In the knee jerk–reaction climate surrounding beer these days, the philosophy that Wachusett Brewing Company (Westminster, Massachusetts) espouses sounds almost quaint.
“For us, it’s a classic case of doing the right things, staying true to ourselves, and letting the business come to us,” says Christian McMahan, the brewery’s president.
The brewery, which broke into the Brewers Association top-fifty craft breweries list earlier this year, also got a boost in overall business by being an early adaptor of the hard-seltzer craze.
Staying true, McMahan says, means that when it found a beer that worked for its consumer base—namely Blueberry Ale, its 4.5 percent ABV year-round wheat-ale offering that has long been the brewery’s flagship—it stuck with it.
“If you look at twenty-year-plus craft breweries, some struggled to get a flagship going, and then when they did, they maybe saw it drop ten or twenty percent, and then they had to innovate to make up for volume,” McMahan says. “Our Blueberry Ale is the number-one fruit beer in New England, and after all these years, it continues to grow.”
That’s not to say the brewery hasn’t innovated in the past few years. Like so many other breweries, it has released a hazy IPA, Wally; a session hazy IPA, Wally Jr.; and an “extra juicy” version called Wally Juice whose blood-orange addition gives it an amber hue.
Then there’s a more traditional (looking) IPA with a lot of the modern tropical-fruit aromas and flavors. Mass Soul (say it fast) first debuted earlier this year but is quickly gaining a following.
What stands out about Wally and its variants is that it’s available at retail, not just from a garage bay at the brewery. Capitalizing on the style’s popularity while making it shelf stable has helped the brewery accelerate its annual production. Last year, the brewery made 70,000 barrels, up from 55,000 just two years ago and 23,000 barrels in 2011.
A recent purchase from a brewery auction in Washington State will add new 800-barrel fermentors and 350-barrel bright tanks, and McMahan says the brewery could do more than 82,000 barrels this year.
Wachusett’s first two decades of growth were possible thanks to a custom-built brewhouse fabricated by the Brewers/Founders Ned LaFortune, Kevin Buckler, and Peter Quinn—three engineering students smitten with brewing culture who opened their own place in 1994. That first brewhouse was replaced with a 50-barrel brewhouse with custom in-house controls. The canning line is a workhorse, a rescued Coca-Cola filler from a Caribbean plant that can handle up to 800 cans a minute.
And that’s good because the brewery, which was an early adopter of cans, has seen tremendous growth in that area. Still, McMahan says, the traditional 12-ounce bottles are still popular with the core audience.
“We have a bottle franchise that’s healthy,” he says, noting that Country Pale Ale, their original pale ale, and Blueberry Ale both do well in glass. Still, cans have allowed them to expand into new places, notably sporting arenas. Back in 2004, the brewery released an IPA called Green Monsta, a nod to the famous outfield wall at Fenway Park.
Fans of New England sports teams are passionate, and not just staying with baseball, the brewery has since released Larry (2009), an Imperial IPA for Celtics’ fans; Bella Czech Pils for Patriots’ supporters; and Brewin’, an American pale ale for the hockey fans. All are available in a “City of Champions” mixed pack.
“This is our home market, our best performing market,” McMahan says. Distribution extends to all of the New England states and into the Mid-Atlantic. Keeping distribution close to home has helped them concentrate beers to a base that has largely been loyal since day one.
Having a concentrated group of distributors also helps the brewery maintain some flexibility when it comes to getting limited-run beers into the market. Recent changes in state law have allowed Wachusett to expand its tasting room and its beer offerings. Now, using a smaller pilot system, the brewery regularly makes beers that are designed for in-house consumption. There are two dozen taps on regularly, and occasionally a keg will make it beyond the brewery walls.
“We started a program that benefits everyone. If we’re going to keep twenty-four beers on draft here, it’s hard to say to a wholesaler, ‘Hey, we have fifteen or twenty kegs of something. Go sell them.’ A lot of brewers are upset about ‘rotation nation,’ and you can be upset about it all you want, but it’s not going away. It’s only going to increase.”
The brewery keeps a data file on all of the on-premise accounts it serves and every two weeks sends out an email with what’s on offer. When an account places an order with the brewery, they just load it onto the truck. The wholesalers love it, McMahan says, because they aren’t tying up a salesperson with one-off beers, and the accounts are happy because they get to pour something new and rare.
Clearly, A Smart Choice
Before he started at Wachusett a year ago, McMahan worked for Boston Beer and then Diageo, a British multinational alcoholic-beverages company, and ran his own brewery-consultancy business. He’s watched the trends and early on saw hard seltzer coming into play. It’s likely that you’ve already seen it on shelves, and this summer you’ll see it in coolers at backyard cookouts.
The brand Wachusett brought to market is called Nauti Seltzer. It’s a natural progression that brought us to this point, starting in the 1990s with Zima, MillerCoors’s citrus-flavored, crystal-clear malt beverage, which is coming back this summer for a limited time. From there, other beer alternatives came to market (think Smirnoff Ice and Bacardi Breezer), and then cider exploded and faded, and hard soda became the hot new thing. Now it’s seltzer, and McMahan says that despite the booming success now, he’s asking two questions about its future: “How high can it go? And for how long?”
“It’s the hockey stick analogy; it can fall off quickly. So we don’t chase everything. We see what fits for us, and this is a natural place for us to spend some time.”
Brewery Tradition and Future
The heart of the company is still beer. As it looks to capitalize on trends and the changing palates of today’s consumers, it also continues to look to the past for inspiration. Earlier this year, the brewery partnered with Fergal Murray, the longtime, but since departed, brewmaster of Guinness, to create a New England stout that combined Irish malts and American hops.
It was a collaboration beer that zigged away from the current trend, bringing together not only industry expertise but also Old School ways of thinking. Dubbed “The Fergal Project,” the beer was a chance to show that not all trends and beers-to-be-excited-about come from breweries prolific with sticker labels on cans.
“I love working with people who are passionate about making great beer and certainly found that with everyone I met at [Wachusett]. The whole creative process was a pleasure,” Murray said after the collaboration. McMahan, who calls Murray “an ambassador for beer and a guy you want to sit around and have a beer with,” says discussions have already started on next year’s collaboration.
It seems almost quaint in today’s beer landscape that a brewery is finding success with a simple pale ale and a fruited wheat. What gets the attention is the hype around haze and candy-bar stouts or ultra-rare brews and batches that are so limited only a few dozen people can taste them at a time. But for Wachusett, at least, it’s knowing the local audience, knowing long-term customers, and staying just nimble enough to get ahead of the trends rather than merely following along with everyone else.
“Everyone loves to predict [the next trend] before it’s here,” McMahan says. “Internally there’s fatigue from brewers and from distributors. Making new beers to keep up with interest is a challenge, but there isn’t consumer fatigue. The consumer dictates to you, not the other way around. This is a journey that isn’t ending anytime soon.”