How to Succeed in the Crowded Craft Brewing Industry

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Left to Right: Jason Johnston ’97; Sean Sullivan ’08; Rob Burns ’07

 

A few years ago Rob Burns ’07 quit what he described as a nice, comfortable, well-paid IT job in Boston to pursue his dream of running a brewery. Now, four years after selling its first batch of beer, Night Shift Brewing in Everett, MA, employs over sixty people and is on track to produce about ten thousand barrels of beer this year, a figure it plans to double in 2017. “Three of us started Night Shift,said Burns, and it was a risk, but it’s paying off now. It’s hard work but I’m excited to come to work and every day is fun and challenging.”

His advice to any college seniors thinking of going into the brewing industry? “It’s more than just about brewing good beer,” he said. “You have to tell a good ‘brand’ story and get your messaging right.” Burns said it’s important to make the brewery a fun place to visit. “We offer tours, tastings, encourage people to visit the taproom, and host private events like weddings.” A number of local food trucks also visit the brewery, he said, so visitors don’t have to taste beer on an empty stomach!

Burns was one of three alumni who visited the Bowdoin campus recently to talk about working in the brewing industry. On November 10, 2016, they spoke at a Brewer’s Breakfast in Thorne Hall which was attended by about 150 students, local residents, staff and alumni. Later that day they held an industry panel to offer more advice to students on how to succeed in an increasingly crowded marketplace.

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Photograph: Night Shift Brewing

“In Maine, we’ve seen a 250 percent growth in breweries over the last three years and now have more than eighty in the state” said Sean Sullivan ’08. He’s executive director of the Maine Brewers’ Guild, which aims to keep Maine at the forefront of the craft beer revolution. “To succeed in brewing in this kind of environment,” he said, “you have to find your spot in the market. For example.” he added, “breweries that engage with their local community, maybe by encouraging local nonprofits to host meetings in their space, are able to succeed, even in small format.” Despite the growth of recent years, Sullivan said there’s still ample room for further expansion, if done wisely. “There are vast areas of Maine where no breweries exist, and one county without a single brewery.”

So what kind of graduates can get jobs in the brewing industry? Sullivan said that depends on what kind of job you’re after. “There are definitely opportunities for microbiology or biochemistry majors in the quality control portion of the industry, because being able to make consistent, quality beer is a key determinant of future success.” Whatever job you choose though, Sullivan said a liberal arts education is an advantage. “If you can create a strong brand and tell a great story, like you’re doing every day in your papers, there’s an opportunity to create a brewery.” Rob Burns agrees: “My education here at Bowdoin, taking a diversity of classes, made me a critical thinker and therefore a good entrepreneur. Also there are so many aspects to the creative side of brewing that a liberal arts background is really useful.”

Photograph: Aroostook Hops

Growing hops in Maine. Photograph: Aroostook Hops

Jason Johnston ’97 offered a different perspective on the brewing industry. A biology professor at the University of Maine Presque Isle, he owns and operates Aroostook Hops as a side business with his wife Krista Delahunty, who also teaches biology at UMPI. “Anyone who wants to grow hops should research it carefully,” he said, “because it’s very labor intensive and very costly at the outset.” A lot of investment in equipment is required, said Johnston, and it can be up to three years before plants reach full production.

“I was a keen home brewer and wanted to get involved in the industry in my spare time, so we now grow about four acres, and we’d like to grow a little more. It’s great to be part of the craft beer revolution.” While it’s hard work growing hops, said Johnston, the good news is there’s plenty of demand. “Brewers in Maine have to import most of their hops from other parts of the country,” he said, “because hop growers here are only able to supply a fraction of their needs.”

Among the students attending the industry panel was senior Adam Glynn. “Now that I’m thinking about what to do after graduating,” he said, “the idea of working for myself and creating something in the process is increasingly appealing.” Glynn has had some brewing experience, he said, but not making beer. “For the past few months I’ve been brewing my own kombucha [a type of herbal teal], but would love to make beer. The artistry that goes into it is really exciting to me and I think if I was able to combine that with the other skill sets required to successfully run a brewery, it could be an amazing and really great way to spend my young adulthood.”

 

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