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New brewery aims to revitalize Bowdoin-Geneva

From left, Felipe Oliveira, Holly Irgens, Travis Lee, and Todd Charbonneau are working to make their brewery idea a reality.

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

From left, Felipe Oliveira, Holly Irgens, Travis Lee, and Todd Charbonneau are working to make their brewery idea a reality.

Felipe E. Oliveira wants to put the Dot back in Dot Ale.

The 35-year-old entrepreneur, a Dorchester, or Dot, native and founder of Percival Beer Co., currently brews his signature beer in Ipswich. But as Dot Ale grows in popularity — it’s now on the menu at Wahlburgers — he’d like to brew it closer to home.

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More specifically, he’d like to build a contract brewery in the neighborhood just blocks from his childhood home, in a weed-and-trash-strewn lot in Dorchester’s struggling Bowdoin-Geneva neighborhood.

“From day one, once we started talking to people about this project, everyone was like, ‘This is phenomenal,’ ” Oliveira said. “This is a no-brainer.”

Oliveira and three thirtysomething entrepreneurs, including the former head brewer at Boston’s Harpoon Brewery, have worked for a year to turn the idea into a reality. After investing $100,000 from a founder’s family member, they are raising money from outside investors, seeking bank loans, and launching a Kickstarter social media fund-raising campaign next week.

They need $1.6 million to get the project off the ground, but money is just one of many challenges confronting the entrepreneurs. In addition to navigating a sea of zoning, licensing, and other issues, they also face the risk of opening in one of the toughest, poorest, and most violence-plagued areas in the city.

But if they succeed, the brewery could provide the spark to revitalize a neighborhood that long has struggled to attract investment and jobs.

The brewers want to buy this space in Bowdoin-Geneva, a tough, poor, and violence-plagued area.

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

The brewers want to lease this space in Bowdoin-Geneva, a tough, poor, and violence-plagued area.

Kim Zeuli, senior vice president of the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City, a Roxbury nonprofit founded by Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter, said breweries actually benefit from locating in troubled neighborhoods, especially if the neighborhoods are close to transportation, and offer lower rents and a willing workforce. The neighborhood in turn benefits from jobs and economic activity generated by microbreweries.

“Urban grit is a competitive advantage, part of the brand and the aura of a beer company,” Zeuli said. “We love breweries. They’re turning problems into opportunities.”

Oliveira and Travis Lee, a 33-year-old real estate developer who lives in Dorchester, came up with the idea for the brewery about a year ago at a neighborhood fund-raiser. Oliveira brought samples of his beer to the event, and the two entrepreneurs struck up a conversation about beer, the lack of brewing space, and business potential in a neighborhood they both called home.

Lee, who started his own real estate development company last year, recently opened a co-working space for start-ups in nearby Fields Corner. He and Oliveira met several more times, discussed the possibilities, and ultimately began a search for space for the Dorchester Brewing Co. That led them back to where they met: Bowdoin-Geneva.

“It’s in our backyard,” said Lee, who lives in the neighborhood with his wife and four children. “This is a street I walk down to take my kids to school. This is a street we care about.”

Many families have lived in Bowdoin-Geneva for generations and care deeply about the area, but the neighborhood is fraught with chronic poverty, joblessness, and gang violence. Oliveira knows the neighborhood’s strengths and weaknesses well.

His parents emigrated from Cape Verde and raised eight children there. His mother was a cleaning woman, and his father worked two jobs. They sent Oliveira to Boston College High School, from which he graduated in 1994.

He later joined the Marines, worked jobs in the financial services and technology industries, and began brewing beer in the basement of his home in Milton, where he has lived since 2010.

In 2011, he started Percival Beer Co., naming it after the street in Bowdoin-Geneva where he was raised. He said he created Dot Ale as a local and fresh alternative to mainstream beers, marketing it to working-class drinkers and brewing his recipe at a contract brewery in Ipswich.

Dot Ale, which might be brewed at this site, is marketed to working-class drinkers as an alternative to mainstream beers.

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Dot Ale, which might be brewed at this site, is marketed to working-class drinkers as an alternative to mainstream beers.

Oliveira and Lee hope to create a contract brewery that would brew, package, store, and transport beer for several microbrewers, many of which don’t have the facilities for larger-scale commercial production and distribution.

Todd Charbonneau, former head brewer for Harpoon Brewery in downtown Boston, and Holly Irgens, a marketing specialist, also joined the group of founders. The four are in the process of securing $800,000 from private investors, including funding from a maker of brewery equipment in Maine.

The group is also pursuing a $700,000 bank loan.

“It’s a long, hard road,” Lee said. “Every time you reach a milestone and celebrate, you look down the road and see 20 more hurdles and barriers to overcome.”

The Bowdoin-Geneva site is an abandoned former auto storage facility and boarded-up eyesore, spotted with graffiti, choked by weeds, and encircled by chain-link fencing. Surrounded by triple-deckers, the property has been vacant so long that it reverted to residential zoning and now requires a zoning change.

The entrepreneurs also must negotiate a lease with the city development corporation that owns the property. And the group must win the necessary state permits to brew beer.

Oliveira, whose mother lives just a few blocks from the site, envisions young people lined up to come into the brewery’s tasting room, bringing foot traffic and business activity to the neighborhood, and enticing other entrepreneurs to take a chance. He said that’s what’s happened at Idle Hands Craft Ales, a brewery in an industrial section of Everett.

“Most people would have taken this project straight to the suburbs or the Seaport District to be more appealing to people with highly disposable income,” Oliveira said. “We’re saying, ‘Screw the status quo.’ This is who we are and where we belong.”

More coverage:

Harmon: Rocky road for bicycles in Bowdoin-Geneva

7/23/13: Beer company aims to capture the spirit of Dorchester

68 Blocks: Life, Death, Hope in Bowdoin-Geneva

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at megan.woolhouse@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @megwoolhouse.
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