From homebrew heroes to liquor law crusaders, Night Shift has built a craft beer empire | Crain's Boston

From homebrew heroes to liquor law crusaders, Night Shift has built a craft beer empire

  • Brewer Brett Kennison samples beer midway through the barrel-aging process in July 2016 (Courtesy Night Shift Brewing)

    Brewer Brett Kennison samples beer midway through the barrel-aging process in July 2016 (Courtesy Night Shift Brewing)

  • The Night Shift taproom in Everett, Mass. (Courtesy Night Shift Brewing)

    The Night Shift taproom in Everett, Mass. (Courtesy Night Shift Brewing)

  • The Night Shift taproom in Everett, Mass. (Courtesy Night Shift Brewing)

    The Night Shift taproom in Everett, Mass. (Courtesy Night Shift Brewing)

  • Brewer Craig Kennison works on the production floor in May 2016. (Courtesy Night Shift Brewing)

    Brewer Craig Kennison works on the production floor in May 2016. (Courtesy Night Shift Brewing)

On Sunday, Night Shift Brewing in Everett started pouring its Dynasty imperial stout, a dark, chocolatey concoction capped with molasses-colored foam. Dynasty is the name of the latest offering from Night Shift Brewing, but it could also describe the aspirations of its owners, who have fermented a college homebrewing experiment into a behemoth of Boston’s craft beer business.

The company officially launched in 2011. Since then they’ve gone from brewing a few hundred barrels a year to 20,000 this year. As they mull expansion plans, they’ve struck a contract with New Hampshire’s Smuttynose Brewing Company to augment their capacity.

“When we started we made a business plan, and we blew past our five-year projections within a year and a half. Really didn’t see that coming,” said Michael Oxton, co-founder and owner of Night Shift. “I just don’t think we anticipated for the demand for what we were doing.”

What they were doing was cranking out delicious and unusual beer with a do-it-yourself work ethic that has its origins in the dorm-room homebrew experiments of its co-founders. Oxton met Rob Burns while attending Bowdoin College in Maine in the early 2000s. It was a serendipitous time and place for two ascendant beer nerds to hit it off — since  half an hour to the south, the city of Portland was bubbling with innovative breweries like D.L. Geary, Shipyard and Allagash.

“When we met in college it was a very burgeoning scene,” said Oxton. “If you threw a party with Allagash White, you were the man.”

That led to the two experimenting with homebrews. To hear Oxton remember it, their first foray into brewing was not encouraging. “I think it was a Mr. Beer kit, it was all extracts, hop powder. It was horrible,” he said. “It tasted like crappy cider.”

They kept brewing nonetheless, and moved to Boston after graduating in 2007. Both were working for software companies during the day, but at night they brewed. Less than a year out of college, Oxton said, they started talking about making beer their business.

The two moved into a six-bedroom house in Somerville with some college friends and upped their brewing game, graduating from extract-laden ales to all-grain IPAs, barleywines, and whatever other styles they could. They added a third co-founder: Mike O’Mara — a friend of Burns’ from their childhood together in the Philadelphia area — who had been brewing on his own in Philly and tinkering with recipes remotely until he moved to Somerville to join them in person.

“We were brewing like 15 gallons a week, just flooding our apartment with beer,” said Oxton. “The dining room was all fermentation-dedicated. It was all buckets and carboys. The entire room — you could barely walk in it.”

There was so much beer that they needed to throw regular homebrew parties to drink it all. In exchange for all the beer they could drink, Oxton said the brewers asked guests to fill out tasting cards. That feedback helped them workshop their beers and develop an adventurous approach to their craft that is still reflected in the dizzying variety of styles and flavors on offer at the brewery today.

They still had their day jobs, so around 2009 they came up with the name Night Shift and formally launched their first three beers: Trifecta, a Belgian-style pale ale; Taza Stout, a stout with chicory root and ginger; and Bee Tea, a high-gravity wheat ale with green tea, honey and orange peel. Two months later they rolled out Quad Reserve, a high-alcohol quadrupel, and Somer Weisse, a Berliner-style sour ale with lemongrass and ginger.

If a new brewery’s first offerings are its mission statement, Night Shift was proclaiming itself as an offbeat, plucky band of brewers more interested in creating something new than cranking out IPAs.

“We started really weird,” said Oxton. “And it’s funny, we started by saying we’d never brew an IPA ... we felt like there were enough IPAs on the market and that we could do something better and different.”

The founders of brewery didn’t keep that promise to themselves, but when they did go hoppy they did it well. Last year Night Shift’s Santilli IPA won a bronze medal at the World Cup of Beer in Philadelphia.

At first, however, avoiding IPAs turned out to be a shrewd business move. By entertaining themselves as increasingly sophisticated brewers, they found flavors and styles that had little competition in a market full of drinkers thirsty for something new.

Night Shift’s initial distribution strategy included Oxton hawking the product out of his Subaru. It's since become more sophisticated. Last year Night Shift launched its own distribution company, reacting to Massachusetts’ state’s so-called franchise law, which many brewers say handcuffs them to their distributors. 

Under the law, brewers who have been with a distributor for more than six months can only leave their contract under extraordinary circumstances, like a distributor actively disparaging the brewery's brand, or if they pay what many see as prohibitively high fees. Massachusetts wholesalers defend the arrangement, saying it protects local, family-owned beer distribution businesses from being undercut by national giants.

Those rules remain in place as the state weighs input from brewers and distributors. In the meantime, Night Shift promised not to enforce those rules for its clients.

“If we don’t get a single brand, and we just piss off the wholesalers and get them to change their ways, we’ve succeeded,” co-founder Rob Burns told the publication Brewbound. “At the end of the day, the business can survive just distributing Night Shift.”

Since then they’ve inked agreements to distribute for 10 breweries from as far away as Germany, in addition to Night Shift’s own beer.

Burns is president of the Massachusetts Brewers Guild industry group, a role that has taken on special significance since Massachusetts’ state treasurer announced a review of the state’s liquor laws — one that the Boston Globe called “the most extensive rethinking of how the state regulates alcohol since the end of Prohibition.” Industry stakeholders including Burns are in the process of advising the state on potential changes to Massachusetts’ liquor laws, from making it harder for distributors to muscle their beers into bars with so-called pay-to-play tactics to freeing up breweries to change distributors at will.

Public health advocates warn the effort could lead to more deaths from alcohol abuse and drunk driving. And distributors say their binding contracts help small brewers compete with established brands.

By distributing their own beer, Night Shift has insulated itself somewhat from the fight.

“It probably affects us way less than any other brewery,” said Oxton. “But we’re aware enough and care enough about the Massachusetts brewing scene at large that it’s frustrating to see.”

Based on the throngs of customers who wait in line to pack Night Shift’s 3,000-square-foot warehouse-turned-taproom in Everett, business will be strong for them regardless of the outcome of the state’s regulatory review.

Oxton said he’s focused on amping up production of some of the brewery’s hoppier offerings in 2018. Expect to see more Santilli, Whirlpool, Morph, One Hop This Time and The 87, he said. Night Shift plans to brew approximately 35,000 barrels in 2018 — up from 20,000 this year — and while Oxton declined to share revenue figures, he said it "should be pretty easy to assume that if we're nearly doubling production next year, our revenue growth won't be too far off that."

“We see a ton of potential for growth in the market,” said Oxton.

December 10, 2017 - 1:25pm