We’ve seen the future, and it is hyperlocal craft beer
The science nerds behind Cambridge-based Lamplighter are betting it all on complex flavors.
LATE ONE NIGHT IN December 2014, Tyler Fitzpatrick’s phone started buzzing. Fitzpatrick, who had recently come on board as head brewer of Lamplighter Brewing Co., was at home in Dorchester. The company’s cofounding couple — and only other employees — Cayla Marvil and AC Jones, were in Austin, Texas, at a beer bar called Easy Tiger. They were three or four pints deep, and they wanted to let Fitzpatrick know that they had had a revelation.
About a month earlier, the nascent company had found its future home in the heart of Cambridge and was planning to launch with a few flagship beers: an IPA, an English bitter, maybe a porter. But Marvil realized with a start that at Easy Tiger, she and Jones had completely skipped over ordering the kinds of beers they were planning to make at Lamplighter. She slammed a fist on the bar. Why were they starting a brewery with beers they didn’t even want to drink? Just because we think they’ll sell? No. That’s safe, she told Jones. We should be making beers that we love — sour beers, beers with complex flavors, beers brewed differently. We have the ability to do this. We are science nerds. And if we want the beer to truly represent Cambridge, what better aesthetic than science nerd?
Marvil and Jones began texting Fitzpatrick.
Jones: “Start putting your creative juices towards making the world’s best sour pale ale.”
Fitzpatrick: “I feel like I’m missing out on so much drama in Texas.”
Jones: “You have no idea.”
A three-day group-text brainstorm commenced. The new plan: Lamplighter would focus on brewing with Brettanomyces — a yeast typically used in barrel-aged beers that would add funk and flavor. They wouldn’t have to start from scratch; this was something they could add to recipes they had already spent months perfecting. Something a little bit unusual. Something they would actually order.
It was a risk. Though their investors — mostly friends and family — took the departure from the vetted business plan well, Lamplighter’s investment pool was limited. And there were the kind of personal stakes any entrepreneur faces. Marvil had graduated from Middlebury College the previous winter with a degree in math. Jones, who graduated from Middlebury a year earlier with a microbiology degree, had a job at Mass. General and was on the path to becoming a doctor. (He’d bought the MCAT books and everything. “Never saw him touch them,” Marvil says.) Fitzpatrick gave up steady work brewing at Boston Beer Works. But still, they had youth, opportunity, and vision. They were all in.
Brewing funky beer allowed them to hedge their risk. The craft beer market is getting saturated quickly. More than two new breweries open every day in the United States — a number that new brewers always mention, with either optimism or unease. The rise has been swift: In 2005, there were 1,394 craft brewers across the country, according to the Brewers Association, a Colorado-based trade group. Last year, there were 4,225 — an increase of more than 200 percent. In Massachusetts alone, the number of breweries jumped from 61 in 2014 to 84 in 2015. Including Lamplighter, there are 33 under development in the state.
More breweries, more options, more competition. Add in the pressure from big brewers and business minds alike, who — taking note of shifting tastes — have started buying up smaller brewers, and the market for space on store shelves and in home fridges looks increasingly squeezed. And, really, there are only so many drinking hours in the day.
For some companies, there will be a reckoning. The Brewers Association counted 68 breweries that closed around the country last year. For Lamplighter, poised to begin selling beer next month, its success likely hangs on the vision: Are being funky and local enough to survive the liquid gold rush?
LAMPLIGHTER IS PART OF the fourth act of the American craft brewing renaissance. There were the early pioneers, starting in the 1960s with Anchor Brewing in San Francisco. Regional craft brewers like Sam Adams in Boston and Sierra Nevada in Chico, California, arose in the 1980s and 1990s, gradually making their way into the mainstream. The 1990s started with boom times (including a spate of high-profile IPOs, such as Seattle-based Redhook and Palo Alto-based Pete’s Brewing) and ended with busts, but the movement recovered, with increased focus on central tenets of the “food movement”: artisanship and locality.
“Today, it’s hyperlocal,” says Bart Watson, chief economist at the Brewers Association. “Local used to be in your town. Now it’s not just your town, but on your block.”
The eat local approach has proved particularly relevant to beer. In a 2015 Nielsen study, 52 percent of craft beer drinkers said locality was an important factor in their purchases, and 22 percent of all beer drinkers said that factor has become more important in recent years.
For Lamplighter, the hyperlocal approach felt essential. “This is our home,’’ says AC Jones, who shares a condo with Cayla Marvil a block and a half from their brewery. “It was going to be Cambridge or it was going to be nothing.”
Community and convenience don’t make a business plan, but the couple saw an opening. They had met in college, bonded over a mutual love of home brewing, and ended up in Cambridge together after Marvil’s graduation and three months of brew training at the Siebel Institute in Chicago. During their first summer in Cambridge, the pair would often go out and ask for the local beer. “And they’re like, ‘We have Harpoon,’ ” recalls Marvil. “Or ‘We have Night Shift’ or ‘We have Jack’s Abby,’ ” adds Jones. “None of these are from Cambridge.” (Harpoon is brewed in Boston, Jack’s Abby in Framingham, and Night Shift in Everett.) Cambridge does have a local brewery, of course: Cambridge Brewing Company, which the Lamplighter team reveres. “But in a city of 107,000, one brewery is not enough,” Jones says.
Opening a second brewery in the city has not been easy. After hearing they wanted a space in the middle of Cambridge, their real estate broker was bluntly pessimistic, suggesting parts of Somerville or Medford instead. Undeterred, Jones hit the pavement, eventually stopping into an auto repair shop on Broadway and asking the longtime owner if he’d ever thought of renting the place out to another company. After Jones described his plans — a neighborhood brewery with a taproom — he got a polite no, but he followed up with an earnest letter. The owner called a few days later, ready to hash out the details. Then came the politicking. Marvil sent a letter detailing their proposed plans to the 17 owners of every neighboring property, along with Jones’s number, and every one of them called him with concerns.
After untold hours of phone calls, meetings, and a few concessions — earlier closing hours for the taproom, an exhaust system to mitigate brewing odors — Lamplighter appeared at a make-or-break community meeting with more than 30 neighbors, about half of whom took to the mike to express their support. “A lot of them just wanted to have a conversation with me. And I could say, ‘Hey, you’re worried about this, but we will do these things to make sure that doesn’t bother you,’ ” says Jones. After all, he told them, we live here, too. “We don’t want to mess up the neighborhood.”
Embracing the spirit of Cambridge has gone beyond their block. Tyler Fitzpatrick, brought on in the fall of 2014, has been talking to Andrew Murray, a Harvard professor of molecular genetics, about a new strain of yeast they’re using. Murray “really wants to get his hands on it and sequence it and be able to break down what genes are responsible for what aspects of the fermentation,” Fitzpatrick says.
In all parts of their operation, the Lamplighter team wants to be guided by the scientific method. “We really want to focus on understanding what it is we’re doing and why we’re doing it,” Jones says. “And then pushing the envelope in ways that maybe you wouldn’t know to push because you don’t have that understanding.”
During a tasting at Marvil and Jones’s condo, the trio offers me a detailed explanation of the chemistry behind the sourness (“yeast utilizing oxygen more to create an acid”) and the funky, juicy taste (“Brettanomyces produces a lot more compounds and phenols and esters and tetrahydropyridines”). After we sip two of their sours and an IPA, they pour an ale from Maine brewer Oxbow that is aged with the Brettanomyces yeast.
“Save those dregs,” Fitzpatrick calls out to Jones after the bottle is emptied. Fitzpatrick, 28, is bearded and reflects with a finger perched beneath his bottom lip, giving him a professorial air.
The yeast that’s settled at the bottom of the bottle can be cultured, 24-year-old Marvil explains, equal parts eloquence and ebullience.
Fitzpatrick notes that you can brew a “Brett” beer that doesn’t have any sour characteristics. Like their IPA — which has a slight cheese scent and a juicy flavor. “However, this has a nice, pleasant sour characteristic, so I’m guessing . . .”
“It’s probably lacto,” interjects Jones, 26, who has the athletic build you’d expect of a former college rugby player.
“It was some bacteria, lactobacillus, that they used to make this beer. We’re saving that,” says Fitzpatrick.
As they begin to explain the process for growing the yeast, Fitzpatrick and Jones continue talking over each other. “But I mean, if they don’t have oxygen, they can’t reproduce because they . . .” says Jones.
“Right,” says Fitzpatrick. “It goes through a different pathway as it’s utilizing oxygen.”
Suddenly aware of my confusion, Jones smiles. “Nerd fights,” he says.
The moniker is inevitable, really. When asked to describe their roles in the company, Fitzpatrick uses a NASA parallel. He points to Jones. “We’ve got Neil Armstrong, the astronaut, the guy who is boots on the ground.” A nod to Marvil. “You’d have Mission Control.” And himself? “My role was, like, the guy who maybe built the spaceship.”
LAMPLIGHTER WILL START SELLING beer next month, and the taproom isn’t expected to open until July, but the team has an ideal user experience already sketched out: Customers come in, have a pint, a high-end hot dog (maybe the merguez dog, with harissa, parsley, and citrusy mayo, on a spent-grain bun) and some tater tots, and leave with a full growler. Meanwhile, you’re seeing the beer being made while meeting your brewers and your neighbors. It’s the vision of “the local” that Cheers promised, re-imagined for the modern craft era.
And while a taproom can be a great gathering place, it can also be a pretty good moneymaker for a new brewery. On this point, David Kushner, who has spent time helping to manage production at Harpoon, Woburn’s Lord Hobo Brewing, and Norwood’s Castle Island Brewing, offers a lesson in taproom economics. “The gap between distribution sales and in-house sales is incredible,” Kushner says. Sell a keg to a distributor, you may only get $110. “But if you sell $7 pints [in your own taproom], you are talking about $800, $900 worth of revenue. You can build a very small system, and people will come and drink your beer, and it can be a very sustainable model.” It’s a return to pre-Prohibition days, when several mom-and-pop operations would serve a neighborhood, Kushner says. The Pittsburgh area alone used to be home to about 30 breweries.
In his more than 14 years running the influential beer-grading website RateBeer, Joe Tucker has watched the taproom model grow. “How many pizza places will your city support? Well, quite a few. Because they don’t have to compete for that place on the shelf. They don’t have to compete for that place on the truck,” he says. But a microbrewery that has to depend on a tap handle in someone else’s bar or room for their cans in a delivery truck? “That’s tough,” Tucker says. “That’s really tough.”
For Brian Shaw, who runs the Craft Beer Cellar in Newtonville, the influx of new local beers has required remodeling the shop. They’re adding shelving units to the section of the store dedicated to Massachusetts beers and might soon have to start permanently annexing other sections. The explosion of local brewing has also meant that some of Shaw’s longtime nostalgic favorites are losing out to the new and improved. “These are things that we’ve had on the shelves for years. And we have take them out, because the competition is so fierce out there.” The last person he would want to be right now, Shaw says, is the owner of a new microbrewery trying to come to market.
The battle for limited space on the draft lists of local bars has been equally pitched. Frustrated by the lack of tap openings for his beers, a cofounder of now-defunct local brewer Pretty Things took to Twitter in 2014 with accusations of Boston bar owners getting illegal kickbacks for putting a company’s beer on tap. The state beverage commission investigated, eventually hitting the Craft Brewers Guild — the state’s largest craft beer distributor — with a reported $2.6 million fine, citing $120,000 in payouts by the Guild to 12 Boston-area bars to keep their beers on tap. It’s not just the direct financial impact of losing draft sales. “A tap handle is marketing,” says Kushner. “It’s an easy way to let people know you exist.”
Economics aside, taprooms also offer a connection between consumers and producers. “I think that’s one of the reasons why we see brewpubs and taprooms growing in popularity, because not only is it fresh and local, but you can look over the bar and see where it’s made,” says the Brewers Association’s Bart Watson. “That’s powerful for a lot of beer lovers.”
That ethos was something that Bone Up Brewing cofounders Liz and Jared Kiraly want to capture in their Everett space, slated to open in July (if not earlier). On a warm spring afternoon, a half block up from Night Shift Brewing’s packed taproom, the couple is moving boxes with Liz’s dad and Jared’s college roommate. The taproom is almost ready: A herringbone- patterned bar is in place, and string lights, some in the shape of tiny growlers, illuminate the room. “I love the idea of a taproom as a community space,” Liz says. Of course, it would be great if far-flung people journeyed to Bone Up. “But I’d love to just stay local,” she says, “get to know the people around here, and serve them beer.”
Which means they are OK with staying small. They’re now using a three-barrel system, so they can produce about 90 gallons of their beer — “American styles brewed with Belgian techniques” — at a time, with plans to produce about 24 barrels a month (or more than 700 gallons). “We like to be tied into the product very closely,” Liz says. “When you’re operating a 50- or 100-barrel system, and you’re managing dozens of employees, there’s so much logistical stuff that has to go into that.”
Still, they could see a small expansion. Maybe doubling the size of production. And then, maybe, adding a canning line, more fermenters, some more branded merchandise like shirts and serving glasses. “Obviously, that will all take some time,” Liz says. “But it takes less time if you’re not driving kegs to bars all the time.”
The taproom-first model isn’t universal. For Adam Romanow, who launched Norwood’s Castle Island Brewing in December, income from his planned taproom — set to open around Labor Day — is just gravy. “The goal I’ve always had for Castle Island is to build a regional brewery — or at least a regional brewery — that has a focus on making super-high-quality beer that is accessible,” Romanow says. That’s true for both flavor and availability. Romanow lives in South Boston, and the closest place to buy beer for him is Jimmy’s Korner convenience store on P Street and East Sixth. “Nobody in the city knows about it except the people who live within four blocks of it. But the day I walked in and saw they had Castle Island was one of my happiest moments.” No, people aren’t going to be seeking it out there, he says. But they’re also not going to have to make a pilgrimage to some sacred brewer in Vermont and wait in line to pay $10 a can for it either.
If you want to go big, the timing is right. American brewing conglomerates, having watched the craft beer market slowly eat their market share, have gone on a spending spree. Anheuser-Busch InBev bought four craft breweries last year — three in December alone — and, this April, announced the purchase of another. The investor set has also taken note: Waltham-based private equity firm Fireman Capital Partners bought a controlling stake of Colorado’s Oskar Blues last year and picked up Tampa’s Cigar City Brewing in March. And in perhaps the most high-profile purchase of all, Constellation Brands bought San Diego’s Ballast Point last year for a reported $1 billion — a Zuckerbergian total impossible to ignore.
The whole craft beer market has taken on a certain Silicon Valley (or Kendall Square) vibe. You can see the parallels in Lamplighter. They’ve spent years building their product in dorm rooms and basements. Their market is young, desirable, and growing. They think their product — the sours and Brett-fermented beers — has the potential to be the Next Big Thing. And, without having tasted a drop of their beers, droves of hopeful employees are e-mailing them about job openings, happy to start at the bottom if it means a toehold in the industry.
In other words, they sound like your typical new Cambridge business: a hot, young startup.
AS A BRIGHT APRIL AFTERNOON fights through cloudy windows at the unfinished Lamplighter space, though, the future feels far away. Beset by a number of unforeseen hiccups, construction is weeks behind schedule. Shipping companies have sent the wrong parts. There have been not one but two discoveries of old oil tanks hidden beneath the concrete floor. Four times AC Jones dug by hand a massive hole at the entrance of the building meant for an underground oil trap. Four times, the part was delayed, so Jones had to fill the hole back in so crews could get into the building. The delays have a cost. “We have a cash reserve, but it’s only so big,” Jones says.
The trio, walking on a floor that is still part dirt, paints a vision of the finished brewery. In the front will be the brewing setup, huge steel tanks visible to all taproom visitors. In the back, cold storage and the pilot system, which will allow Lamplighter to brew small-batch experiments and limited- edition beers. Here’s a space that could be used for expansion. “It’s a big space now, but five years from now, we’re gonna be like, ‘Ugh, this is such a small space,’ ” Tyler Fitzpatrick jokes.
As the three walk through their building, passersby pause at the raised roll-up front door — where trucks from a local farm will be entering to deliver CSA shares — and search for a sign of what’s coming.
Inside, there’s the hand-stenciled sign that will go on the front of the building. There’s the spot near the bar area where the kitchen will be. There will be a coffee program in the morning, too, Cayla Marvil says, with a friend who has always wanted to run a coffee shop subleasing the space. In the front, where the auto shop’s office used to be, will be more taproom seating, part of about 35 seats in all (total capacity will be 70).
And then, of course, that’s where the bar will be. They’ll be posted behind it on opening night. And probably many nights after that.
That’s one of the things they’re most excited about, says Marvil — meeting customers, being with the people, talking shop. “Well, maybe not Tyler,” Jones jokes.
Fitzpatrick acts out the role of a harried brewer filling in as bartender: “I got a hop addition in five minutes — what d’you want to drink?”
Jones turns serious. “Part of that, too, is just that we gotta make sure that it’s done right,” he says. “So we’re going to be there until we’re confident that it’s being done right.”
Then, a wide grin. “And because it’s going to be awesome.”
This story has been updated to correctly identify AC Jones in a photo caption.