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Eaten By Its Young: The Smuttynose Story

The rise, fall and apparent resurrection of Smuttynose is the story of the craft beer industry as a whole.  There's growth in the industry, as the Brewers Association reports, but the story is changing from the simple David vs. Goliath narrative of craft beer vs. big beer, of quality vs. quantity, to something else.  It's also a story of complacency and change.  Of new generations, looking to do things a different way.  Breweries inspired by the titans of the past, are making their mark.  And for some, this means eating away at the business of the firms that inspired, and even trained them.  America's regional craft brewers are being eaten by their young.

I can think of no place where this trend is more clear than in seacoast New Hampshire, where Smuttynose brewing plays the roll of the fallen giant, lying in a verdant field of upstarts.  The seacoast raises the craft beer standards for the entire state.  It's a region defined by a scant 18 miles of coastline, and anchored spiritually by the Smuttynose's old home of Portsmouth.  This a quaint city, with a some picturesque and well preserved colonial and early American homes located right near down town.  The abundance of historic wood buildings so close to the water, is a sign of the area's sleepy character.  It's not very densely populated and mixes residents with vacation properties.  Industry is coastal, with the declining Portsmouth Naval Shipyard a major employer.  The air force base closed in the 80s and has been revitalizing ever since  There's a strange Swiss presence, with both Lonza biopharmaceutical plant and a Lindt chocolate factory within the city limits.

I can't explain why the seacoast is the epicenter of New Hampshire's craft beer beyond the seeds sowed and cultivated by Smuttynose, and it's sister brewery the Portsmouth brewing Co.  Redhook has a large brewery undoubtedly training skilled and industrious brewers.  But I don't see that being a stronger influence on quality than the Anheusuer Busch plant located in Merrimack, between New Hampshire's two largest cities.  AB employed Mitch Steele before Stone.  He was an active homebrewer out of Jasper's, a Nashua homebrew shop that was certainly no less equipped to nurture brewers than Portsmouth's A&G Supply.   The main campus of UNH is about 20 minutes away in Durham.  However, the students have easier access to neighboring Dover.  It's hard to see them as the catalyst for more expensive, better beer. The magic was the the Eglestone brewing family.  With exemplary food and beer at the Portsmouth Brewing Company, sophisticated pairings were no longer a mystery.  Smuttynose was on tap at almost every bar in the city.   New, local brewers, would find the doors wide open.

The tale of Smuttynose being eaten by it's young is a beautifully symmetric tale, with Peter Egelstone's ownership beginning and ending at bank auctions.  He and his sister placed a joke bid on the facility and equipment that would become Smuttynose when the pre-prohibition Frank Jones Brewery gave up the ghost.  I have to wonder if he wishes that bid had been even funnier.  Smuttynose grew to be a regional powerhouse using that old Frank Jones equipment, in an increasingly cramped space in a Portsmouth,NH industrial park.  Expansion wasn't a rash decision.  It was a need, as tankage crept into and occupied what was once a nice taproom.  There was a 10 year long ordeal, with two promising sites conceptually designed and rejected a by municipal government before the brewery could eventually build it's dream house in Hampton, NH.

 © David J. Murray,  ClearEyePhoto.com    
Smuttynose at Towle Farm.  © David J. Murray, ClearEyePhoto.com
The brewery concept was simple. Provide a state of the art brewery, designed in an engaging way that demonstrates Smuttynose's respect for traditions, environmental stewardship, and love for life in New England.  The goal was to create a pleasant destination for both employees and visitors.  The LEED certified brewery won architectural awards and delivered on the Brewery's environmental commitments both inside and out.  The 80bbl brewhouse was designed to be safely, and easily tourable, located just off of a small gift shop and tap room.  The property was once a farm. Abundant greenspace was put to amicable use with space for frisbee golf, and a fire pit.  It isa pleasant place to spend a few hours.  The old farmhouse had been painstakingly moved, and converted into a farm to table restaurant, Hayseed.  This cozy eatery showcased the range of Smuttynose beers in a classy brewpub setting.

This expansion should have been a hit.  Even if there was excess capacity, the quality control improvement associated with the equipment upgrade, and additional space to barrel age would have helped out.  They recently contracted some of this capacity out to Nightshift.  It's a solid business move.

Smuttynose even continued to operate their old facility as Smuttlabs to manufacture the innovative, or at least off the wall beers, that kept promiscuous drinkers coming back.  Supply consistency should have helped  maintain shelf space at the periphery of Smuttynose's 13 state distribution range.  They had a flagship 7% IPA with a unique hop character, and a strong range of traditional European styles.  The rotating big beers were generally stellar (Barleywine should have been an annual affair), if a bit boozey, and allowed the brewery to follow trends with Belgian Quads and Wheat Whines.  On paper, a strategy with a strong portfolio of standards, and two tiers of weirdness should be great for an expanding brewery.  It didn't work.  The upstarts multiplied.  Shelf space and sales couldn't keep with projections.

The situation was almost worse at home.  The new brewery was gorgeous.  It seemingly checked all of the boxes, yet somehow isn't the premier beer destination in New Hampshire, or even on the Seacoast.  Relaxed regulations allowing brewery taproom sales had started a cultural shift away from the brewery, and pub scene to a different sort of engagement: a more informal, relaxed experience.  Somehow the low key Smuttynose felt a bit forced.  Their taproom was scaled to support brewery tours, not flight enthusiasts looking for the americanized beer hall experience.  Crossing the parking lot to a restaurant in a cozy new England farmhouse, brought another layer of formality.   Smutty to formal?  Astounding.

Just down the road, Throwback, a brewery started by a former Smuttynose intern, operates both a taproom and brewery with farm to table food in an authentic farm house.  There was even a working farm, complete with chickens and pigs.  The brewery doesn't really have an IPA to it's name.  Hoppy beers are downplayed to emphasize the use of local ingredients, including some unusual vegetables.  It's Throwback, not Smuttynose that cleans up in regional press.  2017's Best Brewery (Taste of the Seacoast, Seacoast Online, New Hampshire Magazine) and the Small Business Association of New England's Woman own Business of the Year.

They aren't the only local eating Smutty's lunch.  Since the new brewery opened, something on the order of 9 brewpubs or breweries have opened in the seacoast area.  It's a boon for the beer tour bus business.  How can a local keep up, never mind an occasional visitor?  As a patron who tends to stop in Portsmouth for a bite while traveling between MA and ME, I tend to prefer to let my kids run loose on the fields at Throwback to any of the other options.  Hayseed has been hospitable, and has a nice kids menu, but the experience doesn't compete.

I'll also admit to buying less Smutty at home, for two reasons.  One, I'm having trouble keeping current with new breweries, and by volume I prefer to buy low ABV IPAs, like Two Roads Lil' Heaven.

Consumers have changing expectations from brewers and breweries.  It's not just an evolving quest for novelty, or simply changing tastes.  Although I think these play into it.  Craft beer is a life style beverage.  It signals a respect for small, independent breweries.  It can represent authenticity, or a relaxing time out.  Brewery patrons want engagement, ideals, and an experience. 

Localvores will inhibit regional brewery expansion, and tap room culture seemingly thrives better in more organic design than an artfully planned brewery.  I raise a glass to Runnymeede Investments, LLC winners of the March 9 brewery acution.  Iwish them the best as they nurture the next phase of the brewery's life.  What will the future bring?  I for one would like to see more Smuttynose Barleywine.

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