. I was reading about porter years ago and I love this story about the three threads [an old tale about how porter developed from a drink of three different beers added together]. Drew and I were looking on the internet and we saw these three ropes strapped together over the side of a vessel. We both had this spark about it, three ropes, three threads, let’s use this. We developed the brand before we designed the beer, which is sort of weird and backwards but I didn’t even have a brewhouse yet. So then I started to think about a porter that is lower in alcohol than your average and one that is roasty and chocolaty without being acrid. I don’t want it to be very hoppy and I want it to be very drinkable and fairly dry because I want craft beer enthusiasts and newbies to like it. I think I kind of lucked out to be honest because I added some peat smoked malt that gives it a mellow, subtle flavor that rounds out all of the other flavors. The whole idea of the beer was to make a session porter and its unbelievable how it’s come together so well.

–Article appeared in a recent issue of Beverage Business Magazine.

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The Massachusetts Brewers Guild’s ‘UltiMAte’ Beer Dinner…

I’ve received several notices in the last few weeks about an upcoming event hosted by the Massachusetts Brewers Guild. The Guild, which is an organization that began operations in early 2008, is comprised of more than twenty Bay State breweries and brewpubs and is designed to help promote the efforts of local craft brewers.

While the Guild has been pretty quiet for the past year, having held some meetings and done a little public outreach, its efforts appear to be ramping up. The Guild’s website is a little sparse right now but it does contain some information about its first big event. On February 28th, the Guild will hold a beer dinner at The Exchange Conference Center near the Harpoon Brewery in Boston. The event will include several limited release beers (maybe even Harpoon’s new UFO White?), a beer sampling hour with hors d’oeuvres, and a four-course meal with beer pairings.

While I certainly applaud the formation and development of the Guild and support its mission, it’s difficult to tell who the organization is targeting with its first major event. At $125 per person and with business casual attire recommended, this can hardly be considered an effort to appeal to the general public. The price for the event, with the modest details presented to date, seems extraordinarily high, even before recalling the poor present state of the economy (multiples higher than Extreme Beer Festival ticket prices and even higher than the $95 wallop that gets you a ticket to the SAVOR event in D.C.). Perhaps the event will serve as a fundraiser for some other needy organization (other than the Guild itself), I cannot yet say. More likely, there will be a few comped tickets handed out and a lot of wholesalers and retailers chatting each other up with their respective brands in hand.

With this said, I look forward to hearing more about the event and how the Guild plans to promote craft beer and craft brewers in the Commonwealth (especially whether it plans to produce a guide to state breweries, as has been done successfully by many other city and state brewers guilds).

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