In this interview with Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine®’s Jamie Bogner, Sam Richardson, the cofounder and brewer, talks about line life, new locations, and how the brewery has become more of a hospitality company these days.
CBB // When it comes to your customers, I know that you care. When you’re talking about beer, it’s not just about making one sale; it’s about building a relationship between your brand and people so that they keep coming back. How did that happen?
SR // I think that what has developed around our brewery is a community. A lot of people come here regularly, and they’re friends with each other, so we’ve built up more than just a brewery. We’re incredibly lucky that has sprung up around us. We’ve kind of come to the conclusion that we are now almost more of a hospitality company than a brewery. We’re trying to take care of people who come here. So much of our business is direct to customer, and we’ve realized that is how we have to focus our energies, making sure people feel taken care of and that when they stand in line, they’re going to get the beer they want. Managing all that took a lot of time to figure out.
My partner, Andrew, has done the lion’s share of the work on that. There will always be people who are upset about certain aspects of standing in line, and we hear about it, usually through social media. But the majority of people don’t complain. We’ve worked really hard to streamline our process to make the lines short.
Also, we’ve tried to make more beer because that’s ultimately the thing that solves a lot of the problems: making beer available to people. It’s kind of cool to have people freak out and wait in line and to blow through all the beer in 2 hours and then you’re done. And if that’s all you know, your ego loves it. You think, “Oh, everyone loves our beer,” but then you realize that there are so many people who are missing out on the opportunity to try the beer. That’s not really the company we want to be. We want more people to try it.
So we’ve been striving to make more beer and make it more accessible. We still have some crazy releases, such as our fifth anniversary, which was insane, but that’s not normally how it is around here on a Saturday. There are some people here waiting in line. They buy some beer, and then we have some beer left over, and people come all day long and buy the remaining beer because they know now that they don’t have to do the line thing. But I think what people need to realize is that the line culture is not just about the beer. It’s about the community that builds up around it.
CBB // Do you sit on Untappd and watch people rating the beer within a half hour of when you release it?
SR // I don’t obsessively look at it, but I check it because if I don’t, we’re not doing our due diligence in trying to make better products. Right now, the push is for New England IPA, for adjunct beers, and those are honestly kind of pushing the envelope. We throw some stuff into beer that we’re not 100 percent sure is going to be great when we do it, but we have to take the risk. It’s creating a unique product.
I still love to make things such as Pilsner or helles and even West Coast IPA. We all know how to do that, but how do I make a sour beer with fruit and graham cracker? That’s not for everybody. I get it. Not everybody is going to want to drink that beer. But in the end, when we make something that is interesting and tastes good and people are excited about it, I feel really good about that. I feel like we accomplished something.
CBB // You’re in the midst of some significant expansions. You opened up a brewery in Rochester that you’ve purchased from a defunct brewery and are fixing up, and you’re going to focus on some different kinds of beer up there. You just announced that you’re going to open up a second spot in Williamsburg in Brooklyn, a taproom. Why is this the right time to grow and invest in your business in such a way?
SR // I think the misconception is that we’re going to be producing a lot of beer. We’re adding capacity outside of Rochester of about 5,000 barrels. That’s not very much beer. What we’re trying to do is create more direct-to-customer situations. That’s one of our strengths, something we’re very good at. I think there’s no better way to get customers than to be able to engage them directly, and the more opportunities we create for that, the better. Our staff is very good at engaging the public and being involved. As I said, we’ve become more of a hospitality company at this point because of that.
Williamsburg is about 4 miles from us. But yeah, New York City is such a big place that there are people who live in Williamsburg who will never come to our brewery here just because it’s super inconvenient for them. Again, we want to create opportunities for people to come and engage with us directly. So we’re going to have a small brewery in Williamsburg just because we like to have beer made on location. It’s just not going to be very much beer.
I think the problem with the industry right now is the older model, which is breweries going only to distribution. Your margins are so terrible until you get to a really large size. Then when you get to that large size, you’re vulnerable because it’s so hard to be nimble and change. I think that’s where the fear is right now. We’re not getting much bigger; we’re just trying to have more direct customer opportunities.
CBB // You know that other brewers I’ve talked to have sung your praises in terms of being able to evaluate and build hops blends when they’ve collaborated with you. So you’ve developed a reputation for being particularly good at rubbing hops and figuring out blends that produce great beers. From your perspective, how did you build that skill, that talent, that experience?
SR // It all starts with hops selection, and it’s something that we’ve been trying to be as involved with as possible from the get-go. You really only get to select hops at a certain volume, so it does pay to be slightly bigger. That’s been a big motivator for us. People automatically assume that as you get bigger, you’re going to start falling off a bit, that your beer is not going to be as good. But honestly, when you have good systems in place, you’re good. And then it’s sourcing your ingredients.
CBB // I think people underestimate the importance of being able to select your own hops. What kind of philosophy do you take in selecting?
SR // We pick what we think is the best. As much as I want consistency in the beers throughout the year, honestly, if we can get a lot of Citra that’s the best lot I’ve ever experienced, but we can only get one pallet of it, which will only last us a month, we’re going to make and promote the best Citra beers we’ve ever done for the month.
People just want really good beer, and I don’t think they know if we get two different lots or notice the difference too much. But if they have something that is incredible, they are going to be annoyed next time that it tastes a little different. They are going to remember that one because it does make that much of a difference.
CBB // So what’s next? What’s exciting about beer in general right now?
SR // I think we’re pretty comfortable in our own clothes when it comes to the IPA game. We’re feeling pretty good about our stouts, too. I think that the thing that we’re most excited about right now is—and is going to be for a while—our mixed-culture, spontaneous ales that we’ll make upstate. We brought on Eric Salazar from New Belgium this month, and we’re going to start working on that program. I don’t expect that to be our bread and butter, but it’s a passion project for us. I’m hoping we’re going to get people really interested in it.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.