The early days of Harpoon Brewery, like the early days of any company getting off the ground, were part romance, part blistering reality.
Russell Heissner was Harpoon’s first employee. He remembers heady times at the forefront of an industry that would go on to see explosive growth, the excitement of introducing a Miller Lite drinker to an ale. Initially, though, Harpoon wasn’t rolling in the dough. Eventually, the long hours became too much.
“We were starting from scratch,” says Heissner. “We were young and cocky enough to bulldoze our way through the hard times.”
Heissner left Harpoon in 1992, an MBA in hand, his days as Harpoon’s first brewer squarely in the rearview.
“I always joke that the beer got better and they started making money after I left,” he says.
He would go on to spend 15 years in the biotech industry, but Heissner couldn’t shake his brewing roots. After years of traveling for work, he’s back in the Boston area to start a new venture, Barrel House Z, a brewery in which Harpoon and Roxbury’s Bully Boy Distillers have minority stakes.
A sneak peak in June offered a glimpse of what Barrel House Z is all about. Taking over Harpoon’s Seaport beer hall for a night, Barrel House Z offered the same beer three ways: aged in bourbon barrels, aged in rum barrels, and straight. The point was to highlight the effect aging a beer in different barrels has, with the naked, un-aged beer serving as the baseline. Bourbon is a familiar flavor for beer-lovers, but the rum barrels imparted surprise notes of pineapple and coconut.
Heissner says there’s more where that came from. As a father of two of-legal-age drinkers who grew up during a time in which craft beer has always been available, the Hingham resident says it’s important for craft brewers to stand out.
“This generation grew up with craft beer,” says Heissner. “They’re a lot more demanding. On the one hand it’s frightening, but on the other hand, it’s pretty cool.
“While I love IPAs, you’re not likely to see an IPA come out of Barrel House Z. We’re going to be doing barrel-aged beers. That’s what we’re going to be known for, and we’re going to do it really well.”
Barrel House Z will set up shop on the South Shore (it’s finalizing a lease) and stay local, brewing no more than 2,000 to 3,000 barrels per year. Heissner wants to let the barrels shine, utilizing a variety of spirit barrels from Bully Boy and highlighting the flavors they impart after three months, six months, one year. He wants to make the brewery an incubator for young brewing talent, to give someone else the chance he once had.
“I fully intend to staff up, hire a lot of young folks, basically give them the opportunity I had when I was 22,” he says.
Barrel House Z’s first two beers are scheduled for release in the first half of 2016.