Earlier this week the team from Clown Shoes, a long-time New England-based contract brewery stood on the brew deck at Harpoon in Boston and mashed in batches of Galactica IPA and The Exorcist stout, on what was now officially their system. The brew day came less than a week after it was announced that Harpoon, the venerable brewery of traditional ales would acquire the brand that was once known for irreverent and childish beer names like Tramp Stamp, a Belgian-style IPA.
“I can tell you, it’s not who they are, I know they did it, it’s one of those stupid things they regret, and it’s not who they are today,” says Harpoon co-founder and CEO Dan Kenary. That particular label has been retired for a while, although stigmas remain for some customers.
In a telephone conversation last week Kenary talked of how after he initially dismissed the idea of bringing a brand like Clown Shoes into the Harpoon fold, he eventually came to realize how it would be beneficial to both businesses. First and foremost, he said, the misogynistic past along with beer names in poor taste, has been addressed “we’re going to be reviewing all of that, and we’re not looking to censor these guys, but there’s a right way to do things and that’s the direction they had already been going, and that we’ll continue to go.”
2017 has been an interesting year for those who follow brewery acquisitions. While the focus had long been on larger companies like Anheuser-Busch InBev or Constellation Brands purchasing smaller breweries and adding them to an already big portfolio, the last few months have brought an increase of what’s best described as “craft on craft” deals.
And while some might shake their heads in confusion at this particular deal, the truth is that it’s beneficial to both sides. For the employees of Clown Shoes, it means retaining their creative spirits, existing footprint, and fan base while getting regular access to both of Harpoon’s breweries (in Boston and Windsor, Vermont) without worrying about getting on a contract brewery’s calendar. They also become employee owners as part of Harpoon’s structure. For Harpoon it’s a brand that has some cache with a different segment of craft drinkers who flock to the inventive, culinary-forward recipes Clown Shoes is known for along with their graphic-intensive labels.
“There’s a lot we can learn from them and a lot they can learn from us,” Kenary says. The two companies were already aligned in several markets with distribution with no immediate plans to change areas where they aren’t but It’s a good bet that customers will soon see Clown Shoes beer on offer at both Harpoon taprooms. A retail location for Clown Shoes could also be a reality in due course, but for now that arm of the brewery will have its own office space in Woburn, a town northwest of Boston. Kenary says it was important for Clown Shoes to have its own area to be creative and continue to do what they’ve been doing since its founding in 2009.
Long-time students of beer history will also remember that this isn’t Harpoon’s first acquisition. The brewery in Vermont was known as Catamount, before Harpoon purchased it in 2000. However, this time is a bit different.
“That was an asset play for the brewery and the brand and we wanted an anchor location. That’s what Catamount provides us. It was about hard assets back then.,” Kenary said. “This acquisition with Clown Shoes is about people and a brand.”