They date back to 1984, when Jim Koch and Rhonda Kallman founded the Boston Beer Company. The pair brewed the first commercial batch of Samuel Adams Boston Lager and never looked back. Since then, the landscape of the craft beer industry in the Commonwealth has changed tremendously with much more over the horizon.
I recently spoke to Rob Burns, co-founder of Night Shift Brewing and president of the Massachusetts Brewers Guild (MBG), about Massachusetts craft beer and what to look forward to in the upcoming year.
Massachusetts has national recognition for a handful of breweries, though as of December 2016, there are 122 active brewers throughout the state with over 30 other breweries expected to open in the next year or two.
Boston Beer Co. and Harpoon are seen as bigger than craft but not quite in the realm of “Big Beer,” at least not yet. As for Tree House, Trillium and Night Shift, they are some of the most sought after beers in the country. A quick visit to your favorite beer trading website and you are sure to find hundreds of people searching for these breweries.
Burns has an idea of what it’s like being in the craft beer spotlight.
“It’s incredible,” Burns said. “We set out to make world class beer but to be in such high demand is a whole different beast.”
He continued to offer an example of the first time he saw somebody post online that they were enjoying Night Shift in California when at the time they didn’t even distribute to the bar down the road. He said that the beer traders offer a kind of “secret marketing” for craft brewers, inciting demand for beers that may otherwise be unknown.
Other aspects of the state’s beer scene resemble those of many other states. A lot of breweries are centralized in pockets across the state, but plenty more are popping up in between. Craft beers are also occupying more taps at local bars, typically those brewed in the state or across the New England region. Many of the micro and nano breweries in towns across the state share a focus of locally sourcing as much of their ingredients as possible and establishing roots within their communities.
The MBG has big plans to make 2017 a year of rebranding both the organization and the state’s beer scene. This rebranding effort will focus on a few key areas, including tweaks to the Craft Brewers Passport Program, innovative beer festivals hosted by the Guild and continuing efforts on legislative reform.
The state’s passport program lists craft breweries people can visit and offers a prize for completing the entire map. However, the current passport hasn’t been updated in several years and lacks any real visual appeal.
Burns plans to make the new passport more aesthetically pleasing as well as up to date. Next, he hopes to digitize the passport so it can reflect the ever-changing landscape of the industry. It will also become a more socially focused program with an aim at encouraging more people to seek out the state’s best beer. The program will help showcase all 120+ Massachusetts breweries, not just the few “big names.”
“There are lots of untold stories among brewers in the shadows of Tree House, of Trillium, that I’d love to see told,” Burns said.
The passport program aligns with the MBG focus on making Massachusetts a major market for the industry and craft beer drinkers alike.
“We’ve never built a solid Massachusetts brand like Vermont or Portland, OR,” Burns said. “We want to place a stamp that Massachusetts is a world-class beer destination.”
One way to highlight lesser-known breweries is through the craft beer festivals MBG hopes to roll out in 2017. Festivals will be run by the Guild and all proceeds would go back into the organization for further support of its members. Some festivals could include certain themes, like brewers must each bring the same style of beer. They are expected to offer a more personal connection with attendees that want to speak to a brewer and learn about their craft, rather than pouring a 2oz sample and moving the line along.
“It’s all about showcasing beer in the state and how amazing it is,” said Burns.
Finally, a large and important focus for the upcoming year is legislative reform. Massachusetts by no means has the most restrictive alcohol laws, though things could always be better. Two laws of significance that are on the radar of the MBG and brewers across the state are related to growlers and distribution.
Massachusetts law currently only allows breweries to fill their own growlers; that is, growlers with their own logo and branding on them. Some wish to see a universal growler that can be filled at any brewery, though the MBG has not yet seen any proposed legislation it can fully support. They are, however, working with legislators who have drafted bills to work out the details they would most like to see in action.
Along these lines, some breweries have taken it upon themselves to try and lift the burden from customers that claim they no longer purchase growlers because owning a few from multiple breweries has become cumbersome. Bog Iron Brewing was the first to announce a “growler exchange program” that allowed customers to bring in growlers from any brewery and receive a discount on a new growler from their taproom. Others have followed suit with pilots of this program.
As for distribution, that may be a whole other conversation for another time. (An article dedicated to the issues of Massachusetts franchise laws and recent pay-to-play practices will be coming soon.) The quick and dirty on the state’s franchise laws relative to distribution revolve around contracts that some say benefit the distributor while leaving the brewer out to dry.
When a brewery enters into a contract with a distributor, they have up to six months to withdraw from the partnership. After that initial period is over, it is very difficult for the brewer to leave the distributor, though it is possible through mutual agreement or an appeal to the state’s Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission. There are currently several lawsuits pending against one of the region’s largest distributors of craft beer, Craft Brewers Guild, a member of Sheehan Family Companies. New legislation has also been proposed over the years, but typically doesn’t make it too far through the State House.
With all of these changes just over the horizon for craft beer in the Bay State, only time will tell which endeavors will succeed and which will fall short, if any. It’s almost expected that any legislative efforts will meet plenty of opposition, that’s just how government policy works. There’s also that pesky “craft beer bubble” people keep talking about. However, one thing that is clear is there is about to be an outstanding boom in craft beer in Massachusetts and the consumer is the ultimate winner.
As it is, most residents are within a modest 20-30 minute drive from a brewery at the very worst. With more taprooms and brewpubs months away, it will be incredibly difficult not to become a regular at one of the state’s micro or nano breweries. If the “bubble” is real and some do close their doors after some time, there will still be good times to look back on and lessons learned for future projects. There will be more people drawn to craft beer and friendships forged. There will also be plenty of new ideas and collaborations. All of these things make Massachusetts a place to grab a pint or two.