This might taste like bitter irony for the old guard: The biggest threat to New England’s most established craft brewers may actually be the soaring popularity of craft beer. Every day, we hear about a new beer hall or tasting room. The competition is relentless. Go local, or go home.
And few of these elder statesmen experienced pain like Smuttynose Brewing, once one of our biggest brewers. All those young upstarts drained away much of Smuttynose’s sales in recent years. Eventually, the company’s assets, including a shiny new campus on Towle Farm Road in Hampton, N.H., ended up in foreclosure early last year, with lender Provident Bank buying them in an $8.25 million bid. Rivals whispered about the brand’s downfall.
Relax, Smutty fans. New Hampshire’s biggest craft brewer, along with its super-cute harbor seal mascot, isn’t going anywhere. In fact, Schwarmy and its compatriots are poised for a rebound under Chris Broom, their new owner. Broom and a firm run by his kids acquired the Smuttynose assets from the bank last year, to breathe new life into a brand born 25 years ago — ancient history by the fickle standards of today’s craft beer drinker.
Broom just tapped a veteran chief executive, Brian Walsh, to run the show at Finestkind Brewing (doing business as Smuttynose). Walsh, a Boston-area executive who formerly ran Long Trail Brewing and then Pittsburgh Brewing, started last week as the new CEO. (He replaces Rich Lindsay, a former Boston Beer CFO who ran Smuttynose for a little over a year.) Another high profile new addition: Chris Valade is leaving Lord Hobo Brewing in Woburn to join Finestkind in mid-July as chief operating officer.
More big news out of Towle Farm: Broom inked a deal a few weeks ago to take over the former 7 th Settlement Brewery location in Dover, N.H. Finestkind will open a brewery there by the end of August to feature its “Smuttlabs” beers — its limited-batch, experimental flavors.
The most important change happened last year, soon after Broom took control. Smuttynose had resisted the craze of shipping beer in cans. A strategic misfire, but one that could be corrected. Broom made sure he had a canning line installed and running within 90 days.
Broom says he was determined to invest in the business, adding key personnel while retaining most of the old crew. The company now employs 85 people, with another 20 or so positions to be filled soon in Dover.
The new cans provided an excuse to update the labels, which had essentially remained untouched since the company’s earliest days. The goal is to highlight well-known places in New Hampshire — think Echo Lake or Cannon Mountain — and emphasize the company’s roots.
Smuttynose held on as the Granite State’s No. 1 craft brewer, even after shipment volume plunged from 55,000 barrels in 2015 to 32,000 last year. Unfortunately for the previous owners, the $24 million Towle Farm brewery opened in 2014 with capacity to brew twice as much beer as it handles today.
The change in control hasn’t been completely smooth: One of Broom’s sons, quoted as one of the Smuttynose buyers in a press release the company issued last year, was recently charged with sexual assault. (The family maintains his innocence.) Broom says his son is one of the owners of the Hampton property, but has no role in the brewery operations. Still, the case generated negative publicity at a time when the company wants the focus on its turnaround.
Other brewers are rooting for a comeback. For example, Rob Burns of Night Shift Brewing in Everett says no one wins when a company that helped define the industry disappears. The old-guard breweries in New England paved the way for younger companies like Night Shift. He hopes Night Shift can learn from the mistakes that others have made.
For now, though, Broom and his employees hope to set a different kind of example: How to stay relevant amid quickly shifting consumer tastes. If they can pull that off after what they’ve been through, the success will taste that much sweeter.