The Renaissance of Craft Beers in the Merrimack Valley.
Craft beers have consistently held a respectable segment of the market share, but currently they are experiencing a renaissance of proportions unseen since the mid-90s “microbrewery boom.” According to Paul Gatza, director of the Boulder, Colo.-based Brewers Association, the number of U.S. breweries has shot up in past years. The Merrimack Valley is a hotbed of activity in the resurgence.
Bob Johnson of Lowell’s Navigation Brewing, partially attributes the growing number of small breweries to the popularity of the locavore movement, which places the utmost importance on food products being grown, raised and/or produced locally. “We’re no longer considered just microbreweries, but rather local, artisan, farmer breweries,” he says.
Steve Sanderson, head brewer and founder of Newburyport’s RiverWalk Brewing Co., takes great pride in offering beer that is “extremely fresh and extremely local.” Sanderson views the emergence of so many new breweries as auspicious, but he does see an eventual “tipping point.”
“Although craft beer is not solely a commodity, and we’re not all trying to do the same thing, there are a finite number of draft lines and shelf space that we’ll end up competing over,” he says. “Growth can’t go on forever without consequence.”
Do not mistake Sanderson’s realism for some kind of dog-eat-dog market rivalry. In RiverWalk’s early days, the business amicably shared a space with Cody Brewing Co. of Amesbury, exemplifying a symbiotic relationship that would be taboo in other commercial enterprises.
A participant on History channel’s “History on Tap,” a craft-brewing, reality television show that aired in December 2010, Sanderson has witnessed local breweries supporting one another on multiple occasions. “I can’t tell you how many times we’ve run out of something and called around to find someone who could help us out in a pinch, and then [they] come through for us,” he says.
Johnson, the recipient of a gold medal in the American Homebrewers Association’s 1998 National Homebrew Competition, feels a rising tide lifts all boats. He and son-in-law/business partner P.J. Mercier believe that putting out a superb product and being “part of the neighborhood” will solve any competitive obstacles.
Newburyport residents Chris Webb and Bill Fisher, co-founders of Newburyport Brewing Company, believe there’s a need for more great craft breweries in this country. “We’re in the middle of a craft-brewing revolution,” Webb says, “and America’s innovating, big time. The better educated about great beer we can make the average consumer, the more we all benefit.”
Webb’s “the more, the merrier” philosophy stems from his belief that while the beer market used to be somewhat divided along class lines, these days a wider variety of consumers is now seeking high quality beer. “The blue collar and college-aged are vastly growing market segments for craft brewing,” says Webb, who feels there will be more than enough demand to support a multitude of breweries.
Fisher and Webb also believe that locals will buy their respective region’s products. Webb says, “People have roots that stir memories. Local pride makes communities and their businesses strong. Newburyport is a trademark unto itself, for example.”
The partners have focused heavily on lifestyle branding to help boost NBPT’s visibility among its peers. “Music is a major part of who we are,” Webb says. “We sponsor bands and festivals, have local musicians play the tasting room and include a guitar pick in every six-pack. We also feature local artists’ work on the walls of the public area. We’re in the business of making people happy and having fun, with beer being the vehicle.”
A relative newcomer on the scene is Lowell’s Merrimack Ales. Founder Adam Pearson formed the LLC in January 2014 and spent over a year finding a location and sourcing the equipment. The 10 barrel brewery became operational this past Thanksgiving. All of the city permits were in place by September and Pearson brought head brewer Pat Auclair (formerly of Do Can Brewery) aboard.
The brewery specializes in a menu of beers based on a mix of English/American/Belgian styles. Having a background in engineering and running designed experiments, Pearson is meticulous about getting the recipes right. “Trial and error is a time tested way to tinker, but it’s horrible for actually learning how to make things better or to get them right quickly,” he says.
With disparate offerings such as maple cream porter, chocolate oatmeal stout, honey-tinged white ale, and dry-hopped rye IPA, there’s something at Merrimack Ales to please just about every beer lover. Upcoming offerings include “Shock Value,” an imperial Belgian IPA for which the recipe was guided using direct customer feedback, “Obligatory,” a cascade-hop forward pale ale, and “Horrorshow,” a citrusy American-style IPA, the name of which means “excellent” in the vernacular of the Anthony Burgess dystopian novel “A Clockwork Orange.”
The present is propitious and the future is full of hope in the burgeoning Merrimack Valley craft-brewing crusade.
Newburyport Brewing Co.
RiverWalk Brewing Co.