January 9, 2017
Shop Talk

Gardner firm selling the world a beer, one tap at a time

Photo/Brad Kane
Photo/Brad Kane
Rick Walton, owner and president, Moon Hill Brewing Co.

VIEW: Moon Hill owner picks three beers

Rick Walton

TITLE: Owner & president

COMPANY: Moon Hill Brewing Co.

AGE: 61

BIRTHPLACE: Rochester, N.Y.

RESIDENCE: Phillipston

EDUCATION: Bachelor's degree in biology, University of Notre Dame; bachelor's degree in electrical engineering, UMass

In December, after operating for 10 years, Rick Walton -- the man at the helm of the brewing company behind the Gardner Ale House -- starting distributing its Moon Hill beers at other bars, starting with the Columbia Tavern in Leominster.

Why did you open a brewpub?

I am a lover of beer, all kinds of alcohol really. I could see myself opening a distillery one day. But beer is just wonderful. It is a wonderful industry to be in, and it is a wonderful thing to brew and put together.

Once I got my financial act together, around 2005, I started to write all my ideas into a business plan. It all just came together then, and by the summer the next year, we were up and running and I was doing one of the things I was born to do.

How did you fall in love with beer?

Before this place was around, I was a Sam Adams fan. Before that, there were all the imports: Samuel Smith's from England, St. Pauli Girl from Germany. These are the beers I was raised on.

Why did you start distributing your beer?

I don't think there is a brewer in the world that doesn't want to distribute their beer. When we did it with Columbia Tavern in Leominster for the first time, we walked in there and saw our tap behind their bar, that is just exciting.

When they started ordering a keg a week from us and we realized people were trying it and liking it, that is exciting.

How do you stand out from other beers?

We brew across the board, all different styles, but what we are mostly distributing is that style of IPA that has become very popular: very fruity, slightly hazy, very jumpy IPA. You take a sip and say, "This isn't my grandfather's beer at all."

How do you convince bar owners to buy Moon Hill?

When you bring three beers to a tasting with a bar owner and you are trying to convince them, I'd love to bring my beautiful German lager with me, but he wants that IPA he has been hearing about.

When you are trying to get one tap in one bar, you tend you choose the current rock star.

How did you decide on a distributor?

There are all these horror stories about distributors in Massachusetts because the state says after so many days, you are tied to your distributor and you can't change distributors. If your distributor decides your beer isn't a high priority, then it might just sit in their storerooms and there is nothing you can do about it. There is work going on at the State House to change that.

For little guys like us, that is scary. We didn't know who to trust or where to go, until Berkshire Brewing Co. came along. Those are great guys; they are laid back, easy to work with. They helped us put our tap lines in Gardner Ale House when we first opened up.

Does distributing put pressure on you?

I'm not worried about it, because I am just selling excess beer. It's not like I'm going to go under if I don't open a bunch of accounts. I'm not a brewery that just opened that doesn't have a restaurant and has to open 40 accounts in the first six months or go out of business. We don't have that kind of pressure here.

I approached my first account by word of mouth, the Columbia Tavern, because I knew the bartender there because she had worked for me. She got me in touch with the owner; he was a cool guy and said, "Yeah, I'll try your beer."

Do you plan to expand your distribution?

You bet. I'd love to open up another brewery, but we get the accounts one at a time. They are all word of mouth. We are just building the relationships and the accounts one bar at a time. Right now, we have two. We have five more that we are going to get in January.

If we get 10 accounts, we might get scared because 10 accounts might want four different kinds of beer. It becomes a nightmare really quickly for a small brewery, so that is why I like the approach we are taking on – one tap at a time.

At some point, it is going to snowball.

What Moon Hill beers should everyone try?

  1. A Month of Sundays – an English best bitter with a nitrogen pour.
  2. Facelift IPA – the best India Pale Ale ever made.
  3. PufnStuf – a fashionable, juicy IPA.

This interview was conducted and edited for length and clarity by Brad Kane, WBJ editor.

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