I was going to do a post on the 2nd anniversary of Notch Brewing, which founder/brewer/everything Chris Lohring is celebrating tomorrow with the seasonal launch of his Saison — now in 12 oz. bottles! — so I asked Chris if he could answer a few questions, just to get some quotes to spice up a small post. Well…I asked some good questions, and I happened to hit him when he had some time (and a good cup of coffee)…so I’m just going to run the interview. It’s a smart encapsulation of how session beer is really starting to roll, in a picture of the first two years of a brewer dedicated to only making beers at 4.5% and under.*
When you started Notch, did you have a hunch that you were about to catch a small wave of interest in session beers? Or did you just take a chance on something you liked, like so many other small brewers?
It was a combo of all, except the wave part. I never imagined the interest session beer was about to gain. It started with my own habits. When I got out of brewing for a few years, I found it increasingly difficult to find interesting and fresh low ABV beers, because the focus had moved to the extreme. Even the 5.5 to 6.0% craft beer standards (Harpoon IPA, for example) are still higher alcohol beers in my mind. Notch Pils is 4.0%, Harpoon IPA is almost 6%, and that is 50% more alcohol. That adds up quick. As an avid runner, I was also very aware of the calories packed into a 6% ABV beer.
As a former professional brewer, I knew it didn't need to be this way. We could make wildly flavorful low alcohol beers, but the craft industry chose not to. They instead ran to high margin, high ABV beers. Would this really grow craft beer to its full potential? Session beer to me was a logical path to expanding craft beer market share, for new consumers (session beers are great gateway beers) and for what people smarter than me call usage occasions (there are many times session beer is far more appropriate than a fully loaded beer).
From a business perspective it's simple; there's a gap in the market. But the question remains, and needs to be proven, how many beer drinkers find value in session beer. How many find value in having one beer when they normally thought it was out of the question, or having 3 or 4 and walking a straight line out of the bar. I asked around before launching Notch, but I realized consumers are poor at evaluating a concept, it needs to be real. The only way to test something is to make it and sell it. So, Notch was born.
And for the record, without the Session Beer Project providing some glimmer of hope, I'm not sure I would have jumped so quick.
Can you give me any kind of growth rate numbers for your second year? Are things going okay, really well, hard to keep up with?
The first year was me brewing small, draft only batches that were used to convince retailers and wholesalers "session" had viability. (Just think about that two years later.) Year two was the bottle release, so growth was huge, but we were starting from nothing. I sold so much out of the gate in year 2 that I was consistently stocking out, and had to keep my distribution territory to greater Boston only. My host brewery, Mercury, increased capacity, so I was able to go statewide in September.
But a really odd thing happened last year. I sold more beer in December than any other month, and I sold more Pils on draft in December than any other month. It proved to me that session beer was not a summer concept, that it had relevance year round. At a time when other breweries were pumping out barley wines, strong ales, and highly hopped bombs, there were consumers drinking a whole bunch of unfiltered Czech style lager. Let’s just say that demand was not in my production planning, and it took me a few months to catch up.
Saison's coming out in sixpacks; do you think you'll be able to keep up with demand?
I have no idea what to expect from a 3.8% Saison in a six pack at $8.99. I'm not sure anyone has done something like that in New England. While I hope demand is strong, I certainly have a knack for picking difficult beers to brew from a production standpoint. I really need to give Mercury Brewing and their Head Brewer Dan Lipke credit for allowing me to have such freedom and creativity. But I ran a production facility for years, so I know when to admit something is not practical. Saison yeast is on the edge of not practical.
Any plans for a brewery yet?
Not for full production. Without reasonable scale and solid margins, a physical plant is extremely risky. As long as I have breweries that allow me the production I need with the ability to be extremely hands on, I'll be happy for awhile. If my volume grows to where it makes sense to build, I'd evaluate it, but that's a long way off. A small R&D brewery for one-offs with a tap room and beer garden? That makes more sense to me.
Session beer has a lot of interest, and that's showing in the number of beers that are tagging themselves as session beers or "sessionable"...even when they're over 5% or even over 6%. What's your reaction when you see a beer like that?
Jumping a train is easier than building one, and calling something session beer is easier than actually brewing it. Those beers are standard or slightly higher than standard ABV (Look at the CDC's measurements for standard drinks: 12oz beer at 5%, 5oz wine at 12%, or a 1.5oz measure of 80 proof spirit). Session beer is LOWER than standard, it is that simple. Some brewers are using session when they are referring to easy drinking. Not the same.
In Massachusetts, we've had a number of brewers come out with session beers in the last year that fit the Session Beer Project definition. Maybe we're better at math, or maybe we don't lie to our livers?
Are you enjoying the ride?
I've been having a great deal of fun these last two years. I work seven days a week [seriously, he does; following his Twitter feed -- @NotchBrewer -- makes me feel like a slacker] and rarely feel like I'm working. It's been rewarding to have so many beer fans come up to me and thank me for making session beer. That helps.
Thanks Lew, and thanks for all the support the last two years, you've been a big part of the ride.
*Disclosure: Chris is an acquaintance — I got to know him back when he ran Tremont Brewing — but I have no financial interest in his business — or any plans to have one — and there has never been any coordination between us except the one time we did an event together. Essentially, I write about Notch and Chris so much because he’s dedicated Notch to brewing only beers under 4.5%, and that’s made it a natural experiment for the SBP to follow.