Beer Summit in Back Bay a Make or Break for Local Brewers

By Seth Daniel

Local beer has become more than a thing to drink.

In fact, breweries and craft brewers have become such a cornerstone to being a “happening” city or neighborhood that politicians and City planners regularly court brewers to come to their locales. It seems making beer has become the key to being a place on the move.

But to get to that point, Massachusetts brewers need customers, and the place for beer and hard cider makers to see and be seen by discriminating beer drinkers is right in the Back Bay at the Castle – where organizers of the Boston Beer Summit have held three extremely popular trade shows each year for at least the last 15 years.

“As a consumer, you can come here and try a whole new crop of beers you’ve never heard of before,” said Mike Mastovich of the North End. “It’s a whole lot more fun to come here and talk to the people who make the beer than to just pick up a six-pack. They’ve all come here with their A-game so you know you’re getting the best of it. They’re doing new and different things and usually they’ve just brewed the beer so you know you’re getting a better beer here than you might get at the store. There are a lot of brewers you’ve never heard of and may not ever hear of unless you come here, and they’re doing some great things.”

Last Friday, as brewers set up their taps and accessory businesses – such as T-shirt makers and Arcade video game restorers – set up their displays, Beer Summit organizers Conor Brennan, Mike Munnelly and Shawn Rich went over the history of their can’t-miss beer and hard cider expo. The expos, which take place over a weekend in January, April and November, are highly anticipated by the craft brew and local brew audience, and routinely sell out drawing around 4,000 people.

Munnelly said they started their show in 1999 when craft brewing and local brewing was not even on the radar screen for most serious, and even casual, beer drinkers like it is today. In the past, all beer was seen in kind of crude terms, a simple drink without a lot of refinement. Today, beer has become the new fine wine of the day, with vintages and more choices and subtleties than can be explained in a simple conversation.

“It’s a big difference now than what it was,” said Munnelly. “It’s a much different market now for brewers, festival promoters and consumers. Consumers have so many choices now and they realize there is better beer out there. Before, it was about, ‘What’s an IPA (Indian Pale Ale)? Now it’s about asking how long they let their IPA ferment and where do they source their ingredients from.”

Munnelly said at one of their Back Bay Summits recently, Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera attended to talk with brewers at the festival and gauge their interest in locating their operations in his city.

Brennan said the craft brew industry in Massachusetts is really taking off, and has a tremendous amount of room to grow along with the growing population of Boston – a population that trends toward the younger set, who are a key market for local brewers.

That said, the Summit is less about being a drinking festival – as some might assume – and more about catching the eye of the consumer and promoting a local Massachusetts industry.

“A lot of the brewers see this show as a good opportunity and a great experience for them to get in face of new consumers,” he said. “They also see it as a very important time to interact with other brewers and share ideas and get ideas. Some of these operations are only a couple of people and if they’re brewing, they can’t leave the brewery. This gives them an opportunity to get out and promote their product and talk with other brewers…We have 50 brewers here and 200 beers. A package store might bring in a brewer with samples and you can sample two beers. Here, they have numerous brewers and 200 options to choose from. If you come and just want to sample the newest IPAs, you have some 50 or 60 options. This is an opportunity for brewers to get in front of people, some 4,000 educated beer drinkers, so it’s very, very important.”

Brewers agreed.

Bent Water Brewing Company, which recently converted an old lumber yard in Lynn into a brewery and tap room, was attending its first Beer Summit.

“This is very important and we’re very excited to be here,” said Brewer John Erik Strom. “It’s important for us for a number of reasons. We’re new, so this is a great opportunity for us to introduce our beers and our tap room to a lot of people. Most importantly, it’s a chance to talk with our colleagues and make connections to other brewers. Plus, it’s a lot of fun.”

Strom said he was a home brewer for years, and went into training overseas to get professional brewing experience. Now, with the exponential growth of brewing in America and Massachusetts, not to mention the more discriminating palate of the beer consumer, he said the scene is the most exciting in the world.

“After Prohibition, there were only a few brewers left who withstood that era, so they all only made one kind of beer and our tradition was wiped out,” he said. “In Europe, their brewers are steeped in tradition and it can be confining. Because of Prohibition, we have no tradition and so it’s a no-boundaries industry. That’s why American craft brewing is the most exciting brewing in the world. Anything goes and there are limitless possibilities. And people want that.”

For cider makers like Downeast Cider House – which is based in Charlestown and is planning a move to East Boston next year – their well known product gets a chance to find renewed interest and to introduce new products to a refined audience.

“This is a very big show for us because it gets about 4,000 people,” said Nick Delsole of Downeast, noting that it was their 12th Summit. “It’s a chance to get to people who don’t go to the package store all the time. The people who come here are more adventurous and want to try something different. We see it as a chance to introduce new stuff.  We’ve brought our our new Summer Blend…Craft beer is exploding. It’s going to be interesting to see where things are in 15 years. Even in a couple of years it will be interesting. Things are moving so fast in this industry.”

Then there are the accessory industries, such as the Bit Fest company that restores old arcade games like Space Invaders and brings them to breweries and festivals.

The pop up arcade business is based in Everett and run by Gideon Coltof, Rob Hall and Joshua Allan – all of whom have an electronics background and love video games and beer.

“We had our first event in December 2014 at a brewery in Somerville,” said Coltof. “The point of Bit Fest was to test the market here in Boston and see if there was an interest. It was one event and we blew the doors off. We found out that there was a huge pent up demand for old arcade games and beer. It’s beer and arcade games. It doesn’t get better than that.”

As the Castle began to fill up Friday evening with anxious consumers looking to get a leg up on the newest thing in local brewing, it was quiet apparent that even the casual beer drinker was wise to the fact that new and interesting things were happening in local brewing.

“I’m not really a beer expert or anything, but I know Budweiser is just bad beer,” said Maneesh Gulati of Cambridge.

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