The founders of Night Shift Brewing faced a dilemma when they plotted their business plan nearly a decade ago: Boston or Philadelphia?
Boston won out. But Philly never lost its allure.
As the seventh-busiest brewer in Massachusetts, Night Shift is now poised to get much larger — with a big bet on the City of Brotherly Love.
This month, the Philadelphia Board of Zoning Adjustment approved a permit for Night Shift to operate a taproom in an industrial area of the city. That’s the green light Night Shift needed to embark on building its 130,000-square-foot brewery and distributorship there, its largest location, by far.
The founders want to open the $10 million-plus facility by the end of 2020. If everything goes according to plan, the additional production could make Night Shift the third-largest Massachusetts brewer within a few years, behind Boston Beer and Harpoon’s parent, Mass Bay Brewing.
Night Shift founders Michael Oxton, Rob Burns, and Mike O’Mara would downplay such an ambitious goal. Getting big, they say, was never the main focus. But a spot high up in the Boston beer hierarchy seemed ripe for the taking back then. They saw a big gap between Harpoon and the rest of the pack, and thought they would stand out more here than in Philly.
That isn’t the only reason they picked Greater Boston, though. At the time, Pennsylvania rules significantly limited where consumers could buy beer by the bottle to take home, Oxton says. Not ideal for a small brewer looking to establish itself. (Those rules have since changed.) O’Mara and Burns grew up in a Philadelphia suburb, while Oxton is a native of Amesbury.
Plus, they were already known around here. Burns and Oxton started what would become Night Shift as a hobby in their Somerville home, building buzz by hosting homebrew parties where they solicited feedback on their recipes. (The name came from the fact they brewed at night, while they had day jobs.) O’Mara moved here in 2009 to join the fun, and the trio opened their first brewery in 2012, in Everett.
The competition between craft brewers has only become fiercer. Still, Night Shift, which now employs 200 people, plowed ahead: a brewery and taproom in Everett, a headquarters and warehouse in Chelsea, and another brewery and a restaurant on Lovejoy Wharf in Boston.
Only one Massachusetts brewer grew faster than Night Shift last year: Tree House Brewing, whose beer is essentially available only at its retail shop in Charlton.
With nearly 31,000 barrels brewed in 2018, Night Shift was still behind Lord Hobo (37,800), Tree House (44,300), Jack’s Abby (49,000) and Wachusett (69,500). Night Shift expects to crank out about 40,000 barrels this year. But the Philadelphia brewery could enable it to leapfrog them all. Night Shift could clear 100,000 not long after Philly opens.
The brewer, it turns out, has a not-so-secret weapon: its own distributorship. Most brewers rely on third-party wholesalers to move their products into stores and restaurants. Not Night Shift. In 2016, the company started Night Shift Distributing at the Chelsea location, offering more control over its own destiny and a support system for like-minded upstart brewers.
How does that give Night Shift an edge? It can develop stronger relationships with package stores and restaurants and maintain more control over the freshness of its beers. Night Shift sells in Massachusetts, Maine, Connecticut, and New York; the Philly project will open up the Pennsylvania and New Jersey markets.
As president of the Massachusetts Brewers Guild, Burns remains an integral player in the guild’s efforts to change state franchise laws that bind brewers to distributors. Burns testified in favor of guild-backed legislation at the State House last month that would make it easier for brewers, particularly small ones, to get out of contracts with wholesalers if the relationships go south.
The distributors have pitched a compromise plan, but it doesn’t go far enough for most craft brewers.
Wholesalers can provide crucial assistance for young brewers, by opening doors and bar taps for them. But Night Shift’s ascendancy shows that a different kind of flight is possible for brewers that are willing to take a chance, to make a big bet on freedom.