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.