Article By: Lew Bryson
“Dann’s somewhat famous for failing,” Martha says. “This time, people really wanted him to succeed.” That’s Dann Paquette, the brewer of Pretty Things beers, that Martha’s talking about; she’s Martha Holley-Paquette, Dann’s wife and partner in the Pretty Things Beer & Ale Project.
Dann smiles wryly at this spousal evaluation, nodding, and says, “Yeah. I was like the White Sox.”
You might expect this kind of humor from the people who came up with Pretty Things. After all . . . it’s a beer . . . called “Pretty Things”. Is that just to make beer people say “I’d like some Pretty Things, please.”?
Dann claims that it was not named for any particular reason, but Martha grins and says, “Our name is a superpower. It makes lame people go away, and it brings us together with people who like our beer. It appeals to people who like beer, but aren’t beer-centric. We were making a counter-culture brand.”
Bill Barksdale, the manager at New England Wine & Spirits in Newburyport confirms that idea. “Pretty Things is biggest with the 21-plus drinkers . . . oh, up to about 4O. It doesn’t really resonate with the older market,” he says, then explains that it’s a whole package.
“The initial attraction is the labels,” he begins, nodding to the colorful, sometimes darkly whimsical illustrations on the bottles. “It’s curb appeal. Then there’s the craft aspect of it: the labels really look home-made. You look at the bottle, it’s inviting. Each label tells a story, and once they taste the beer . . . it’s a wow factor beer. Interesting flavors, interesting recipes.”
Dann comes to this with a history, as Martha noted. He started brewing in the early 199Os, with Pilgrim Brewing. They were brewing at Ipswich, and sometimes in Lowell, “and sometimes we wound up brewing batches of Ipswich, too,” he said. Over the next ten years he would brew at John Harvard’s in Cambridge, at North East brewpub in Allston (“That was great,” he recalls. “Make the one light-colored beer, and you could make whatever else you wanted.”), then, as he puts it, “The Concord/Rapscallion thing,” and finally he replaced brewer Tod Mott at The Tap in Haverhill before leaving for England, where he worked at the Daleside Brewery in north Yorkshire.
“It was totally different in every way,” he recalls. “Very labor-intensive: every sack of malt, I lifted four times. Open fermenters, and we actually cropped the yeast off the top. But the process was perfect. The best and quickest ways to do things was handed down from the best brewers. And they’re lucky: the beer is coddled at every step.”
As he talks about it, you might think he was romanticizing, and this is where he got the idea for Pretty Things. Don’t think that. “It was cold, and wet and slightly grim,” he says. He found it tough to make friends; “I really couldn’t understand what they said!” The brewery was making beautiful, cask-conditioned real ale . . . and none of the workers drank it. “Real ale was for old men,” they would say.
Still, the experience was inspiring, and when they returned to the US, they were ready to take a shot. They had put together “about $9OOO”, and contracted a brew at Paper City in Holyoke. “We bought bottles labels, and thirteen lousy kegs,” Dann recalls. “We made the first batch of Jack D’Or . . . and we were broke. We had good friends that owned beer bars, though, and they said, ‘We’re selling your beer, no question.’ The problem was that the beer was selling! We had no money to make more beer.”
After the money came in from that first sale, and more beer was brewed – in several places, though mostly now at the brewery formerly known as Buzzard’s Bay, in Westport (“We’re not contract brewers,” Martha says, “we’re sleep-in-our-car-stay-’til-it’s-done brewers. Dann and I have brewed every drop of Pretty Things.”) – things got more stable. “We’ve had no real problems getting beer,” said Barksdale. “It’s doing extremely well. We’ve carried Pretty Things since almost the first month they came out.”
The beers are not really easy to define. As they say on their website (prettythingsbeertoday.com), “At Pretty Things we don’t brew styles per se. Instead, we re-imagine everything and leave the style numbers in books on the shelves where they belong.” Put aside preconceptions.
Jack D’Or, Dann says, “is our flagship saison. It’s the perfect beer. It’s flexible, and it’s golden.” Baby Tree: “inspired by abbey quadruple – dark, strong.” St. Botolph’s: “a rustic brown ale. The boys at Daleside would call it a strong ale.” The seasonals are moving targets, and Dann and Martha make new ones up on the fly.
Although they’re not about replication of beers, they both love the beers of Yorkshire, where small traditional brewers survive: not micros or crafts, but islands of local brewing experience. They spent part of their honeymoon in Belgium, and you’ll see those beery influences as well (though Pretty Things beers don’t include spices just fruits, good English malts, bold hops, and rambunctious ale yeasts).
They’ve also been doing a few beers with amateur beer historian Ron Pattinson, an Englishman living in the Netherlands who’s unearthed (and scanned) two centuries of brewing notebooks in English archives. The beers have names like “December 6th, 1855 EIP”, and “February 27th, 1832 Mild Ale”, because that’s exactly what they are, not inspired beers, or homages or tweaks.
“There’s a lot of interpretation of historic beers out there,” Dann says. “The George Washington, Thomas Jefferson stuff, it’s silly. Those recipes have no amounts on them. Our hands are tied; we take the recipes right out of the brewers’ handbooks from that particular day. We try to keep it as authentic as possible. People hear the story on these beers, and they love it. We make 1OO barrels of each one, and we sell all of it.”
Of course it does, says Barksdale, and explains. “It’s priced correctly within the category,” he notes, with an obvious appreciation for a brewer who understands that. “And it tastes great. He’s got good flavors, and great labels, and enough of them to create a shelf effect – a Pretty Things area instead of just a couple SKUs. That makes visibility.” The beers are selling in Massachusetts, New York City, eastern Pennsylvania, and Washington, DC – very little sits on the shelf for long.
What’s next, where will Pretty Things head? “We don’t know,” Dann says. “We don’t have enough to build a brewery, but we’re making enough to live on. We’re on track for 3OOO barrels this year.” That’s actually an astoundingly large number, given the youth of the brand and the circumstance.
And maybe he recalls that time in Daleside a bit more fondly. “I’m looking for a vintage brewhouse,” he admits. “We pay more ounce for ounce for our beer anyway; what’s more labor costs?”
He laughs. “We do what we like,” Martha says with simple confidence, and it’s easy to believe her. Dann may have a reputation for failing, but it’s looking like Pretty Things may have broken the curse.