There’s no one memory that stands out for brothers Jack and Sam Hendler in regards to opening a brewery, Jack’s Abby Craft Lagers, 10 years ago this month in Framingham.
Jack, who was 28 at the time, recalls the notion of opening “almost like a quaint idea.” Sam, 21, was psyched to leave college and pursue what he always thought was a “pie in the sky” career. Along with middle brother Eric, the three wrote up a business plan that confidently predicted they could sell 3,000 barrels of beer in about 10 years.
“That would be enough to keep the brewery afloat. It’s a little comical going back,” Jack says now.
Ten years later, and despite numerous setbacks since the pandemic, Jack’s Abby is among the four or five largest beer makers in the state, currently on track to produce about 50,000 barrels this year alone. The days of Jack brewing all the beer are over; about 25 people are involved now, out of a total staff of more than 100. After slinging beer from a converted office-turned-taproom just 10 years ago, Jack’s Abby is now distributed in nine states.
The early days
There isn’t one memory that captures what it was like for the brothers starting a brewery, but they recall a few.
On the first day, there were no employees, only the brothers and their dad, Paul, selling a beer called Red Tape, a nod to the process of getting the doors open.
“It’s just such a confusing thing getting in the alcohol business in Massachusetts,” says Sam. “Even the people who run the government don’t really understand the rules and the laws. They were made over so many years, and no one really pushed the rules.”
Jack’s Abby was initially issued a license to operate. A month later, the brothers were told they would be unable to renew it for the following year due to their farm brewery status being invalid.
“We got this call — no one ever came out to the brewery — and they said, ‘So we looked on Google Maps and we couldn’t find your farm,’” Jack recalls, laughing.
“And we said, ‘There’s this little brewery called Harpoon that has a farm brewery license and doesn’t have a farm either.”
Legislators changed the rule, and Jack’s Abby was off and running. Still, the operation was cobbled together at the beginning.
“We had an office space that had white vinyl tiles and a tiny little drop ceiling. And we put in this tiny little bar,” says Jack. “We found this guy on Craigslist selling this bar out of his basement for $100. We rented a U-Haul. It cost more probably for the U-Haul than it did for the bar.
“Any money we were spending we weren’t putting it to hospitality.”
Inconceivable as it may seem now, 10 years ago, going to a brewery to have a beer wasn’t a thing, though that would soon change.
Huge growth, with a catch
Sam Hendler credits the taproom boom for “pouring gasoline all over the craft beer industry” over the last five years.
And while taprooms have allowed many similar sized breweries to rapidly increase profit, Jack’s Abby built itself largely before the era of $10 pints onsite.
“We were doing things like selling at competitive price points and through a wholesaler,” Sam says. “That makes your margins relatively low. You kinda have to turn some volume to make money.”
The pandemic, as well as an expensive legal dispute with a distributor that is just resolving, has eaten into those lower margins. As the hospitality industry suffered during 2020 and early 2021, the brewery saw draft beer sales — which made up 40 percent of its business — decline to nearly zero at bars and restaurants.
“This brewery has gone through hell in the last year and a half,” Sam admits.”Covid has turned this place upside down and inside out.”
The recovery is ongoing, and hasn’t been easy. As I toured the brewery on a recent visit, engineers tinkered with a new state-of-the-art canning line upstairs from the taproom. The significant investment was made during COVID to keep up with demand for cans. As people begin to go out again, the brothers hope it was the right decision.
“There’s always going to be that grind when you’re trying to brew a lot of beer,” Sam says. “It’s a challenge to brew at high quality levels. It’s pretty relentless. I think everybody always has a little jealousy for the person who’s able to do it a little bit easier.”
‘No one has ever accused my brothers and I of being cool’
After a difficult 2020, beer production at Jack’s Abby is up about 20 percent in 2021. In a good week, that means producing the equivalent of 1.1 million 12-ounce cans of beer. And the Framingham taproom, while not bustling at full capacity because of staffing shortages, is getting there.
Beer is what grounds Jack’s Abby’s brothers, and it’s as excellent as ever, led by brands like House Lager, a German-style Helles that’s effervescent and bready and tastes like you wish every beer would. It’s the beer both Sam and Jack say they go to at the end of a long week.
“The beer’s the best it’s ever been now that I’m not brewing it,” says Jack, laughing. “In some ways I’m serious. We have such a great team out there brewing. In the beginning days, if you’re the sole brewer the attention to detail is not there. You can’t focus. We’re here seven days a week to make sure the beer is right.”
Lagers, too, are making a comeback in our era of over-hopped and overly boozy brews. But when I mention to the brothers that they may not have only been prescient but are now trendy, they push back.
“There was a very popular beer magazine and the headline was “The rebirth of cool” about lagers,” Jack recalls. “I was like ‘What is happening?’ No one has ever accused my brothers and I of being cool. [laughs]
“If in the end lagers become cool again, we’re well positioned. We want to be the ones people point to as leading the charge. I think we are.”
Jack’s Abby is throwing a three-day 10th anniversary party the weekend of July 23, featuring live music, specialty food pop-ups, and a mixed 12-pack of golden lagers, four of which have never been brewed. Admission is free. More information can be found on the brewery’s website.