With Peter Egelston
Smuttynose and Portsmouth breweries; Portsmouth, NH
I know your roots in Northeast brewing go way back. What got you started?
Peter Egelston: Like most of us, I got started by drinking a whole lot of beer, back in the early seventies right through college. None of it was very good: it was a matter of quantity over quality. I was living in New York City with a friend of mine, and we stumbled across an ad in a magazine for a homebrew kit. Neither of us had ever heard of homebrewing before. We thought it was the silliest thing we could imagine.
Was it even legal?
At that point, it was just barely legal—it had been made legal during the Carter administration, and this was firmly in the Reagan years. We scraped together the 10 or 15 bucks and sent it in and got a plastic tub, some tubes, a can of malt syrup, a pathetic little baggie of grayish brown hops and a package of desiccated freeze-dried yeast and half a page of type-written instructions.
We followed the directions and made a batch of predictably lousy-tasting beer. My roommate lost interest immediately, but I was intrigued and started homebrewing occasionally.
The only place I could buy homebrewing supplies was in a winemaking shop down on Mulberry Street in Little Italy. They had one shelf in the very back of the shop that had more of the same: cans of malt, and more grey hops and desiccated yeast.
I was really intrigued with brewing, but certainly never dreamed it would be the way I would make a living. I was teaching high school English in the New York City public school system at the time. I was working on a master’s degree in education and had completed all the requirements for certification. It was funny: on one hand they were desperate for teachers, but on the other they were setting the bar very high. They were deluding themselves that they were only getting the best quality candidates, when, in fact, if they put a mirror under your nose and saw vapor, they’d hire you.
In 1986, my sister and her boyfriend came to town. They were working for a rock promotion company out of San Francisco, doing merchandising for tours, which is a fancy way of saying they were driving a Ryder truck around.
They were pretty weary of that life style. One night in Brooklyn, we were sitting around drinking my homebrewed beer. They were telling me about these great places on the West Coast that were little bars with their own in-house breweries. We thought, what a great idea, someone ought to do that here on the East Coast. We weren’t aware that there actually were a couple of places doing it already: it seemed like a wide-open market.
I have to give my sister Janet credit, she took the idea and wouldn’t let it drop. She got back to the Bay Area and talked to the handful of people—there was the Front Street Pub in Santa Cruz, there was Hopland, Mendocino Brewing, Portland, Bridgeport, and the Widmer Brothers were up and running. A very small number of places to talk to.
One thing led to another, and a year later we were opening the Northampton Brewery in western Mass. My sister still owns the place: she’s just celebrated her 19th anniversary down there. She’s doing terrific.
She and I were partners for fourteen years and then we split up our partnership about five years ago. We decided we preferred to be brother and sister to being partners—and we knew it had to be one or the other.
When you have a place that’s been round long enough, as the Northampton Brewery has, or my own Portsmouth Brewery, which just turned 15 this summer, people tend to regard these places as “institutions.” It reminds me of that quote from Mark Twain, that a classic is a book that everybody praises, and nobody reads. My fear is always that when you talk about a restaurant or brewpub as an “institution,” you mean a place that everybody has a fond memory of, but they haven’t been there in five years.
The challenge in the brewpub environment is that when we opened, the idea of hand-crafted beer was a fairly novel concept. If people wanted to try a bock beer or a weiss beer—anything that was a little bit out of the ordinary—they pretty much had to go to a brewpub. Now, any halfway decent restaurant or bar worth its salt has a nice beer selection.
The easy way of marketing brewpubs—that we were the only ones with hand-crafted beer—is more challenging now, because you’ve got wonderful beers that are widely available. It’s a challenge to stay constantly fresh and to find ways to surprise and delight our customers.
What to do you do to keep them coming back, not just remembering that visit five years ago?
Well, what sounds obvious, but it really isn’t, is an absolute emphasis on the quality of the customer’s experience. It starts from the second they walk in the door. You can make the best beer in the world, but if your service is lousy, or it’s not accompanied by food that you’re as proud to put in front of your customers as your beer, then the beer doesn’t really matter, because people can get good beer anywhere.
And a brewpub can’t sell novelty anymore.
No, and I think that’s something all of us in this business think about—I don’t claim to have a corner on that knowledge—but the ones amongst us who are successful do really focus on that whole overall experience that the customer has. You can’t be one-dimensional; you can’t be all about the beer.
Here’s another challenge we have: when we hire a new wait person who, say, is 22 years old, they were three years old when we opened the Northampton brewer, and they were seven years old when we opened the Portland Brewery. So, from their standpoint, craft beer has always been around. They don’t remember what you and I remember, which is a time when a Heineken or a Guinness was the most exotic thing you could imagine.
So, what we are challenged to do is to make sure that our staff doesn’t take what we do for granted, because our beer culture is very important. One thing that has put a tremendous amount of wind in our sales at the Portsmouth Brewery, was to hire Tod Mott as our head brewer about three years ago. Up here in New England, as you probably know, Tod has almost rock star status amongst craft brewers. There’s a good reason for that, because not only is he a very talented brewer, but he’s so incredibly passionate about it that it’s infectious. Just his presence in the building has made a big difference in terms of the level of enthusiasm as well as knowledge.
We do a lot as far as training goes, but it’s a subtle process. It’s that old thing about leading a horse to water: you can provide them with all the training you want, but you can’t shove it down their throats. That sort of X-factor is the passion and the enthusiasm. Tod really delivers on both counts, on top of the knowledge and skills.
That’s a key component as well, is making sure that the beer culture stays front and center.
We hired a new chef this past summer. When I interviewed the fellow we ended up hiring, what tipped the balance in his favor was that he had spent a fair amount of time in Philadelphia, and when I asked him what sort of places he used to hang out, he said, “Oh, I used to go to Monk’s and Nodding Head.” OK, I thought, this is a guy who knows his food, he’s a Johnson and Wales grad, but he’s also a beer geek. All other things being equal, that is what tipped the scales in his favor.
Smuttynose is the newest of your companies, and it’s a distributing micro, with nothing to do with food.
As I’m sure you’re well aware, many of us who got into the production brewery business as an outgrowth of our brewpub business were probably laboring under the illusion that it would be a fairly straightforward transition, but it’s not. A brewpub, obviously, is first and foremost a restaurant that makes its own beer, and a producing brewery is first and foremost a factory that happens to make a really cool product instead of widgets.
What are you able to do at Smuttynose that you can’t do at the brewpub? Why did you make that step?
Well, to say we “made the step” implies a certain level of intent, when in fact we kind of blundered into it. There was a small brewery that had opened here in Portsmouth and went out of business, and the bank auctioned off their assets. I attended the auction without having any intention of purchasing anything. Of course, I ended up purchasing this building full of brewing equipment. As far as starting business go, it was the most ass-backwards way you can imagine. Normally, you start with an idea, you flesh it out, turn it into a plan, and it goes through many levels of scrutiny…
…before you buy the equipment!
Before you sign a lease and fill your building with equipment, you pretty much have everything figured out, not the least of which is your brand identity, your financing, your business plan and so on. Here I ended up with a building full of equipment, and none of that.
I kid around about this, but we’ve been in business thirteen years and to some extent a good chunk of that time has been spent putting the horse back in front of the cart. I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing, that we’ve had to make it up as we go along. The whole beer industry has changed so much that it had we gone into it loaded down with the baggage of conventional wisdom, we might have found that a bit of a limitation. Going into it, I was very green and naïve, and we wasted a lot of money going up some blind alleys in the early days, but I think that was a necessary part of our evolution as a company.
It must be working. I noticed you’re pulling in a lot of awards. Twice, your beers have been named best American Beer at the GBBF [Great British Beer Festival].
Isn’t that funny? We’re really tickled with that. We’re not entirely sure how or why that happens, but we find it really charming that we can send our beers across The Pond and they’re nicely received there.
That says to me that balance is important in the formulation of your beers, compared to some more in-your-face American beers that the English don’t like.
I would agree with that. We like to really make sure we have beers that are, first of all, technically outstanding and consistent, and that they do have a lot of character, but at the same time that they are accessible. Even the beers in our Big Beers series—the Wheat Wine, which won a gold medal at the GABF a couple of years ago, our imperial stout, or double bock and the other big beers—we want to make sure that they’re accessible within the parameters of the style. Obviously, a double IPA is always going to be a double IPA.
That’s a real testimony to our brewer Dave Yarrington who has such a great feel for those things.
Is there music playing in the brewhouse?
There is always music playing in the brewhouse. At this point I sort of feel like Dad, because I find myself going in and turning the music down when I’m showing someone through. It is incredibly eclectic. They will listen to everything from John Coltrane A Love Supreme to hip hop, though there’s a little less hip hop now. I’ll come out and hear bluegrass or seventies rock’n’roll (but not a lot of that, thankfully). They’re pretty cutting edge, with a lot of independent and progressive music, too.
What’s your biggest brewing nightmare?
We’ve certainly had some mishaps in the brewing facility. We had a door, a man way, blow out of one of one of our tanks one day, and it sent 3,000 gallons of beer through two walls. That was a scary event.
I’m envisioning the floods of porter in London…
Yeah, or the big molasses flood in Boston. It was a big mess. We six inches deep in beer throughout much of the building. The fortunate thing was that no one was injured. That was dreadful.
It was the result of an improbable sequence of circumstances. You’ve got all these fail-safes that are supposed to kick in and keep that kind of thing from happening, but in this case, every single one of the fail safes failed. That was quite a few years ago…part of the learning curve. We’ve implemented some pretty rigorous procedural changes since then.
What do you drink when you’re not drinking your own beer?
I do enjoy a glass of wine from time to time, although everybody teases me when I do. When I go out and order wine, I usually ask for some big, bombastic red wine, like some very unsubtle Shiraz or Cabernet. Maybe I’ve deadened my taste buds with the all the hops, but I do like big, obvious-tasting wines.
I’m a scotch drinker, mostly Highland scotches. I rarely go the other way: I’m not a fan of big, peaty scotches.
As far as other beers go, I’m pretty eclectic in my taste. I don’t think I’m a snob about beer, either. I think there’s a beer for every occasion. I think there’s a beer for every occasion. When you’re at Fenway Park and it’s one of those hot, sticky New England nights, and the beer they’re pouring is a domestic light beer, you take it and you like it. It tastes really good.
You get plenty of the beer aficionados who are dismissive of our enormous brethren in the beer industry. It’s like Duke Ellington said, there are two kinds of music: there’s good music and there’s bad music. It’s kind of like that in the beer industry. There’s a time for everything.
How is Olive? Is she the original Old Brown Dog? [Olive is pictured on the Old Brown Dog label.]
Olive is fine. She turned 15 last spring: she’s pretty arthritic, deaf as a stone and covered with lumps, but she still comes to work with me every day. We took that picture of her 12 years ago, in her supermodel days. And now she really is an old brown dog.