They are the old guard and the new kid on the block.
Mystic Brewery founder Bryan Greenhagen is pacing. It’s a recent Saturday, and with his new tap room in Chelsea having opened less than an hour ago, Greenhagen waits for a break in the chatter to shout out, almost apologetically, that he’ll be starting a tour soon. Mystic has been brewing beer since 2011, but this is the first time it’s had a dedicated sampling space.
Greenhagen did his post-doctoral research at MIT in fermentation science. He talks like a scientist, casually using the word “carotenoids” in a description of his last job. The company leases its Chelsea warehouse and brews beer off-site, at Pioneer Brewing in Sturbridge, then trucks the resulting “wort” back to Chelsea to ferment in big, square wine tanks.
Many of Mystic’s beers are aged in barrels, and all are bottle-conditioned, then placed in the controlled environment of an SUV tent in one corner of the warehouse. The entire process can take more than six weeks. In my duty as the writer of the Globe’s 99 Bottles beer column, I picked up a bottle of Descendent, an English-style beer brewed with Belgian yeast, at a South Boston liquor store last week. It had “batch No. 006” written on the label in black marker. It took a $300,000 investment to get the brewery up and running. Mystic brewed 300 barrels of beer last year.
If Mystic is the new kid, then Boston Beer Company is the very definition of the old guard.
In its early years, founder Jim Koch sold Samuel Adams out of his car. Koch’s first goal was getting Boston Lager into 100 accounts in the city. When he reached the mark, he and a business partner celebrated by going to as many of those bars and restaurants as possible in one night and drinking a lager in each. His memory is hazy, but Koch says they made it to 23 before last call.
When Koch started out in 1984 there were trees growing out of windows in the site that would become his Jamaica Plain brewery. “Pablo the pornographic painter” was a neighboring tenant. Becoming the largest independent brewer in the country seemed like a long shot.
Last year, more than 2.7 million barrels of Samuel Adams were brewed, the most of any craft brewer.
The landscape Boston Beer grew from is vastly different from the one it inhabits today. With more than 2,300 craft breweries in operation around the country, Koch is no longer a tiny island in the middle of the vast ocean. Forty-four of those breweries, and counting, are in Massachusetts, including Greenhagen’s Mystic Brewery. Despite the proliferation, craft brewers still occupy just nine percent of the total US beer market.
To learn the state of the craft beer world, I sat down with Koch and Greenhagen in separate interviews. What follows are the edited and condensed highlights from those chats.
Q. Samuel Adams currently occupies about 1 percent of the market. Do you want to break into the 91 percent held by the major brewers like Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors?
KOCH: No. Not at all. Never, ever been tempted to do that. My dad was a brewmaster. My grandfather worked for Anheuser-Busch. So I have a maybe more nuanced view of the big brewers. I don’t look down my nose at the big brewers. My dad told me this. He said, “Jim, remember. People don’t drink the market. They drink the beer.’’ So if you make a great-tasting beer, you’ll be OK.
The big guys make extraordinary amounts of beer that is clean, consistent, and inexpensive. I can’t do that as well. I can’t make Coors Light as well as Coors makes it. And their beers are perfectly designed to satisfy 90-something percent of the market. I’ve always known since the day I started that I was making beer for 5 percent of the market, maybe now it’s up to 10 percent. If I try to compete with the big guys, they’ll kill me.
Q. Does it bother you that most people still drink Bud and Miller Light? How do you view the big brewers?
GREENHAGEN: It doesn’t bother me at all, partly because I expect that they’ll continue to make the majority of the beer. They’re going to be around. They’re phenomenally informed and talented business people. They’ll probably be able to hold their own even with losing market share.
Q. What are the demographics of the folks who drink your beer?
GREENHAGEN: We definitely get a lot of the super enthusiasts, because we are sort of on that bleeding edge. We’re doing a native beer using yeast that we got from Massachusetts. Putting that in a package and putting it out there, it’s a little bit scary in a sense. Who’s going to grab that and not really know what we’re actually doing? It’s not a typical beer and it’s not really a Belgian beer, because it kind of tastes very wine-like and very different. Continued...