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The Night Shift Founders Tinker with their Business Like They Tinker with their Beers

The programmer’s approach—test out a new thing, see if it works, then fine-tune and launch the update—has led Boston-area brewery Night Shift into a diverse portfolio of beverages and a flourishing distribution business.

Joe Stange Feb 3, 2021 - 27 min read

The Night Shift Founders Tinker with their Business Like They Tinker with their Beers Primary Image

Night Shift founders Mike O’Mara, Rob Burns, and Michael Oxton

How Night Shift Brewing came into existence is not a unique story among independent breweries. Stop me if you’ve heard it: Three homebrewing buddies start their own brewery. What’s happened since then, however, is anything but common. The story of Night Shift is one of constant testing and branching out into new realms.

What began not quite nine years ago in Boston’s north suburbs as a 3.5-barrel kit in an industrial park has blossomed into a wide-ranging drinks company, including a distribution business that now moves more than 1 million cases per year. Visitors to the Night Shift website don’t see “Our Beers” out front; they see “Our Products,” and the drop-down includes coffee, hard seltzer, hard cider, wine, and coffee. Coming soon: hard tea.
Here’s how it works for them: They get an idea—maybe it comes from the founders, maybe it comes from the team. They try it out on a small scale, with a leading role for innovation brewer Anna Jobe. If it doesn’t work, they keep tweaking until it does, or they move on.

If it does work, they embrace it and go big.

“I’ve been using this phrase a lot recently, so I’ll just use it now,” says cofounder Michael Oxton. “I think of this as firing bullets, right? You’re just trying to get out small little ideas and test the market and get user feedback. And then after a while, it’s like, ‘Okay, customers clearly are into this; we have something going on here. Let’s fire our cannon, so to speak, and bring this out in a bigger batch.’ Maybe do a variety pack, get printed cans, and make it a bigger deal, and send it out to wholesale accounts.”

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The pandemic year of 2020 has been a trial. It led them to call off plans for a new $10 million brewery and taproom in Philadelphia. However, despite everything, Night Shift still managed to increase production, slightly. In 2019 they produced about 39,000 barrels; this year it will be a bit more than 40,000, after leaning into packaged beer and hard seltzer. They expect to produce more than 50,000 barrels in 2021.

“We’ve had constant interruptions to taproom operations, but on the wholesale side, business is up,” Oxton says. “And draft is down, but retail is way up. So, I think we’re in fairly small company, in terms of people who can say that we’re having a generally good year on the business front.

“On all other fronts, it’s been tricky and stressful.”

Their taprooms in Everett and at Lovejoy Wharf in central Boston have occasionally had to close. When they get word of a COVID-19 exposure—whether it’s staff or customers—they shut down, clean, and quarantine. “It’s constantly interruptive,” Oxton says. “But we’re more than willing to follow the guidelines to keep everyone safe.” Better-than-expected patio weather late into the year helped that side of the business. “It’s just obviously more limited than it has been in the past. So, operating until we can’t be operating is the current plan of operation.”

From Bullets to Cannons

Oxton and fellow cofounders Rob Burns and Mike O’Mara launched Night Shift in Everett, Massachusetts, in 2012, sharing an industrial building with fellow startup Idle Hands Craft Ales.

Oxton’s background was in English and communications; O’Mara’s in finance. Burns, who is Night Shift’s president, was a software engineer and entrepreneur. In college—at Bowdoin in Maine, where Burns studied with Oxton until 2007—he started his own online computer sales business. He later worked in engineering jobs at various software companies.

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Oxton says that his friend’s knack for iterations—like software, constantly improved and updated—became part of Night Shift’s DNA. “I’d say that the mix of ‘startup mentality,’ constant tinkering, tweaking, testing, and focus on quality control in his past roles definitely contributed to our initial and ongoing success with Night Shift. Rob has generally been most responsible for pushing our innovation and ensuring our business stays constantly nimble.”

Their initial concept intentionally avoided IPA to embrace Belgian styles, mixed fermentations, culinary ingredients, and corked-and-caged bottles. Yet they kept their minds open and were willing to evolve.

One of those first major evolutions came in 2016, after they had been self-distributing their own beer for four years.

“I started delivering beer out of the back of my Subaru Outback,” Burns says. “We did that initially, just because we weren’t from the industry, and we didn’t know anything. And we thought, well, maybe we should learn.”

The strict franchise law in Massachusetts makes it almost impossible to end contracts with wholesalers. Thus, choosing one is an especially weighty decision that can lock in your business indefinitely. Night Shift came close to signing such a contract in its early years but never quite pulled the trigger. The distributor that they preferred at the time was more wine-centric, which they thought might be a good fit. “Our initial sales strategy was to target more high-end restaurants,” Burns says. “So, it was like, ‘Let’s go with a wine distributor.’ But thankfully, we got cold feet and decided to figure it out ourselves.”

By 2016, they were running out of space and needed a new warehouse anyway. “That’s where we started saying, ‘Maybe we’ll just actually make this a legitimate second business,’” Burns says. “Then, just through talking to other brewers in the industry, they were struggling with a similar decision to what we had in the beginning: ‘I don’t really like any of the wholesale options. They’re all so big. I’m so small. I don’t want to get locked into the franchise law. I wish there were other options in the market.’
“And we’re like, ‘Well, we’re building this for ourselves. How much harder could it be if we added somebody else’s beer to the truck? That should be a win-win for everyone.’”

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It wasn’t easy—there were plenty of challenges as they learned that side of the business. Their approach was to grow it carefully. They started with four brewers. Later, they added a few more. Then, Burns said, “‘Let’s add wine. Let’s add spirits. Let’s add non-alc.’”

“It’s kind of crazy to think that we went from selling 20 cases a day out of the back of my Subaru to potentially selling a million cases of beer on an annual basis,” Burns says. “But I think we always like to start small, kind of test it, prove out a concept. And then, if it makes sense to, we throw gasoline on the fire and accelerate it.”

Day Shift: Getting into Coffee

Within their first year of running Night Shift Distributing, they had opened up the portfolio to non-beer drinks. Oxton says that widened their perspective.

“I think it was just like, ‘Oh, wow, we can figure out some of these worlds that aren’t beer, and play the games in these worlds, and have some fun,’” he says. “And then there’s the temptation of, ‘Well, this is awesome, but why don’t we just make it ourselves?’”

Their first big step was adding the drink that they enjoyed every morning anyway. “Coffee seemed fairly easy in terms of barrier to entry,” Oxton says. “A roaster is just not that much money to put in place. So, we could start a really small-batch roaster, relatively cheaply, and get some beans out the door.”

They also have a café at the Lovejoy Wharf location in Boston, where they can get instant feedback on different varieties and roasts. “We can sell the beans direct,” Oxton says. “And hey, what’s awesome about coffee? You can sell it online. And it’s not subject to all the rules and regulations of alcohol.”

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Burns says that they had also noticed the trends around non-alcoholic drinks. “And coffee was something we’re super passionate about as consumers,” he says. When they traveled around the country visiting breweries or events, they would bring back beans from small roasters. They would brew full pots in the morning to share.

“And I always like the cheesy little slogan,” Burns says, “‘Day or night, we have a beverage for you.’”

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(Left) Inside the Lovejoy Wharf taproom. (Right) The Lovejoy Wharf patio is a short walk to Boston’s TD Garden.

“This Is Disgusting”: Selling the Team on Hard Seltzer

“Actually, this is kind of a funny story,” Oxton says. It starts with how ideas come to the surface at Night Shift.

“We really encourage people to push whatever ideas forward,” Oxton says. “But I do think more often than not, the three founders are usually the ones coming up with a lot of the craziest—like, ‘Hey, look, why don’t we try this out?’ And a lot of the time our staff can just be like, ‘Nah, that’s crazy. Don’t do that.’ And usually, they’re right.

“But every so often, I think we get one right.”

Hard seltzer was one of those ideas, he says. But it took a while. The founders were talking about it back in 2018, when hard seltzer’s popularity was just beginning to spike. They asked themselves, “Can we make something that we’re proud of?”

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“So, we took it kind of seriously, in terms of getting staff input on this,” Oxton says. He and a few people from the marketing team went to Total Wines and stocked up on different brands. Burns bought a bunch, too, as did others. “A ton of people ended up getting us all this hard seltzer,” Oxton says, “and we did this giant tasting panel with a bunch of staff. We had them come in and do blind tastings with the little sample cups. There was a Google form to fill out—it was like a three-day feedback session.

“And the overall consensus, if you like—just looking at what our staff thought—was pretty much, ‘Hard seltzer is disgusting.’”

One of the questions for the staff was, “Should we get into hard seltzer?” Their response: “No. Don’t bother. It’s stupid. It’s not craft.”

But there was another question: “Could we make a good hard seltzer?” Oxton says that about 70 percent of the team said something like, “Yeah, we could if we wanted to, but it’s not worth our time.”

To the seltzer-curious founders, the team’s confidence was encouraging—even though nobody at that time especially wanted to make or drink it. “So, I think we listened to our staff,” Oxton says, “because we didn’t put out a hard seltzer and sell it the next day or anything like that. But we did spend the next year making tiny batches of hard seltzer and just dumping them—because they all tasted like crap—and just pushing ourselves to come up with something we were proud of.”

By late 2019, they say, their R&D and test batches had gotten better. Even the team started to like them. “We ended up with this liquid that we actually thought tasted really good,” Oxton says. “Super fruity, crisp, fermented with a wine yeast. So, our R&D got us to this place where we were like, ‘Holy crap, we actually made a hard seltzer that people are into on our staff.’ And then we launched it in a small batch in our taproom.” They named it Hoot. “And people loved that first batch. And then we made another one, and it just kind of took off from there.”

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Hoot took off quickly. Night Shift started selling 16-ounce four-packs of it last year. In April, after the pandemic hit, they launched the variety 12-packs of 12-ounce cans—and they caught fire. “In July and August, they were the best-selling product we had, which was awesome,” Burns says. As the weather cooled, so did those seltzer sales—just a bit, though. “They’re still doing really well,” Burns says.

“But the cap of this story, at least for me, is that all-staff New Year’s Eve Party,” Oxton says. “Half the room is filled with people holding Hoot hard seltzer and drinking it. And those are all people who were like, ‘This is disgusting.’”

“That was awesome because we got our staff to buy into it, eventually, by making something we were all proud to drink.”

The Making of Hoot

To make Hoot, the brewers ferment their sugar base with wine yeast, and they ferment it intentionally to a lower strength. They don’t dilute it, Burns says. “We don’t water it down later in the process, and we don’t have to do aggressive filtering to get it to be palatable.” The wine yeast provides some fruity character, and the result is softer and more delicate. They also ferment it for longer than most producers. “I think that’s where you can say hard seltzer isn’t craft, but I think you can put craft into hard seltzer,” Burns says. “And I think that’s what we’ve tried to do as we’ve formulated the recipe and process to get it to the flavor that we enjoy.”

With their process, Oxton says, there is no need to strip flavors or back-sweeten the seltzer at any point. “And we got it down to 90 calories,” Oxton says. Not only that, he says, but it tastes good. “And I think that’s cool—because if it didn’t taste good, we wouldn’t sell it.”

The seltzers get their fruit flavors from organic natural flavorings that add no sugar. Since they’re not back-sweetened either, the result is very dry, “which we really like,” Burns says. “It does taste, I feel, more like a hard water—more like a La Croix–type of thing than Trulys and stuff that have this little sweetness kick.”

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Lately, they’ve been trying out a stronger version called Hoot Louder, at 8 percent ABV compared to the standard at 4 percent. “I had some Hoot Louders the other night,” Oxton says. “They were ridiculous. I had two Hoot Louders, and I was hammered. … It drinks like Polar Seltzer. It just tastes like regular seltzer. It doesn’t even taste like hard seltzer.”

One of the things the Night Shift founders like best about seltzer is the potential for further experimentation. “It’s like a beautiful kind of blank canvas; there’s so much to play around with and have fun with,” Burns says. That includes products such as Hoot Rosé, which got a dose of pinot noir grapes to wind up an alluring pink color. They’re also looking at hybrids with sour beers.

Boston’s New Tea Party

This is hard to believe: Until Night Shift recently grabbed it, nobody in the Boston area was marketing a beverage called Tea Party. How is that even possible?

“We don’t know!” Oxton says. “We moved so fast to trademark that thing. Like Day 2, emailing our lawyer.”

The new Tea Party line has a hard seltzer base but incorporates real tea. As of press time, they had released only three small batches through their taproom, and they sold quickly. Flavors so far include Blood Orange Hibiscus, Ginger Peach, and Green Tea & Orange Peel. Anna Jobe, Night Shift’s innovation brewer, also has been working on versions with black tea and lemon, butterfly-pea flower tea and lime, and more.

Having two taprooms plus two beer gardens—called the Owl’s Nests, on state parkland along the Charles River—allows Night Shift to gather a lot of information about what sells and what doesn’t from very different clienteles. “So, we get a whole bunch of interesting data,” Burns says. Then they get to test a product further via distribution, when each salesperson might take two of three cases with them to certain accounts and ask for feedback.

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“We get this whole picture from these small little test things to say then, ‘Yeah, we’re on to an idea here, let’s accelerate,’” Burns says. They get excited when they get to say, “Okay, we took something that was kind of crazy, kind of far out, and tested small, and now it’s like, ‘How do we amplify?’”

Venturing into Wine

Night Shift’s first foray into wine was through the distribution side. They started importing wine from France in 2018 and currently have five winery partners there.

However, the impetus to get a winery license of their own came through the event business. Their two taprooms were losing out on events because, under Massachusetts law, they could serve their own beer but not wine made by other producers. However, the state allows breweries to add winery or distillery licenses to their existing business. So they applied, and it took a while, but they received their winery license for the Lovejoy Wharf location in March.

“Then the other thing that has appealed to us with wine is that it is a lot easier to sell it on e-commerce and through the Internet,” Burns says. ‘So, I think that was something that we were really interested in getting into as another way to diversify our revenue streams and connect with our customers in farther-away states. It might not be Whirlpool Pale Ale that they can order online, but if we could sell them a pretty cool wine, at least we can stay connected to that customer.”

Their first wines were collaborations with wineries for which they distribute. They plan to continue these team-ups as they learn more about how to make their own. Wine provides yet another vector for experimentation.

“We’re excited about not going into the traditional wine space, per se, but playing around with wine,” Burns says. Possibilities include spritzers, wine-based cocktails, and using other fruits like they do with their sour beers. They also want to try out aging wine in bourbon barrels.

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Whatever they do, they want it to be fun and without pretension.

“I feel like it’s another canvas that we have,” Burns says. “How do we craft-beer-ify wine? How do we take what we’ve done with craft beer and apply it to a whole new category with a fresh set of eyes? Because we’re not looking to bottle a Bordeaux that’s $200 a bottle. … I think we’ve even talked about never putting vintage on it or never putting regions on it—because it’s supposed to be fun.”

Getting the winery license also opened the door to making hard cider. They had wanted but lacked a cider-making partner on the distribution side. Now they can make it themselves.

All Styles Welcome

Lovejoy Wharf is a once-decrepit building that is now home to luxury condos and the flagship store of Converse shoes—as well as Night Shift’s innovation brewery and taproom. There, a neon sign hangs in front of the gender-neutral restrooms: “ALL STYLES.” It’s a reference to one of the stated pillars of their business: inclusivity. The idea is to be as open to all kinds of people as they are to all kinds of beverages.

It means they offer a range of price points, from Nite Lite light lager to barrel-aged imperial stouts. It also means they offer a breastfeeding room for new mothers. They have produced beers to support the U.S. women’s national soccer team and their equal-pay efforts, Boston Price, and Black Lives Matter. They also recently donated $36,000 in profits from a collaboration beer with 67 Degrees Brewing in Franklin, Massachusetts—one of the state’s few black-owned breweries. That money is going to Connect, a nonprofit that helps underprivileged kids study technology and coding.
They also recognize that some of their products—craft beer, wine, coffee—are generally not cheap. “We’re trying to make more affordably priced products,” Oxton says. “So we’re not just dealing in $22 four-packs of triple IPAs.”

Inclusivity also means listening to the wider team. “We consistently tell everyone who works for us, if you ever want to talk to any one of us, email us direct, and just have a conversation,” Oxton says. They currently have about 150 employees, including about 30 who are furloughed. They briefly had about 200 in February, including part-timers, before the pandemic. Most of the people they’ve lost are on the hospitality side, with fewer hours and fewer guests to serve.

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Normally, Night Shift would be running 30 draft lines in Boston and another 24 in Everett. “I think we probably are running around 10 or 12 drafts right now and a much smaller can SKU mix,” Burns says. “But we’re still having some fun with some creative stuff.” That includes Parlor Trick, a new series of ice cream–inspired beers; entries so far include fruited sours Black Raspberry Sherbet and Passionfruit Sherbet, plus a Neapolitan imperial stout.

It’s also a family business, with various spouses and siblings involved. Burns is married to O’Mara’s sister, for example. “We also have a lot of brothers and cousins and stuff who work for us,” Oxton says. “So, there’s a real sort of family atmosphere to the whole culture.”

And this is important to them: They are fully independent. Burns, Oxton, and O’Mara together own 80 percent of the business. Close friends and family own the rest. “So we are operationally involved and also from an ownership level heavily invested in our outcomes,” Oxton says. “We create our own destiny, whether it’s a good one, or … hopefully good.”

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(Left) Two views of the original Everett, Massachusetts. (Right) Taproom and annex.

Looking Past the Pandemic

Night Shift picked the right time to start selling 12-packs—in April, post-lockdown, as people were filling their car trunks with large packs of beer to limit shopping trips. Their first entries into that realm were the Hoot variety pack and their Santilli IPA—the latter has been their top-seller ever since, followed closely by the packs of seltzer and Nite Lite lager. The beer that’s been their flagship in recent years, hazy Whirlpool Pale Ale, has fallen a tad behind—first, because it sells best as a draft beer, and second, because its 16-ounce four-packs are being outsold by 12-packs.

More packaging variety is on the way. Night Shift is investing $2.5 million in a new packaging line at its Everett brewery. Differently sized packs and variously sized cans will become easier to fill.

Meanwhile, they wait eagerly for crowds and draft beer to return.

Lovejoy Wharf is right next to TD Garden, home of the Celtics and Bruins. Fans inevitably fill the taproom before and after games—during normal times—and those crowds are something that the Night Shift founders have missed the most in 2020. In March, they were a week away from celebrating that location’s one-year anniversary when the pandemic hit.

“The energy in there, pre- or post-game, whether it be Bruins or Celtics, or—well, the Bruins fans definitely drank more beer—but it was just so alive and so vibrant,” Burns says. “It was just such a good feeling to be in that space. I miss that energy of the room being really electric. So, I’m looking forward to that.”

“It’s such a personal business,” Oxton says. “I feel like this whole pandemic has made our interactions much more transactional—which is fine for temporary needs and the given climate. But just being able to see someone go up to the bar, and look a bartender in the eye, and smile, and talk for a few minutes, and grab a pint, and go and sit back with their friends. Like, that experience, it’s just really meaningful.

“That’s a missing piece of who we are right now.”

Joe Stange is Managing Editor of Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine® and the Brewing Industry Guide®. Have story tips or suggestions? Contact him at [email protected].

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