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Oakes Weekly - May 12, 2005
Interview with Shane Welch of Brooklyn’s Sixpoint Craft Ales
May 12, 2005
Written by Oakes
Sixpoint Ales is a young microbrewery in Brooklyn. They’ve been turning some heads among New York-area beer lovers for their unique approach to brewing. Ratebeer.com editor Josh Oakes recently conducted an interview with brewer and co-founder Shane Welch about the early successes that Sixpoint has enjoyed and where they will go from here.
JO: Can you tell me a bit about the earliest months of the brewery - what the launch was like, what kind of legal hurdles were faced?
SW: The launch party was both encouraging and inspiring. It’s awesome to see a community come together at a grassroots level in support of a small, startup business like ourselves. We had hundreds come out of the woodwork for our launch party; some of them traveling all the way from Maine, the Midwest, and California. Most of the promoting for the event was through word-of-mouth, internet forums, and beer sites like RateBeer.com and BeerAdvocate.com. It renewed my faith in American entrepreneurship.
Legal hurdles? How did you know? LOL. I guess it is pretty standard in the alcohol industry. Our previous attorney (who was fired) never informed us that in order to sell beer in New York State we had to register labels. To make matters worse, labels needed to be registered on both the state and federal level. To add insult to injury, the entire processing time for these filings was 10-12 weeks. It was a devastating blow for a startup business to have an entire inventory of fresh beer that couldn’t be sold due to a legal technicality. Naturally, we kept our heads up and made the most of our time. We expedited the registration process, and ended up sponsoring events and building relationships with our customers and distributors instead. Ultimately, we were able to hit the ground running.
Before a brewery is up and running in full-production, there is quiet period where the operation seems dormant – like the lag time during fermentation. Like yeast, we spent our time gathering resources, assessing our work load, and pacing ourselves for a frenzy of activity. It’s amazing what two young men can do when they are inspired, sleep-deprived, and simply don’t know any better.
The most interesting and challenging thing about running a small business in NYC is the duality of fierce competition and community cooperation. The fierce competition is really apparent in Manhattan. There’s a certain vibe - a statement of business - that claims, “What’s in it for me? I’m looking to get paid.” If I try to sell my beer to a Manhattan bar by promoting that it’s a local product, many times they turn a deaf ear. Therefore, I usually stress another one of our strong points – our superior quality. It’s then I find most bar, restaurant, and club owners suddenly become riveted.
In Brooklyn, it’s different. Brooklyn is truly like no other place in the world, which is probably why the population is surging there. The entire borough of Brooklyn is like one large neighborhood. Even in each neighborhood there are a group of several streets that compose a micro-neighborhood. Community is big in Brooklyn; it’s undergoing a renaissance. People in Brooklyn have a lot of pride and support each other. They want to see us succeed not only because the bars and restaurants will sell our beer faster, but because they know we represent Brooklyn. And we’re coming up.
JO: You have some really cool theories about brewing - how have beer lovers responded to that?
SW: There is an arousal in the beer community. My theories about brewing are really just an extension of my theories about life in general. I believe the general public is tired having the same, run-of-the-mill red ales and brown ales and amber ales. After a while, it’s like pop music, and it begins to annoy you when the market is saturated with it. My goal, as both an individual and a brewmaster, is not to compromise my individuality in order conform to an industry or social standard. The recipes I have developed are derived from a vision I had – an ongoing vision of a perfect beer. Take, for example, the SMP – it gets listed as a Baltic Porter, an American Porter, a Robust Porter, etc. What the hell is it? It’s nothing. It’s the SMP.
When I first started drinking Baltic Porters, I had the classics: Okocim, Sinebrychoff, Pripps, etc. I remember tasting them and being blown away. But behind my fascination, I thought, “That’s great, but I can do better.” I was going through a phase were I was brewing four or five batches of homebrew a week while in college, and I started to make my vision for the perfect Baltic Porter. A college friend from Alaska brought me two bottles of Alaskan Smoked Porter and I drank one while running my homebrew through my counterflow chiller. I was blown away again! I then decided, “how about a smoked Baltic Porter?” I tweaked the recipe over several batches and realized the smoked malt contributes best when it complements, and not contradicts, the patent and chocolate malts I use. Therefore, it’s subtly smoked. I decreased the bittering hops but increased the flavor and aroma hops because I want the introduction to be an invitation to the burnt flavors of the patent malt and nutty flavors of the chocolate malt. After your introduction, you can get a kiss from the hops. It is a perpetual experiment.
Beer lovers have responded positively towards this. They see my approach to the art of brewing as preserving the CRAFT, and not just pimping my skills to make some money. You don’t have to sacrifice quality as your batch size increases; New Belgium and Sierra Nevada are living proof of this. It’s a fun challenge to retain the craft flavor and technique while producing a live product on an industrial scale.
JO: You travelled extensively prior to opening up Sixpoint. How have all the experience you picked up in your travels influenced your brewing?
SW: My travels have influenced not only my brewing techniques, but my ingredient selection as well. We currently use five yeast strains at Sixpoint Craft Ales; two of which I brought back from my travels abroad. One of them is from a small brewpub in England producing amazing beers. It’s an awesome yeast; I’ve never seen anything like it. It ferments the beer dry and drops bright within 10 days. It ranges from really fruity and complex at high temperatures to virtually lager-like at low temperatures. It’s great for cask-conditioned products. The other yeast strain is from a Trappist brewery in Belgium. I won’t say which one, but this yeast strain, by far, is the most complex strain I’ve ever dealt with in my life. Over time, the flavor from this yeast does not only evolve – it undergoes a complete metamorphosis. Furthermore, it accentuates the hop flavor so much I find myself having to dial back the hop additions (as I shed tears) because it just simply puts them under the magnifying glass.
Besides yeast, I personally toured all of the malting facilities of the grain suppliers I now order from. If you want to make great beer, you need to have the best ingredients. One of the biggest marketing ploys the American public gets spoon-fed in the beer industry is the tag-line “brewed from the finest ingredients.” That phrase is unconsciously pasted across dozens of beer labels across America. Are you joking? What exactly does that mean? I’ve been to breweries that actually claim that, and after touring their facilities, I found out they order the most mass-produced, genetically modified, bland, tasteless, cheap barley varieties available. Sometimes they forego whole hops in favor of adding hop extract. Some even forego the use of barley malt in favor of adjunct grains like corn and rice. Who are you kidding? The American public is waking up from a coma of false advertising to the alarm clock of truth, and they’re pissed off. The craft beer industry is an excellent microcosm of that.
It’s refreshing to know that your money is well spent - that when you purchase a product you’re not just funding a massive advertising budget and some elaborate holiday party for some executives. Brewers like Sierra Nevada, Stone, and New Belgium never used their consumers’ money to build massive billboards or LED light displays to promote their product. Why? Because it’s unnecessary, and it pollutes our environment. Instead, they have built their success by consistently making great products and staying in touch with their community. Besides, you shouldn’t have to tout you are the best with a billboard or light display if the community already knows you are the best. Our logo, mission, and beers all strive to bring back truth-in-advertising and quality to the hard-working American public.
JO: How do you see the next year or so unfolding? Expanding distribution? Are you bottling?
SW: I’ve learned predicting the direction of your business is like predicting the weather. You never know which direction it’s going to go, simply because of the externalities involved. My father is in the construction business in Wisconsin, and a seemingly unrelated event like a Hurricane in Florida can affect his business tremendously. How? Hundreds of thousands of devastated homes can drive the price of lumber up across the nation, causing a slump in new-housing starts. Therefore, the best I can do is keep showing face, working hard, and letting karma take care of the rest.
Our distribution is expanding. I recently signed our second distribution contract allowing us to distribute upstate. We’ve just entered the Syracuse area and are looking at Albany and Rochester next. Furthermore, I’m currently working out the details in signing a contract to distribute our beers across the entire state of Massachusetts. I’ve learned there is a massive craft beer market there.
I am bottling, but not commercially. My business partner and I do a small amount of hand-bottling for distribution, contests, promotion, and of course – take home samples and care packages for our family and friends.
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One of the biggest marketing ploys the American public gets spoon-fed in the beer industry is the tag-line “brewed from the finest ingredients.” That phrase is unconsciously pasted across dozens of beer labels across America. Are you joking?
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