Article By: Andy Crouch
Matt Steinberg is a rare breed in the beer business, an individual who understands the intricate details of how to both brew and sell beer. Derived from entrepreneurial stock – his father, Barry, founded Direct Tire and Auto – Matt understands the artistic and economic sides of the business and has long demonstrated a keen ability for salesmanship of his quality beers. Having developed a passion for homebrewing while in college, Matt briefly worked for his father before finding his way into the beer industry through a job with the Harpoon Brewery in Boston. Many years later, Matt helped design the Mayflower Brewing Company from the ground up. Owner Drew Brousseau, Matt and Mayflower recently played host to brewers from around the country during the annual Craft Brewers Conference, which was held in Boston this year. Along with brewer Will Meyers of the Cambridge Brewing Company, Mayflower brewed the conference’s Symposium Ale, called the Audacity of Hops, which was a hit with attendees. I recently spoke with Steinberg to hear more about his background and his thoughts on issues facing the industry.
ANDY CROUCH How’d you become interested in brewing?
MATT STEINBERG I developed a passion for it by brewing at home. I tried all sorts of experimental beers using alternative ingredients that fifteen or sixteen years ago weren’t all that popular and available. It became fairly obsessive behavior and I was brewing up to three times a week in five to ten gallon batches. And then I graduated from college and sort of thought, “Well, now what?” I visited the idea of working for my father in the tire business and did that very briefly before getting a job at a brew on-premise [a shop where customers can brew their own beers on-site for later pickup] in Denver, Colorado. That lasted about fifteen months but it was a tough business model and he was having a hard time surviving. At that time, Harpoon started up another batch of its six-pack program, which is basically a paid apprenticeship where they send you around to each department and see where you fit. I enjoyed the people there but didn’t fit into their corporate culture and it just wasn’t what I was looking for. I then started building a Direct Tire in Natick and then popped into the John Harvard’s in Framingham and learned they were hiring for the Cambridge location. I applied and got that job.
AC You have also been heavily involved in the sales side of the business. How did you get that experience?
MS Between John Harvard’s and Offshore Ales, I briefly took my boots off and went to work for Concord Brewing and Rapscallion. While working with Dann Paquette and Mike Labbe, I was really sad not to be brewing. I helped out in the brewhouse a little and knew I had to get back into brewing. I was contacted by Bob Skydell, the owner of Offshore and he said he was looking for a guy who could make his beer, sell his beer, and represent his company out on the mainland as well as on the island. I visited Martha’s Vineyard and he offered me a job and I took it and moved to the island. That was my first job where I had to hit the road and learn the ropes. I knew nothing about the distribution culture in Massachusetts – in that most breweries distribute through the three tier system. And we were a self-distribution brewery so I was learning as quickly how to sell at accounts like Cambridge Common and Bukowski’s in Cambridge and Anam Cara, now the Publick House. Those guys loved what we were doing – I would go in there and they would welcome me with open arms, which helped my confidence. It sparked excitement for me to know I had found the people who loved what we were doing and what I had been searching for with the sales of Concord and Rapscallion. I don’t necessarily want to be in every store, just the ones where people care about us. That’s good and bad in that you miss out on some of the other accounts that may do well even though you don’t know those people. I learned a ton in those jobs.
AC How did you arrangement with Offshore work?
MS My main focus was redeveloping the beer brands for that company and as you know I created a number of new styles for the brewpub as well. I also managed the contract at the time with Casco Bay Brewing. It was a much broader approach. Since we distributed through L. Knife and Sons and Craft Brewers Guild rather than dealing with retailers, I was working with distribution representatives. I was going on ride-withs and making friends with those guys so they would mention my beer when they were out at an account. I also offered incentives to them to sell our beer, so if you hit a certain threshold of how many cases you sold this month, you received a bonus. That helped, but I learned very quickly that was the wrong approach. The right approach is to form the relationships even if you have ninety sales guys doing four hundred skus.
AC How did you get involved with the Mayflower Brewing Company?
MS At the end of my position at Offshore, I still wanted to stay employed with them. I wanted to move off the island to be with my then girlfriend and now wife. We were trying to figure out a way to make that work. The person who bought the brewery was great to work for and had a real vision for his packaged product. He was willing to let me move off the island and become director of operations and represent the brand on the street, while overseeing the new brewer. I was going to be sort of an absentee head brewer. It was a tricky position I never quite figured out. Simultaneously, we were looking for another contract. I had been in touch with Drew Brousseau who was looking to build a brewery in Plymouth and was looking for a brewer. I called him because I wanted to keep my options open or perhaps to brew Offshore’s beer. After talking with Drew a few times, it was clear he wasn’t interested in contract brewing but he was interested in talking to me about a job. He had a few concepts originally but after finding the location in Plymouth he knew that Mayflower was the way to go. He wanted to brew traditional English-style session beers – drinking beers – and that is right up my alley. I was excited to try and brew a packaged product that was consistent and delicious and also not mind-blowingly bitter and high alcohol. We wanted to do some session beers, which was not the popular approach in the craft beer market at the time but it may be coming back. He liked me not only for my background in brewing but because of my sales experience and relationships with distributors and my understanding of the Massachusetts marketplace. And that was his plan, just to sell beer in Massachusetts for a while.
AC That runs counter to what a lot of breweries are doing today, with some making as little as a thousand barrels yet distributing far from home or in eight or ten states. What are your thoughts on this distribution model?
MS I’m sort of torn on it. I understand why a brewery such as The Bruery, which is in California and sells its beer in Massachusetts. I can appreciate that small-batch-spread-it-thin approach in the sense that The Bruery’s owner, Patrick Rue ,knows that people want to try his beers so why not just give it to them. Adam Avery [of the Avery Brewing Company] had the same issue where he was shipping beer all over the country out of a brewery making less than five thousand barrels. Luckily for him his beers have held up in the marketplace and he’s grown to a point where he can supply those markets with beer. His brands do well because of the brand recognition that he’s built over the years. I think a new brewery with zero brand recognition is taking a huge risk placing beer in a market where they have no support. That’s my blanket statement. If you have a guy out there every week or once a month and your beers stand up, then I think it’s fine to be out in the market. It seems the West Coast beers tend to be more successful with that model. And I think it has something to do with the hype that surrounds those beers and the sort of lifestyle that those breweries have shown to the industry. For some reason, there are very few East Coast breweries that ship their beer to California. Besides Dogfish Head I can’t really think of any, maybe Shipyard. None of these really cool, niche breweries are doing it. Maybe Smuttynose would be one, but I don’t think they ship that far. My goal now as a brewer and as someone who manages a distribution company, I like to keep it as close to home as possible. That is the way to go with this brand. Sure people know about the Mayflower in Nebraska, but what do they care about the Mayflower besides that they like the beer. Beyond that, there is really no hook or connection and I think that is why keeping it in Massachusetts for now is the way to go. We do plan on expanding beyond our own distribution abilities and we will be signing with distributors eventually. But I think the model is a really smart and practical approach and is bound for success.
AC Boston’s South Shore has not really been known for craft beer in the past. Tell me about Mayflower’s experience in the region and what you see for the future of craft beer there.
MS We’ve been welcomed with open arms, certainly in Plymouth. When I first came here, I expected that people would be sick of the Mayflower. Isn’t everything Mayflower? I mean, find a Bostonian who goes on a duck boat tour. I thought they would be tired of it but they love it and its historical significance and connection to the local area. We have locals who every week bring more and more friends to the brewery to show what is happening here. The South Shore particularly is a very strange market as you mentioned. There are good package stores and consumers down here who want to drink craft beer. You have some larger chain stores that are bringing in most of the Craft book and the Atlantic book as well as ours. They don’t have everything but they have a good mix of quality beer that can get people excited. And now that they have their own local brewery they are totally jazzed about it. We walk into a store and they say, “Wow, you’re local and you bring it to me yourself – alright, I’m on board.”
AC Of all the beers in Mayflower’s portfolio, the most buzzed about offering has to be the porter. Tell me about how you developed that beer.
MS It’s probably my favorite style to make. I’ve spent time thinking about how beer styles developed and every beer style came from somewhere. I was reading about porter years ago and I love this story about the three threads [an old tale about how porter developed from a drink of three different beers added together]. Drew and I were looking on the internet and we saw these three ropes strapped together over the side of a vessel. We both had this spark about it, three ropes, three threads, let’s use this. We developed the brand before we designed the beer, which is sort of weird and backwards but I didn’t even have a brewhouse yet. So then I started to think about a porter that is lower in alcohol than your average and one that is roasty and chocolaty without being acrid. I don’t want it to be very hoppy and I want it to be very drinkable and fairly dry because I want craft beer enthusiasts and newbies to like it. I think I kind of lucked out to be honest because I added some peat smoked malt that gives it a mellow, subtle flavor that rounds out all of the other flavors. The whole idea of the beer was to make a session porter and it’s unbelievable how it’s come together so well.