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May 17, 2024

Q&A: Jack’s Abby CEO details Wormtown purchase and the strength of the Be Hoppy brand

A man stands at a podium in a suit Photo | Courtesy of the Mass Brewers Guild Sam Hendler accepts the F.X. Matt Defense of the Industry Award from the Brewers Association in May 2022.

Central Massachusetts’ largest craft brewer is on the verge of getting even bigger, as the owners behind Framingham-based Jack’s Abby Craft Lagers announced in April that they are purchasing Wormtown Brewery in Worcester. Assuming all goes as planned, both companies will operate under the corporate umbrella of the newly-created Hendler Family Brewing Co. when the deal is finalized.

WBJ sat down with Jack’s Abby Co-founder and CEO Sam Hendler to discuss the company’s thought process behind the purchase, the value of Wormtown’s Be Hoppy brand, and the state of the Massachusetts craft beer industry.

What made Jack’s Abby interested in purchasing Wormtown, and how did the discussions around the sale play out?

The conversation started as a contract brewing conversation. It's a part of our business that we've been growing here at Jack’s for a couple years, brewing for other brewers, and Wormtown had some needs. The conversation just evolved into something much bigger from there. The Wormtown brand is a great brand, and Be Hoppy is one of the true success stories of craft beer in Massachusetts. The opportunity made sense to us and we felt like it made both brands a lot stronger, so here we are.

Do you have a general timeline on when you expect the deal to be finalized? What kind of regulatory red tape is involved?

We’re in that licensing process now. There’s a lot of licensing work to be done. There are federal, state and local licenses that need to be applied for and received before we're allowed to close. Best case scenario, that could happen in June, but it’s certainly very plausible that that can push into the summertime. We’re working as fast as we can, but it’s just part of the alcohol business. Until all of that licensing work is done, we can't legally take possession.

It sounds like you plan on keeping the brands and operations of both entities separate. What was the thought process behind that decision?

We’re buying Wormtown for the Wormtown brand. To combine that into Jack’s Abby would kind of dilute what we’re buying. The Wormtown brand is great, it’s got an awesome home in Worcester and we want to build on that. We don’t want to take any steps backwards. So the Wormtown brand will feel the same. We're just gonna be providing more resources to the taproom and hopefully, really grow in the presence of the brand.

Are you exploring for further acquisitions at this time? 

It's not a priority for us right now. The craft beer industry is going through a lot of change. It’s going to be really interesting to see what kinds of opportunities present themselves over the coming years, but right now we're focused on making sure this is successful, making sure the contract business is successful and just continuing growing the business.

Are you considering any expansion outside the craft beer space? Non-alcoholic beverages? Is there anything like that catching your eye?

We're looking at ways to utilize our plants to make non alcoholic beverages. There are some constraints that we would need to make investments to overcome. 

Essentially, alcohol itself is the stabilizer, so craft beer especially doesn't use pasteurization and other stabilization for safety. But without the presence of alcohol, there's much more opportunity for potentially dangerous bacteria to grow.

So we would need to make some investments into the brewery to do something like non-alcoholic beer or just general non-alcoholic beverages. But that's stuff that really interests us, excites us, and is something we're exploring. 

A brewery taproom
Photo | WBJ File
Wormtown's two-floor taproom

You haven’t taken control of Wormtown yet, but it sounds like there’s plans for some renovations and other changes at the Worcester site. Are you able to speak to those? What should Wormtown fans expect in the next year or two?

Yeah, we're still in the early stages. So we don't have exact plans, renderings, anything like that. But we are very, very excited to hopefully expand the footprint of the taproom on site and get a fuller experience for the Wormtown brand there on Shrewsbury Street in Worcester.

It seems that Be Hoppy and its iterations and spin offs do very well. Does that make it difficult for other Wormtown brands to stick out? How do you address that?

Be Hoppy is a monster. On its own, it does over 80% of Wormtown’s business. It’s truly an exceptionally performing brand in the Massachusetts marketplace. 

That's a strength, so there's nothing to complain about there. It's a phenomenon. It has a strong case that it should be on the shelf everywhere beer is sold in Massachusetts, and that's really exciting to get to work with something like that.

Beer cans
Photo | Courtesy of Wormtown Brewery
Wormtown Brewery beers

Wormtown doesn’t have a true number two product in the portfolio right now. I think when you contrast the [Jack’s Abby and Wormtown] portfolios, that’s definitely the biggest difference. Our number one brand, House Lager, is around 32% to 33% of our total business, and we have at least six other brands that make up at least 5% of our business. I think both sides of the business could learn a lot from the other there.

It seems like contract brewing is a sizable chunk of your business. Will this deal impact that work at all?

We're putting a temporary pause on taking on new contract partners. We're open and excited to take on more in 2025. But this is going to be a large project for us to take on and on board that we anticipate will take us the vast majority of the remainder of 2024 to do successfully. We want to make sure there's the time and space to do that right before we move on to the next thing.

Jack’s Abby already has a partnership with the Boston Celtics. Now, through Wormtown, you’ll have a taproom next to Gillette Stadium (home of the New England Patriots and New England Revolution) and a relationship with the Worcester Red Sox. How important are these sports connections to the business?

They're really important and impactful. We love brands that have a real reason to exist in a locality. I think Jack’s is a meaningful brand in Eastern Massachusetts and Wormtown very much so in Central Massachusetts. And you know, being a genuine part of the community is really important to us.

Obviously, the WooSox have been one of the major stories out of Worcester over the past few years. That’s been one of the major storylines of the city, the WooSox and Polar Park and all the development that’s been going on. We’re excited to be part of that.

Overall, what is the state of the craft beer space in Massachusetts right now?

It’s interesting. That's probably not the best word to describe it, but it’s interesting. 

There's a lot of challenges. We're firmly in the post-COVID world at this point, and it changed just about everything. I think some brewers were kind of in the position of hoping it would go back to the way it was [before the pandemic], and maybe weren’t able to make the adjustments they needed to make to continue thriving. Others have been able to figure that out and have pivoted and changed what they do more successfully. It's all and all leading to a pretty challenging environment. 

Overall craft beer sales are definitely down compared to the pre-COVID period, and every brewery has to figure out their path to get through. The supply chain is still messy, and costs are up considerably. That's a tough combination to build success through. Everybody's trying to figure out what are the right steps for their business and what moves they need to make to build a sustainable business.

This interview was conducted and edited for length and clarity by WBJ Staff Writer Eric Casey. 

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