In 2007, Massachusetts brewers came together to form the Massachusetts Brewers Guild as a means of promoting craft brewing while, at the same time, protecting the interests of craft brewers throughout the state. When first created there were only 34 brewing licenses issued. Today, there are more than 200 operating breweries across the Commonwealth (with more coming on board every month) including brewpubs, farm-breweries, and manufacturers. We recently had an opportunity to speak with Katie Stinchon, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Brewers Guild, about her work with the Guild and the success of their 2021 Mass Beer Week event.
Can you provide a brief history of the Massachusetts Brewers Guild? The Mass. Brewers Guild was founded in 2007 by a group of dedicated and passionate brewers here in our state. A lot of the legacy brewers that folks might be familiar with. Harpoon and Sam Adams are some of the more notable names, but also Berkshire Brewing Co. All these folks banded together in an effort to have a unified voice on Beacon Hill. And the whole mission of our Guild is to both protect and to promote the interest of craft brewers across the Commonwealth. At that time, when they founded the Guild, there were roughly 30 breweries in Massachusetts. Today there are 210 operational breweries. There's an additional 20 breweries slated to open this year in 2021. And then there's an additional 20 breweries in their planning stages, like infancy planning stages, getting their plans together as well. We're certainly a growing industry here in Massachusetts, no signs of it slowing down. Our industry is fairing OK, even given the constraints of COVID. They've been incredibly creative and nimble to stay afloat in these really difficult times, and we're just praying for warm weather and patio beer season to open up ASAP, which I'm sure you guys are as well.
When a new brewery comes online is there a process that they have to go through? They do have to join as members. Our entire association is funded through membership dues and fundraisers. A lot of our events obviously were wiped out, which is why the pint program was so important to us for Mass Beer Week. It is a membership-based organization. Our smallest breweries pay $250 a year. And with that comes the opportunity to network with your peers and colleagues, get expert advice from some of the more veteran breweries in the state, be featured on our passport program, receive marketing support and be a part of our beer festivals when they happen again, as well as take advantage of some of the programs that we run for Mass Beer Week.
Do new breweries generally reach out to you directly, or are you on the search for bringing on board additional locations? I would say in 2016, when I first took on this job and was really reinvigorating the Guild along with a new board, I was touring the state a lot, knocking on doors and meeting people and had to work a lot harder to share who we are, what we do and why it's important to join. And I would say that today they're reaching out to me first, which is fantastic and really shows that the work has paid off these past five years. The passport program definitely helps that people want to be featured on it. So, they want to wave the flag and say, “Hey, we're here. We're opening next month. How do I get on the passport program? How can I be a part of your upcoming meetings?” We also have a closed Facebook group that's just for our brewers to talk shop, sell equipment, sell extra ingredients and talk about who their favorite vendors are. And that's a real asset to bring people into the Guild as well, because they want access to that Facebook group.
You started in 2016. Talk about your role, your responsibilities and how you got involved with the Guild to begin with? Prior to taking on this job, I was at a PR firm working with nonprofit organizations and then spending my weekends beer blogging and traveling the state and other nearby states for fun with my girlfriends and my friends. So obviously, craft beer was a passion of mine. I love the culture, I love the liquid, love the product. I'm definitely not a brewer or an expert, but I'm really great at drinking it. And so, I was searching. I kept on the hunt for breweries that were hiring PR communications professionals, because I really wanted to land in-house somewhere and breweries just weren't big enough yet to be hiring internal folks. And then I saw this job post and I was like, wow, wouldn't that be incredible to be able to represent every brewery across Massachusetts and really have a hand in driving traffic and tourism to our state.
I think I was one of more than 300 applicants that had various levels of experience. There were lawyers, there were lobbyists. My background was more on the event management side of things, nonprofit management side of things. And luckily they chose me and I feel like a lottery winner every day. I have the best job in the world. But I do everything. I'm a team of one, as many of our guilds are. One to two people is typically the size of the staff. We do everything from putting on Massachusetts state beer weeks, planning festivals and planning educational conferences. We help to serve as the unified voice on Beacon Hill, managing lobbyists or pulling together different committees to work on things, as well as recruitment for members and making sure that our associate members are getting the opportunity to put their products and services in front of our members to mutually benefit them. I kind of consider myself central command to help connect everybody, because I don't have all the answers and I'm not an expert on many things, but I usually know someone who is an expert and I can help to connect them.
How was this year’s Mass Beer Week? Considering all the barriers? There was definitely more buzz on social media for both the breweries and with consumers this year than I've ever seen before. A lot of posts that read something to the tune of, “You know, I haven't had a beer on draft since this time last year and I had to get out for Mass Beer Week”. So that was nice to see. And hopefully our member breweries saw that reflected in their taproom numbers that week, either in to-go sales or bodies in chairs. We had 75 different events take place across the state. We had, I think it was 33 breweries that participated, three restaurants and one package store. I'd love to see more action on the restaurant side of things, in the coming months and next year. Obviously, this year was difficult. They're on a shoestring bandwidth right now as it is and I didn't want to create extra burden
But it was interesting to me how many restaurants did reach out to want to stock the glassware after they saw that our breweries were selling them and they were like, “Hey, can I order a case of that? Do you have any extra on hand, I'll buy a case off you or I'll swap the case for you in exchange for a gift certificate that you can raffle off.” I think the challenge is that I just don't have the capacity to stock it here in my home office. I definitely don't want to turn my office into a distribution center. And then there's the balance too, right? I want to drive traffic and tourism to the breweries for people to go buy them. So, we'll have to think about that going forward or even to have packaged stores that could have them on hand to sell and just getting them more involved earlier to increase the number on that. It also did encourage a couple of our breweries join just so that they could have the opportunity to sell the glassware. So that was also an added benefit for us as a Guild. They wanted to get involved in the promotion.
How many years has Mass Beer Week been occurring? Mass Beer Week had actually predated me, but it was originally run by the Beer Advocate guys. And then when I came on board in 2016, they handed over all the assets to me and they were like, “This should really be owned by the Guild”. And they just didn't have a full-time executive director to manage it. So, we took it on in 2016 and we've been trying to build momentum ever since. And I think we finally had a lot more excitement this year than ever before. I don't know if it was because of COVID and people were looking for things to heighten their brand and awareness, or if we just had more groovy folks that wanted to be a part of the community this year. But either way I'll take it.
Do you leave it up to those individual locations (breweries, restaurants, etc.) to establish their own events or their own community involvement? We gave a list of suggested ways that people could get involved. This year we obviously put virtual in front of a lot of it, so it was virtual tastings, virtual beer tours, virtual beer pairing dinners. Some breweries had meal kits to-go that you could pick up with your six pack and then they paired it with virtual content. A lot of that is usually live and in person. People did beer trivia. One of the restaurants did a whole lamb five course dinner, paired with local beers. So that was a lot of what we did. And the Mass. Brewers Guild hosts Meet the Brewers freshmen class every year during Mass Beer Week which is typically in person. It's like a speed dating style event where we bring in 10 of the state's new breweries. You sit down with the brewer, you have 10 minutes to taste their beer, hear their startup story. I ring a bell, they get up, they move to the next table. Obviously we couldn’t do that this year, but we did it as five days of five virtual tastings instead with some of those new freshman. It was just an opportunity to give some of the new guys some exposure. That's something that we host every year during Mass Beer Week. We also host a hockey game, which we couldn't do this year, but that's really fun to just get the brewers on ice to talk trash and get to know each other a little bit better.
Let's talk about the glassware. How did you come up with the idea and the design? Did you involve a local artist? How did that process all come together? The head of my marketing committee, Keith Sullivan, who co-owns Medusa Brewing Co. helped to come up with the overall concept for the design. The Massachusetts arm has been something that's been used in a couple of different ways in our state, and we really wanted to amplify it and kick it up a notch for Mass Beer Week. The designer though, not local, Mike Hawkins, Human for Now Studio, he's out of Seattle, is a really talented artist and was able to turn it around for us really quickly. And it came out beautiful. People really liked it, the shirt and the glass and it sold really well.
And how did that come together, working with Boelter? I had heard from Ohio and New Hampshire that Boelter really made it very easy and streamlined the process to get the pint program off the ground, and just to cut the check at the end so that I wasn't involved in scrambling to collect all the payments and nudge everybody. Because herding cats is a nightmare to have to do that on top of everything else that we do. So that was an added benefit to working with Boelter. We had sent some ideas to Patrick Karnick (Field Sales Manager, Boelter) on glassware shapes that we were looking for and he found similar aspects that you had in stock. We found that the glass gave us enough surface area to really display the art the way that we wanted to. It's a cool shape. It kind of fits around your hand. I liked that it's a little bit different than your traditional pint shaker glass that everyone has. But still really versatile and cool and makes a nice poor.
Once the glasses were done with the logo printed on, were they sent to individual breweries or were they sent to you to distribute? I picked a regional brewery in every area and asked them to serve as the shipment location, just to streamline costs for shipping. So, I picked one member brewery in each region and organized which glasses would be shipped there. And then Boelter took it from there to make sure that everyone was getting what they needed. We also just asked every regional shipment site to confirm with me when they got it and to let the other breweries know when they could come pick it up at their spaces.
What would you say was the overall reaction to the glassware? It was great. I know one of my member breweries sold out of their glass in 24 hours and they ordered two cases and they were like, “Well, I guess next year we'll order more”. But again, there's that limited availability next to it that's really cool. And then it was great to be able to say, “But this brewery over there has it, so go visit them and leave with a four-pack”. So, I think the majority of folks really enjoyed the program, the glasses sold well, they looked great. I saw a lot of folks comment on social media, like, “Oh, I have to get that glass. Where is it available?”. So we tried to do our best to amplify the locations where people could get it. And I will ask the breweries, now that I have my head above water, maybe a three-question survey about how the sales went, what would they have liked differently? Just so that as I'm thinking ahead to 2022, when we repeat this, how can I be more mindful of what's working in their taprooms and what's not.
What does the future of the Massachusetts Brewers Guild and the remainder of 2021 look like? We still have tons of breweries and planning slated to open. COVID has not squashed their hopes and dreams. In 2020 we saw, I think it was 12 closures compared to 27 openings. So we're still surviving and thriving here. We really need the food requirement to be lifted here in Massachusetts. If folks at Fenway Park are able to get their own beer from a counter and walk to their seat and drink it without needing an entree in front of them, we need that to happen here in Massachusetts for our breweries as well. Which I think is coming, I think that's coming. We don't anticipate there to be too many more closures headed forward. So that's good news. We hope aluminum cans hold out, you know, but if we can shift the bulk of our packaging to on-premise sales in pint glasses, that helps you guys out and it helps us out too. We hope to move ahead with our beer festival on October 2nd. We'll see what happens there. And then our conference is in November. If we have to shift virtually we'll have to be creative about how we highlight our sponsors, but we're moving full steam ahead and just plan A through Z for everything.