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Updated: May 15, 2023 Shop Talk

Q&A: Cold Harbor stays small in the beer market, and likes it

Will Oliveira stands with his arms crossed in front of a bar in mid-construction. Photo | KEVIN KOCZWARA Will Oliveira, president of Cold Harbor Brewing in Westborough, stands behind the under construction bar at the brewery's new location.

Will Oliveira has taken it slow. The president of Cold Harbor Brewing in Westborough didn’t jump at the chance to grow in the middle 2010s when breweries were taking big swings and expanding with the idea that the craft beer business could only get bigger. In Central Massachusetts, Tree House Brewing expanded in 2015 to its Charlton location, beginning its first large foray into growth that would lead to locations in Connecticut, Deerfield, Sandwich, and soon Tewksbury. Jack's Abby Craft Lagers opened its beer hall in Framingham in 2015. But those are the success stories during that time. From 2019-2021, at least 10 breweries closed across the state each year, and last year saw another seven close, according to the industry tracker Mass. Brew Bros. Breweries and their partners have had to gauge growth against what was once awesome expectation.

At the same time, Oliveira and Cold Harbor kept their heads down and brewed out of their space in a strip mall on Milk Street in Westborough. To open the brewery, Oliveira cashed out his retirement and 401(k). He was all in, but he wasn’t willing to jump at the chance to take on investors.

Slowly, the company built a following. Its tiny taproom became a place for regulars and locals. Yet, Cold Harbor has grown out of the space, and Oliveira is taking his big swing with a new 16,500-square-foot facility, which includes 3,000 square feet of outdoor patio seating and 5,500 square feet for brewing operations, at 66 Otis St. in Westborough. The facility will not only have a brewhouse and taproom but a full kitchen with an experienced chef leading the food program.

Oliveira is doing it his way: There’s no outside investment and no partners asking him to amp up the program, to sell more beer, or follow the market. Instead, Oliveira has done this largely on his own. He got financing through Hudson-based Avidia Bank and built the state-of-the-art facility the way he wanted. He’s bringing on more staff and bought a canning line. There will be more beer in larger fermenters and plans for wider distribution. There’s an events space and a patio. But the same brewer and brewhouse are coming over.

a green box with a black outline with information about Will Oliveira and Cold Harbor Brewing
Bio box for Will Oliveira

How did you start, and why did you stay so small?

I’ve always been conservative on the debt side. Now, I did take debt out to purchase my 20-barrel, fully automated system, and that's enabled us to work with Craft Brewers Guild and be able to now distribute our cans all over the state.

To answer your question, we started smaller than most. I don't have partners, so it's my equity: sweat equity and my real equity. When I was able to finance this deal on my own, I purchased the land and financed the building. Still no other partners.

You guys have kept it pretty in-house then, so you're not having to answer to any investor or anything.

No. It's a family-owned operation.

What will this new building now allow for you to do?

It allows us to spread our wings a little. My brewery over there is Harry Potter's bedroom. It's like the little brewery under the stairs. This allows us to increase our capacity, gives the brewers more room, and allows our customers to come in, actually sit down, and enjoy some food while they enjoy some beer. There's going to be sizable outdoor patio space, about 3,000 square feet. It allows the company to grow and expand and introduce ourselves to more people.

How much beer are you going to be able to brew in here?

We're doing about 1,500 barrels now at the old space. I imagine because of the new space here in the front of the house and we've been increasing capacity with our distributor, I'd say we're going to get to 3,000 immediately. I have the ability with the tanks to grow to between 6,000 and 7,000 barrels a year.

How has Cold Harbor been able to stay alive while staying so small?

We’re a really community-oriented brewery, and we have a very loyal following. We've got a lot of fans here in Westborough, whether it's from the Select Board’s office, the fire department, and the police department. We've got a great relationship with the departments in the town, and it's been good for both of us.

This interview was conducted and edited for length and clarity by WBJ Staff Writer Kevin Koczwara.

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May 18, 2023

I live in Northborough and have been to Cold Harbor many times. The staff, service, conversation and beers are exemplary across the board. Worth restating... the craft beer rivals any I've tried, anywhere in New England (I made it a point in March 2020 that, hey, I may as well figure out what the buzz is about craft beers; I've become a fan of the genre overall and of Cold Harbor among the top ones). Craft beers across the region - and seemingly in general - are very collaborative and seem to enjoy new partnerships. It's unlike the extreme red tape seen/heard with larger corporation, as well as the binary competitive streak. I've enjoyed seeing that craft brewers come from the rising tide lifts all ships perspective.

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