Jack's Abby wants craft beer united against big beer

Courtesy | Jack's Abby
Courtesy | Jack's Abby
Jack's Abby co-founder Jack Hendler.

Framingham craft beer maker Jack’s Abby has transformed into an industry leader, increasing its employee count fivefold and raising its barrel production from 18,000 to 45,000 in three years. Jack’s Abby was named in May as The U.S. Small Business Administration’s Manufacturer of the Year for Massachusetts, and the brewery is hosting an inaugural Massachusetts Brewers Guild event next week to help give young breweries the technical skills and business knowledge they need to be successful. Co-founder Jack Hendler spoke with WBJ about the brewery’s place in the craft beer industry.
Do you guys and other craft breweries think of yourselves as manufacturers?
There are millions of dollars of stainless steel in our facility. We have a 6-million BTU boiler and a huge cooling infrastructure. We have stainless steel tanks that hold 18 gallons of beer, and we have 20 of them.
There’s an enormous amount of manufacturing that happens in this space. We’re definitely using a lot of equipment.
How have you guys been able to grow so much? 
A little bit of luck, hard work, and we think we make some fantastic products. It’s a combination of the three. We certainly have had some pretty strong community support between consumers coming to the brewery, but some of our best retail accounts are local, within two to three miles of the brewery.
How have you grown in terms of employees?
When we moved into the space at the end of 2015, we had 25 employees. Now, the whole company employs around 140 people, including the restaurant and taproom 
You guys are hosting the MBG’s inaugural Technical Brewing & Business Conference next week. How did that come about?
My brother, Sam, is one of the officers in the guild. We participate as best we can and there are a lot of positive activities the guild is engaged in. One of the things we really like about what the guild does, it offers technical brewing and business knowledge that is passed down to our fellow brewers in the state.
The event is sort of a response to the rapid growth of craft beer. What’s it like to watch that growth as a larger craft brewer, and does this unchecked growth concern anyone in the industry 
There has been incredible growth. The number of breweries grew by 20 to 30 percent last year, and it will be the same this year. There will be a few dozen to open this year.
Brewing is no different from any other industry. There will be competitors, and there will be issues eventually’ but the thing that really works for craft beer is it’s such a small portion of the market right now.
Will there be competition amongst small craft breweries, or do you see the industry staying united against beer giants of the world?
About 80 percent of the beer in the state is Bud, Miller or Coors. A lot of craft breweries opening are really small, and the amount of beer isn’t necessarily going to move the needle dramatically 
You will see small brewers compete, but the room to grow is with the competition against bigger players and international breweries 
What can Jack’s Abby and other breweries do to maintain the growth of craft beer?
We don’t collaborate with a lot of local guys, but we’re always communicating on things like inventory. If someone forgot to order hops, another brewery will make some hops available.
We have kind of a network. There’s even a Facebook group where people can post if they need something.\ 
The new breweries coming online are not the competitors. It’s the guys who own 80 percent of the beer market who are the competitors. Big Beer lost 3 million barrels in the last nine months. That’s an enormous amount of beer. If craft can get 10 percent of that loss, it makes up for the growth and number of breweries that are opening 
Is the industry growth reaching a breaking point?
We’re not quite there yet. There are small issues that are going to happen, but it’s not because of too many craft brewers opening.
We will begin seeing a lot more craft breweries closing, but that’s not an abnormal thing. You’ll always have a certain amount percentage closing. The more there are, the more will close.
I don’t think we’re at that crisis point yet. Eventually, there will be a tipping point.
What would that tipping point look like?
We haven’t been able to grow the segment enough. We have to figure out how to grow what craft beer is doing by taking some of the macro beer drinkers and getting some wine and spirit drinkers back.
It’s going to be interesting to see if we can – now that we have some bigger craft players – rebrand a little bit. In some ways, craft beer maybe has alienated some by being too high priced or too hard to understand.
We’re going to have to find a way to capture the average beer drinker. 
This interview was conducted and edited by WBJ Staff Writer Zachary Comeau.