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Craft beer is ubiquitous now. Shelves are stocked at every liquor store in the state with 16-ounce cans and beer from across the country, but specifically with local beer. The number of Massachusetts breweries distributing their beer to local stores is now 194, according to the Brewers Association, a national trade group made up of more than 5,400 breweries.
With that, beer has become big business. In Massachusetts, the industry supports more than 14,000 employees and, according to the Brewers Association, had an economic impact of more than $1.6 billion in 2021.
But, like every industry, breweries felt the sting of the COVID pandemic. On-premise sales rebounded in 2022, but draught beer sales to bars and restaurants continued to lag, The Brewers Association reports. On top of that, climate change and supply chain issues continued to plague the industry. The barley harvest was better in 2022, but the drought-stricken 2021 kept supplies tight and prices high. At the same time, hop acreage decreased in the U.S., and Europe had its worst harvest in decades. Add in aluminum can supply issues and the previously reported carbon dioxide issues, and breweries across Central Massachusetts had to perform a delicate balancing act to stay in business. They needed to brew great beer because of competition while staying up on the latest trends and juggling each new obstacle in their way.
With all that in mind, and the changing of the year, WBJ surveyed a selection of Central Mass. breweries, specifically the smaller and more localized ones, to get a sense how business is faring.
Jay Rondeau, owner and head brewer at Penny Pinchers Brewing Co. in Millbury: Navigating the unknown. While everyone had to deal with the various challenges of COVID, we didn’t even know what our business should look like, let alone how it would survive during the pandemic.
Melynda and John Paul Gallagher, co-owners of Lost Shoe Brewing and Roasting Co. in Marlborough: One of the biggest challenges for us this past year has been determining our packaged cans-to-kegs ratio. We had received our canning line just five months before on-premise consumption was restricted due to the pandemic, at which point we shifted fully to cans. As on-premise consumption was brought back and people are now more comfortable going out in public, we have had to shift more heavily to kegs for on-site draft pours. Figuring out the right ratio has been a bit of a challenge.
Allen Quinn, co-founder and owner of Amory's Tomb Brewing Co. in Maynard: The biggest challenge was drastically increased operating and materials costs.
We have seen our costs rise both from outside forces as well as internal needs and responses, but the weight is on materials, shipping, and energy, in addition to scheduled rent increases. We are producing and selling more beer than previous years, but at a much higher cost.
A growing percentage of our sales are to wholesale accounts. This is due to changing consumer habits and a need to adapt from our taproom business model. We don't have a lot of margin in distribution, and it's a lot of additional time and energy we hadn't planned on expending two or three years ago. Additionally, many people in our community shifted to work from home and hybrid models, so we do not have the daily business traffic we had pre-pandemic. Fewer people are downtown during the day for lunch, and there doesn't seem to be groups coming from the office after work, so we need to distribute to have a market for our products.
Maureen Fabry, brewer and co-founder of CraftRoots Brewing in Milford: We sell our beer to-go in 32-ounce glass bottles we call squealers. It's a huge benefit to our environment to package our beer on-demand in a 100% reusable and recyclable container. We've kept a lot of beer packaging in the re-use category over our CraftRoots lifespan.
That said, 2023 will be the year we step into the canned beer world. Stay tuned for that. We aren't aiming to push our beer further into distribution, just to offer an alternative loaded with a lot of fun new aspects like can art, increased portability, and drinkability. We just want to brew some new beer styles and give them the opportunity to express themselves beyond the glass, with some art and names expressing the CraftRoots brand and vibe.
Quinn, from Amory's Tomb: The biggest challenge for us in 2023 will be wrangling back a taproom model that is sustainable. The brewing industry will face another year of supply chain issues and rising ingredient and energy costs, but I am hopeful it won't be too bumpy. As we have been learning the past few years with massive global trading interruptions, it can take a while to realize the impact of supply shortages. We'll see impacts of crop issues related to drought/flood conditions here and in Europe as well as grain supply issues related to Ukraine.
Gallaghers, from Lost Shoe: Everything keeps getting more expensive, and we have received several notices in the past month from vendors increasing their prices in 2023. Finding the perfect balance of price for our customers to allow us to cover our expenses and pay our employees a living wage is an ongoing topic of conversation. In our industry, we are selling $6-$10 items, and even lower than that for coffee. We have to sell a lot of those items just to cover these increasing costs, so we focus on bringing people to our taproom for various events.
Rondeau, from Penny Pinchers: People seem to be moving back toward sessionability, with lower alcohol content so they can drink more than one beer at a time. That is one thing we specialize in, so we are excited to see how people respond to our beer.
Gallaghers, from Lost Shoe: We are excited to see more breweries doing lagers and bringing back classic styles. Hazies, stouts, and fruited sours aren’t going away any time soon, and we’re excited to see how those evolve, but seeing classic styles make a bit of a comeback makes us happy.
Quinn, from Amory's Tomb: We're not a super trendy group, but low-alcohol beer is a trend I am excited to see growing and definitely follow (just please don't call/lump them all as session beers). Piquette-style ales, table bier, mild ale, grisette, 8-9º lagers, any and all of these!
Fabry, from CraftRoots: I've been brewing more lagers, which are always a thrill to release. I enjoy seeing our customers' eyes light up when they see a new beer on our tap list, especially a lager, because they don't quite expect lagers regularly just yet. I’ve kept it to pilsners, Viennas. I'd love to brew a Schwarzbier, maybe a few more lighter lager styles too, like a Helles.
Milford has a very diverse ethnic make up, and I often hear customers wish for a beer that would remind them of their familiar dark lagers. This is a great technical brewing challenge for me to pursue.
Rondeau, from Penny Pinchers: We are always excited to do new experimental brews! Nothing on the books yet, but people should follow us on social media to see what the crew comes up with next.
Gallaghers, from Lost Shoe: We have finally started to settle into our core beers available on a rotating or seasonal basis. Our Crossroads of New England series is exciting because we get to experiment with two different hop varietals, and our Galoshes of Fortune series allows us to push the boundaries on our fruited-sour offerings. What we are most excited about this year are the beers we have planned with other breweries.
Quinn, from Amory's Tomb: I can't talk specifics yet because it hasn't been announced, but there is a beer I have been toying with in my head for a while and I think 2023 is the year. Think hoppy, spicy, and fruity married with tequila and wine.