Within the Old Walls of a Lawrence Mill Building … Change is Brewing
John Cornejo, a Lawrence native affectionately known as “El Padrino” (translation: The Godfather), is the innovative founder of Spicket River Brewery, and he’s betting his craft-style servings will be an offering that the local community can’t refuse.
“I’ve been home-brewing for about 10 years. I got the beer to a level where I started getting attention through home-brewing circles and whatnot,” Cornejo says. Linking up with professional brewer Jeff Goodno, Cornejo also partnered with Joe Errico — who had previously opened a brewery in Florida — and Gary Sidell, a local community activist and real estate developer/property manager who owned the perfect space in an old mill building at 56 Island St. (Sidell now sits as the chief adviser on the brewery’s board. The ownership group is rounded out by Cornejo’s fiancee, Michelle Berube.)
“I’ve believed in the creative arts as an impetus for economic development and rebirth,” says Sidell, whose family has owned parts of the mill building since the mid-1990s. “I always thought this space would be great for a restaurant or brewery.”
Cornejo says his vision for the brewery is all about revitalization and the restorative power of art.
“You take the name. Spicket is the most polluted water in Lawrence,” Cornejo says. “We were trying to spin that off. Lawrence can be a viewed negative, and we try to spin that and show the positive of what can come out of this. What comes out of the pollution or the negativity.”
The brewery, which opened in the fall of 2019, features two large outdoor spaces — the alley and the patio holds around 200 people.
Inside, everything is custom built, from the brick oven for pizza (overseen by Executive Chef Aran Flores) to the geometrically-intriguing tasting bar to the seven-barrel brewing system that lines the brewery’s back wall. Vibrant murals depicting river monsters and iconic Lawrence landmarks, including the Ayer Mill clock tower, flow throughout the space, inside and out. Marquis Victor and Alex Brien of Elevated Thought in Lawrence collaborated with the brewery to create the colorful three-story outdoor mural.
Cornejo says he also plans to offer customers interactive experiences, from designing their own beer mug with a local potter for the Spicket River Beer Mug Club, to joint dinner theater events with Spicket’s building neighbor, the Acting Out! Theater Co.
Many other artists have contributed work to the brewery — including Jimmy Wynn, Congo, Spin1, and Jon Hen — and Cornejo wants to continue showcasing a cross section of local artists. “It gives them a haven, and it gives them legitimacy,” he says. From the custom-built barrel tables to the corridor wall, which will feature local art for sale, the brewery will function as a living, breathing art piece. “The whole brewery is going to be a gallery,” Cornejo says. “You’re going to be able to buy the tables and the art. The whole idea is for the artists to make money, showcase their art, and we have beautiful things in our brewery.”
The art also serves as creative inspiration for Cornejo’s craft. “The art gives me new ideas about how to make and brand new beer,” he says. Cornejo describes his flagship beers as juicy and Caribbean-inspired, utilizing fruit that’s native to the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. “My inspiration is to take these cultures and bring them into my beer,” he says. Much like the brewery’s ability to transform, Cornejo is constantly working with his brewmaster to refine and develop Spicket River’s beer, and sees its profile evolving toward cleaner tastes.
The build-out progress for the brewery, however, has been less than clean. “The challenges for this space have been massive,” Errico concedes. “We’ve been put through the ringer.” Spicket River Brewery has spent the better part of a year finding ways to overcome structural issues and plumbing problems.
But there’s light at the end of the tunnel, Errico says, and the brewery team wouldn’t want to be anyplace else.
“We could have picked anywhere,” Errico says. “We didn’t have to pick Lawrence to build out our brewery. We didn’t have to pick an old mill building. This is where we decided to lay roots. And whatever it would take to do this, we said we’re going to do it. And we have.”
Cornejo says his organization has been embraced by the craft beer community, and has found instant kinship with local spots like Oak & Iron Brewing Co. in Andover and Navigation Brewery Co. in Lowell. “It’s incredibly supportive,” Cornejo says of the brewing community. “It tends to be more friendly and cooperative than competitive. It’s more about brewers coming together to make great beer for the area.”
Errico sees big things on the horizon for a brewery that’s been built on determination and grit. “We persevere through anything,” he says. “When we start making beer and open our doors it’s all going to be worth it. We’re going to be a force to be reckoned with. Our time is now.”
[Update May 4, 2020: Spicket River Brewery is offering special services in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Please call or visit their website for more information. ]
Spicket River Brewery