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09.2008

Massachusetts Beverage Business

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Article By: Fred Bouchard

Craft brewing is a New England tradition that took hold and made major inroads into big brewing. After Sam Adams came – among others – Harpoon, Ipswich, Tremont, and Buzzards Bay in Massachusetts; Geary’s, Shipyard, Sea Dog, and Atlantic in Maine; Catamount, Long Trail, Magic Hat, and Otter Creek in Vermont, and Redhook/Widmer’s in New Hampshire. But what’s brewin’ in Southern New England?

Not very much.
Curt Cameron saw that as a positive sign for growing a brand.
“Some say [that Connecticut]
doesn’t support local product. 
We pooh-poohed that idea,”
says Cameron.

What we thought was lacking was the magic combination of efficient management, excellent product and improved distribution. The original brewery was a 15OO square foot plant in a rough corner of Hartford; we moved it to a pleasant spot in suburban Bloomfield, built an 85OO square foot sparkling showcase brewery and added a gift shop and tasting room that has made it a destination for beer lovers and families. We’re going local, now growing our own aroma hops. We’re striving to be Connecticut’s beer.”

Curt Cameron, president of Thomas Hooker tells about his acquisition of The Thomas Hooker Brewery and what’s going on. Even with a product line of ten items including some usual suspects (Pale Ale, Lager), a few surprises (Doppelbock, Watermelon Ale) and a staunch and growing local following, Hooker’s affable president recognizes that eager over-expansion is neither a wise nor viable marketing strategy. The brewery is producing about 5OOO barrels annually, and is expecting to increase production to a comfortable capacity of 1O,OOO to 12,OOO barrels in the foreseeable future.

When asked what Hooker’s flagship brews are, Cameron smiles and shakes his head. “Life at the brewery would be a lot easier if we could say, oh yeah, our Lager is our runaway favorite. But that’s simply not the case. Regional tastes vary widely. In Pennsylvania, our best seller is IPA, in Connecticut it’s Blonde Ale, and in New York it’s Irish Ale. It’s keeping us on our toes to try to excel at ten distinct products.”

Rather than going for a throw-it-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks marketing method, Cameron sees a more controlled approach as the way to grow a small beer brand.

“We get lots of enquiries from distributors nationwide to carry our beer, but we don’t want to send it out in a shotgun approach, and then end up falling short on our distribution deals. There’s nothing worse than having your product go over great guns and then not have production facilities to give it to them.

“We try to find distributors who share our corporate culture, that is, who fit in with our mindset regarding the marketing perspective and smart operations. We usually meet with people who are referred to us by other breweries and distributors. We don’t jump into it. If it seems like a good fit, we’ll cut a deal. For example, we don’t work with the biggest or the smallest, either. Atlantic Importing Company distributes us in Massachusetts. In Connecticut, we were picked up by AB (Budweiser), which, though a behemoth, is neither nameless nor faceless; I can still call the president and go to lunch with him. In Pennsylvania, we went with Stockertown Beverage because they’re a very beer knowledgeable outfit in a sophisticated beer market. Though they’re much smaller, they focus on craft beers. A lot of it comes down to a good feeling and personal chemistry.”

In New England, Hooker has distributors in Rhode Island and Maine, but not Vermont and New Hampshire. Elsewhere in the East, they’re now found in Eastern Pennsylvania, New York City and Long Island, and Metro Atlanta. Recently, a deal for distribution in Central Florida has been signed.

“Before I got into the beer business,” says Cameron, “I formed an investment group, NE Beverage Company, which founded large package stores in Connecticut.*

That gave me a 3-year stint in the liquor business from a retail perspective. We divested the stores at a handsome profit to investors who were attracted to the turnkey business model. They liked our shops and we’ve remained friends and have continued to offer advice for over three years.

“We’d done innovative things in the liquor stores (such as building a software infrastructure that allowed customers to track and rate wines online, track and view their purchases, and make notes on them in what amounts to a virtual wine cellar. We had kiosks in the store that customers could use to view their notes and help their purchasing decisions. The most common question we heard was, ‘What was that wine you sold me last time? I loved it but can’t remember the name . . .’  All we’d do is bring up their account and see what it was they’d bought. Customers loved it, of course, and it kept them coming back.”

An attorney who eventually became Cameron’s partner recommended that they take a long look at the Hooker Brewery. It had a fantastic regional reputation and a line of well-received products; yet it was just hobbling along because it badly needed fulltime management. “When we made inquiries,” continued Cameron, “Hooker’s owners made it clear that they were ready to sell. It was very good timing, they made it easy for us to buy and it was an ideal situation all-round. One significant marketing factor was the niche aspect. We contrasted Connecticut with other New England states, with their many dominant beer brands. There’s no big brand that says ‘Connecticut’, compared to the state’s hefty demographic. With no clear-cut hometown product to compete with, we looked at that as a huge opportunity.”

* Cameron, though born and raised in Connecticut, built his business acumen in the vastly different environment of software in Silicon Valley.  He graduated with computer science and business degrees from Temple University in Philadelphia, went into the software business for 1O years when it was incredibly hot.  His business blasted off, he “made decent coin” but never became a dotcom millionaire.  Between work stints he traveled around California (including wineries) and other domestic destinations.  His East Coast software endeavors as telecommuncations specialist had him building mission-critical call centers for various Fortune 5OO companies by creating advanced solutions (voice recognition and phone/web integration) and customer web-sales interfaces.

Cameron talks about Hooker’s lively and frequent in-house events as generating positive buzz and, as it so happens, a very personal sense of community.

“What we do at the brewery is hold open houses on the first and third Fridays of each month; for $1O, you get the tour, a Hooker pint glass, and a tasting of 4 or 5 of our 1O brews. We donate a portion of the proceeds directly to The Village for Families and Children, one of Hartford’s worthiest established charitable organizations. For no more comprehensive a word, it’s an orphanage, but it’s one that’s survived and thrived over 2OO years. We also promote additional donations to the Village via posters and a donation jar at the bar, from our visitors that may top $4OO a night.” The Village also runs outreach programs that help young mothers and fathers – sometimes single – with lessons in parenting.

Cameron’s directly connected to The Village: he was adopted from the institute as a tiny tot. “In the lottery of life,” he reflects, “I know I’ve been fortunate and I feel very good about being able to give back to those who helped me from the beginning. The Village directors now have asked me to aid their fundraising, and I’m happy doing whatever it takes to help them. When we run our homebrew contest in September, The Village will also be a beneficiary.

“Sam Adams has been very successful with its Longshot Homebrew Festival, this will be our local smaller scale version for Connecticut’s market. Local brewers are used to having certain enthusiasts among their regular customers bring in their brews to try. Here many people have been bugging us to hold a competition, so we’re going with it. The top dog will help our brewmaster Jay Ramos brew and bottle his winning brew on our system, which will be sold through select retailers. Whole Foods and other accomplished chains have signed on.”

As we’re speaking by phone, Cameron reports that he’s in New Hartford, helping to erect and string 14-foot trellises around newly planted hop vines.

He’s 25 miles northwest of Hartford, not far from the Simsbury historical locale for hop-growing called Hop Meadow.  “We have 4O acres on my farm, with an acre planted to aroma hops. It’s our very first crop, and they’re already two feet tall. Hop trellising is a labor-intensive task, because you have to secure strings and ropes to train each plant. But we think of this as more than just a matter of economy with world hop prices skyrocketing – heck, it’s ours and it’s local!” Hooker purchases other hops for bittering from the usual global sources – Washington, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Australia.

“It’s no sissy drink; men who say they don’t like fruit beer have to think again when they taste this one,”

Cameron enthuses about Hooker Brewery’s latest (tenth) product, which shipped in July. “Our creation is fruit flavory, a Watermelon Ale, based on our Blonde Ale. It’s for ale fans who don’t want a sweet taste or finish but love the fruity aroma. Fruit beers are ‘hot’ in the marketplace, particularly in summer. Our brewmaster Jay Ramos came up trumps with this one. It may smell like a Jolly Rancher, but the flavor is all beer!”

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