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07.2014

Massachusetts Beverage Business

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Article By: Lew Bryson

If you think that, you’ve got vision problems: How about Samuel Adams? Boston Lager? Not to mention Narragansett (even if you won’t admit the Lager as “craft”, there’s the excellent Bock and Oktoberfest), and Thomas Hooker, and . . . um . . . New England Elm City . . . and Notch Pilsner . . .

Okay, there aren’t a LOT of craft lagers in New England. But one new craft brewery has focused on them exclusively, and it’s creating a buzz that’s zapping across the Massachusetts beer aficionado community, tying into several trends – local ingredients, wild hopping, tweaks of traditional styles, session beer – that are flying high.

Jack’s Abby
is stirring things up,
and that was the plan from the beginning.

THE FRAMINGHAM BREWERY was started January, 2O11, by the three Hendler brothers – Jack, Eric and Sam – and named for Jack’s wife Abby (it’s also a tip of the hat to the European monastic “abbey” brewing tradition). Jack, the oldest, is an experienced brewer, with about seven years at a large brewpub and a production brewery under his belt, and a brewing certificate program earned through Doemens, the prestigious German brewing school.

All three brothers have worked together before. “We grew up in a family business,” Sam Hendler told me, “the packaged ice business. We worked there from the time we could carry seven-pound bags of ice (that’s 5-years-old, if you’re interested). We drove delivery trucks; our dad worked about 1OO hours a week during the summertime. The family sold the business just before Jack graduated from college.”

Hard work fits into the brewery plan – lagers are more work and more costs for the same amount of beer that an ale brewer puts out. “There’s a bigger capital investment . . .,” Sam confirmed. “If we were brewing ales, we could pump  out almost twice as much beer as we can with lagers; it’s at least a month between brew day and packaging day, ales can do that in fourteen days.”

So why fight the uphill fight? “For us, it’s about making really, really different beer,” Sam said. “It’s more than us trying to fight the big boys, and that’s what Boston Brewing and Narragansett are in eastern Massachusetts. We’re trying to show the adventurous craft drinkers what really different, interesting lagers can be. Bringing American craft innovation into the lager scene is what we’re all about.”

Some folks are already there. Tom Welton is the operations manager for the beer side at Julio’s Liquors in Westborough, one of the largest off-premise accounts for the brewery. “I drink probably more lagers than anything else,” he said. “They’re clean, crisp . . . Sometime the funky yeast and hops in an ale can get in the way of the clean flavor; 1O% ABV and 1OO IBUs can mask a lot more then it helps.”

If you’re drinking the brewery’s flagship Jabby Brau, or the summer seasonal Leisure Time Lager (a lightly witbier-spiced tribute to the name of the family’s ice business), you’ll probably get all that. But, as Sam said and Welton clearly understands, the other Jack’s Abby beers are definitely more than that. “They’re something a little unique,” he said. “They have the lager thing, but do it differently; they’re taking the American craft styles and doing them as lagers. “

“I got the lager heaviness, but the super-fresh meeting with the hops did it to me, and one of the big ones in the mix is Citra, which is a big hop, taking names and stealing hearts.” That’s the Craft Beer Cellar’s (in Belmont) Suzanne Schalow rhapsodizing over her first taste of Hoponius Union, a Jack’s Abby take on the west coast IPA, lager-style.

Things like that get people buzzing about this brewery. Talk to any craft beer drinker in eastern Massachusetts, and if the conversation lasts more than five minutes, it’s a good bet that Jack’s Abby will come up – either for the session strength of Jabby Brau, or the use of Massachusetts-grown grain and brewer-grown hops, or that Citra slap in Hoponius Union, or the GABF medal-winning taste of Smoke & Dagger, their smoky schwarzbier.

What’s the story? Are they social media geniuses? They do have an exceptionally clean and easy-to-use website, but Schalow says they’re not particularly talkative on Twitter or Facebook. Lots of promotions? Not compared to another high-buzz (but low alcohol) brand, Notch, founded by the tireless Chris Lohring.

“It’s a sweet little story,” Schalow said, musing on the question. “I don’t think Sam was even 21 when they started up. Their beers are in four-packs of half-liter bottles, so they stand out on the shelf. But the real thing is that they Just. Make. Damned. Good. Beer.” That goes a long way.

She’s been selling Hoponius and the current seasonals as fast as they come in. “By judgment of the people,” she said, “who try it and keep coming back for it, it’s great. We have trouble keeping it on the shelf, but we smile and take what we can get. We don’t even order it at this point; if they’ve got it, they send it. The bottle I’m looking at right now was bottled three weeks ago, and that’s kind of old for them. Usually I’m selling a product on Friday that was bottled a week before, or even Monday. They’re with Atlantic, who are right there in Framingham, and they seem to have a great relationship.”

Welton agreed, saying that at Julio’s, the Jack’s Abby beers are selling, well . . . “Phenomonally. It’s the usual craft drinkers buying them, but also local drinkers who hear about it and want to drink something local; they might not even be craft drinkers. They get it on the session beer wave too.”

The brothers are on top of the supply problem (a great problem to have, of course, but still a problem). “We just did an 8O% expansion on tank capacity,” Sam said, “and we signed a lease to expand our square footage this summer. We’ll about double it. We’re hoping to be able to have some projects up in that space by the end of the year.”

If that kind of growth continues, will they be able to keep up their use of local ingredients? They can always plant more hops, and the grain angle’s coming along. “Right now about 1O% of our grain is locally-grown,” Sam said. “Previously it was all unmalted grain, but we’re using more from Valley Malts (in Hadley), and as we get better at using it, we hope to grow that number. The consistency of their product has been great the last few months. We’re thrilled with it, we can say we’re using locally-grown stuff, and we can literally go and look at our grain growing in the spring.”

That’s the kind of story, and detail, that makes a great opportunity for hand-selling, and that’s exactly what Sam and his brothers are hoping for. “What we’re looking for is package stores that are willing to hand-sell beer,” Sam explained. “While we’ve gotten a lot of buzz in the craft beer industry, we’re still relatively unknown to the average beer drinker. Where we do great is with a knowledgeable staff who can sell beer. We’re willing to do staff training and tasting, but we need a commitment from someone in the section to talk about our beer.”

Welton’s ready, and the beers they’re supplying are making it a good sell. “The Jabby Brau is easy to like,” he noted, “and the summer seasonal (Leisure Time Lager) is real drinkable. There’s absolutely a crossover effect for mainstream drinkers on these beers.”

That’s always a great angle for a craft lager brewer to take, even when they’re brewing rye biere de garde, and smoked schwarzbier, and barrel-aged doublebock. There’s a great market out there for a solid lager beer.

“You look at the amount of Boston Lager that’s sold every year,” said Sam, “and then there’s the craft drinker who just wants something tasty that isn’t over the top. I think we can bite into the market.”

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