Here’s an inside look at how a wildly popular Boston craft brewery started its own distribution company, grew production more than 10X in 5 years, and created a 'tribal community' around its beers
Night Shift Brewing co-founders Rob Burns, Mike O'Mara, and Michael Oxton started brewing 3-barrel batches of unique craft recipes in their apartment kitchen in Somerville, Massachusetts, near Boston. In late 2014, they opened their current brewhouse in the nearby town of Everett and production jumped 7x almost overnight. Brewing capacity is up to 120-barrels between their own 20-barrel brewhouse and a 100-barrel contract facility. The beer was initially distributed using one of the founders' Subaru Outback, and in 2016 they launched Night Shift Distributing to disrupt Massachusetts' anti-competitive alcohol wholesale regulations. Business Insider spoke with co-founder and president Rob Burns about the strategies his team used to grow the brand into a local favorite, and BI visited the brewhouse to see where it all happens. Visit BI Prime for more stories.
SEE ALSO: 16 craft breweries that are shaping the American beer landscape — and boosting their local economies along the way SEE ALSO: A millennial craft brewer pioneering a boom in nonalcoholic beer shares 7 marketing strategies he says drove production from 1,000 to 15,000 barrels in one year Cofounders Burns, O'Mara, and Oxton used this 3-barrel steel vessel to brew their first batches of beer in their apartment in Somerville
Night Shift Brewing was founded as a company in 2012, and now offers a rotating selection of roughly 100 unique craft beers through their distribution company, taprooms, and pop-up beer gardens in the greater Boston area. In 2012 they started the company and moved production to Everett, a small city near Boston
The Boston Globe named Everett one of the top-10 communities in the area, just one year after calling it an unlikely location for a brewery. In just 2 years they were out of space and had to move again. When they opened their current 20-barrel location, production jumped 7X.
The founders own 80% of the company and the remainder is owned by friends and family who helped get the business started. Burns says his relatives regret not taking a bigger stake: "They were like, 'I wish I put in 10-times what I gave you … You didn't ask for my money hard enough!'" The new space enabled them to experiment with other aging techniques, such as these old bourbon barrels…
Oak wood imparts a distinctive character to barrel-aged beer. …and these former wine Foudre vats from Napa Valley, California
The massive containers hold vastly more than a traditional barrel for aging brews. The warehouse was formerly a dance and gymnastics center
The adjacent warehouse was a cheese-packing plant with a massive refrigerator that Night Shift uses to store finished beer and perishable ingredients like yeast, hops, and raspberry puree. And the space has given the company room to expand with state-of-the art BrauKon brewing equipment from Germany
One recipe that a Night Shift employee developed called for a sequence that went against some conventional rules of German brewing. The brewers had to convince the equipment company to reprogram the machine in order to complete the process. Whatever you do, don't push the green button
The new equipment allows brewers to run and monitor almost the entire process from a smartphone. The Everett facility is also home to the Night Shift tasting room, where beer-lovers can try the latest offerings on tap
Night Shift also hosts seasonal beer gardens in popular outdoor locations around Boston. Earlier this year the company opened a second taproom in the Seaport district of Boston. Night Shift's distinctive owl logo began popping up in bars and instagram feeds around Boston and helped build powerful brand recognition
In addition to the beer gardens, Night Shift built a following with social activities like fun runs, yoga, and a paws-and-pints charity event for animal lovers. The Owl was quickly associated with mainstay brews and experimental concepts
Whirlpool Pale Ale is Burns' personal favorite, while smaller batches have a following he describes as "culty." "Fluffy is a super saturated New England style IPA, and we do a pretty popular imperial barrel-aged style called Darkling," Burns said. "We've also done a ton of weird beers that also have like their own niche subgroups." Viva Habanera, flavored with agave nectar and hot peppers, is "for people who go who collect hot sauces," he added. And the labels are more than just decorative, they help the brewers make better beer
Cans of the company's "Beers in Development" series now feature QR codes that link to detailed information about the brew and an option to rate it and give feedback. For a few years, the company offered a Barrel Society program where members could receive the latest creations for a one-time subscription
The program started with 200 subscribers who got special perks like t-shirts and glassware, and the $250 payments up front gave Night Shift much-needed cashflow in those early days of growth. But the program got too popular to continue. "When it got to 2000 people it was so hard for us to manage," Burns said. "It kind of crumbled under its own weight." The growth of Night Shift Brewing was supported through another, far less visible, business channel: Night Shift Distributing
Night Shift was self-distributed in the early days using a Subaru Outback station wagon. Now they have a fleet of trucks to get their beer to stores and restaurants around New England. The co-founders were frustrated by Massachusetts' anti-competitive alcohol wholesale regulations, so they launched their own distribution company in 2016
State laws that were enacted back in the 1970s force manufacturers into a permanent relationship with a distributor. Jim Koch, brewer of Sam Adams, has said, "It's easier to get out of a bad marriage than a bad wholesaler relationship." Night Shift is now the distributor for a wide array of craft beer, liquor, and wine brands that wanted an alternative to the status quo
The laws are still the same, but the company has pledged to release manufacturers without forcing them to meet the extremely high bar that is normally required to end a relationship. One such brewer is Athletic Brewing Co., which was previously profiled by BI. For the morning crowd, the company recently began sourcing, roasting, and serving coffee at their tasting rooms
A recent event paired Night Shift Coffee with another Boston-area small business. Pouring a shot of espresso over a scoop of Beckon ice cream makes a lactose-free affogato. Further expansion is in the works, with a new facility planned in Burns and O'Mara's hometown of Philadelphia.
The new space will give Night Shift an additional 130,000 square feet of production space, positioned closer to more of the US market. "It's a kind of a homecoming," Burns said. It's possible that the company could grow even faster, but the founders say they are most interested in taking the time to do it right.
"We've done a number of things through the years to help create a tribal community around Night Shift," Burns said. "We're definitely not marketing masterminds, but I think it's just about being genuine, honest, and transparent."
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