On a weekday afternoon last fall I stopped into Brick & Feather Brewery in Turners Falls, MA to chat with owner-brewer Lawrence George about his brewery and the following it is quietly building out in western Mass.
C: To start things off, how did Brick & Feather come about? What led you to opening this brewery?
BF: Um… It’s a long story that goes back to my wife and I when we were roommates in Boston fifteen years ago home brewing every weekend in the apartment and dissatisfaction with the corporate life, my office job in Boston. That’s a similar story, I guess, that most people have who get into the industry from somewhere else. Just the, y’know, the wheels started turning in your head and you say ‘hey, maybe I can do this for a living’ and fast forward fifteen years and moving to three or four different cities and brewing for five or six different breweries and ending up in the Valley and finding this building and going for it.
C: Now these other cities, is brewing what led you there? Or was that just an extension of being in..
BF: Well I spent several years trying to get some sort of brewing job in Boston. At the time there were on three or four breweries, maybe five, and the jobs don’t come up very often. There’s very low turnover and especially if you want to work for a smaller, boutique-y kind of brewery, so you kind of have to move where the jobs take you. If there’s an opportunity somewhere you gotta be willing to pick up and move. So that’s what led me to leave Boston eventually.
C: So what became your breakthrough into the world of brewing professionally?
BF: A guy named Will Myers, who’s the head brewer at Cambridge Brewing Company. He was maybe one of two people who was receptive to a home brewer wanting to come hang out and pick up the scraps of his knowledge. Y’know most places they either don’t respond or they say ‘sorry we can’t help you,’ but Will was really kind and he really over time took me in and sort of just cracked the door open for me. You really need someone to do that for you to crack into the industry, especially ten years ago with there being so few breweries. It’s sort of like this little club and someone kind of has to invite you in, in a weird way. So that was my gateway into it.
C: So Brick & Feather is coming up on two years?
C: And you still do exclusively growlers, is that a choice from permits or, kind of, a more aesthetic choice?
BF: It was… We chose to do that for a couple reasons. Number one, it is a very affordable way to get started and get your beer into people’s hands. Also, though, we were very much into being like a hyper-local business where the beer is just at a level of freshness that you’re not going to get anywhere else. So the growler is a pretty convenient way to achieve that, as well. Sometimes we are kegging a beer and putting it on tap that day and people are taking home growlers of a beer that is hours old. So that’s… and for us that’s kind of what makes so much of a difference with our beers versus something you get nationally in a package store. But it’s certainly not the end of our plan, we will be introducing some different formats. Probably cans. We’ve already got some bottles aging away back there [ ]. Cans, next year. Definitely next year. But again, we’re trying to keep things like small and local and trying to take care of our regular customers above all.
C: So with the expansion into cans are you going to have to expand the facility or…
BF: Yeah, it’s all part of it. We wrestled with… we have room in the brewery right now for more tanks. So the plan was to install some bigger tanks and double our fermentation capacity and then buy a canning unit, but that is a pretty significant investment. We realized we could buy a more modest canning unit, right now, and not have to take on any debt and just slowly start toying with it, introducing it into our sort of business, making sure the quality is where we want it before we have just like thirty barrel batches of beer waiting to go into cans. So we’re going to kind of start out slow, see how the cans go over, and then start putting in more tanks. So it kind of like reversed the plan.
C: Interesting. A different model than I feel like a lot of breweries seem to use, jumping whole hog into a huge canning output. Although another thing that seems to set you guys apart is… this current climate where every week, every brewery is coming out a new beer and by two three years on the market to have 200-300 beers that they’ve made and you guys seem to really hone in on a smaller base that is more… individual beers have a bigger following than, say, Night Shift where people seem to come in to see what’s new than come in for beers they’ve like in the past and what brought you to deciding on, just using Night Shift as an example, that model of constantly new, constantly different?
BF: It’s a tough balance, because the customers want something new, people always gravitate towards what’s new. It’s also very fun to brew new beers, and we do it occasionally, but there’s also something to be said about really perfecting three or four core beers. And that’s kind of what you’re talking about, most of those beer on tap right there have been brewed dozens of times right there and it gives you a chance to change tiny little things from recipe to recipe, the parts per million of calcium in a certain beer and really get the beer where you want it and that’s also really satisfying. But we try to keep things fresh, we try to throw new beers out once in a while. We’ll have a couple new beers next month, and it’s fun, too.
C: It’s kind of refreshing with all the microbreweries that were big in the 90s and even some back as far as the late 70s or 80s, and you had this kind of flagship that had a following rather than just… Personally I find that refreshing.
BF: Yeah. Well, y’know, that was never our plan. When we were planning the brewery people kept asking ‘what’s your flagship, what’s your flagship’ and I said we don’t have a flagship that’s like something breweries did 20 years ago but within six months of opening people are walking in going ‘hey where’s Letters From Zelda, I really loved that,’ ‘hey where’s In Absentia,’ and I was like ‘oh ok, so I guess we gotta start brewing these beers more often.’ And that’s what got us into our current sort of cycle.
C: A lot of your brewing seems to hone in on a couple style that you’ve really worked different realms of, with some of the more Belgian-styled stuff and a lot of the APAs and IPAs, is there further experimentation into other styles or those styles planned? I guess that didn’t quite make sense but more experimenting with elements of different styles…
BF: So you mean are we going to be venturing out style-wise from what we’ve been doing?
C: Not venturing out but trying more experimental things, I meant to say.
BF: Ok, um, I guess what I interpret you to mean by experimental often involves like exotic ingredients or processes that are out of the norm, and that stuff can be really fun as a brewer and can be really interesting as a drinker, but I think when it comes down to it for me, when I order a beer, I don’t necessarily want to be the guinea pig of some experiment, I want to know that I’m getting just an amazing beer. I, personally, go to bars and drink lagers and uh there’s some farmhouse-y beers that you can get around here that are really wonderful, stuff that comes down from Maine. So I wouldn’t say that we’re going to do anything like experimental. We do have a farmhouse beer aging on brettanoyces, two strains of brettanomyces, right now. We’re getting into some mixed culture stuff but nothing that’s going to be too out-there. We’re not looking to jump into the high acidity end of these farmhouse beers but definitely looking to cook some more nuance out of some of our saisons and things like that.
C: That was essentially what I was poorly trying to ask, with more mixed cultures and what not.
BF: Yeah I mean we have the room to set up a separate area in the back if we wanted to do barrels and wanted to do different organisms, and that was sort of my plan at the beginning but now it’s not like a priority for me. There’s some breweries that are out there, even close by, that are doing a wonderful wonderful job at that and my tastes since we’ve opened have gravitated more towards unfiltered lagers, like northern Bavarian style lagers and part of me just wants to just get big horizontal tank and fill ’em up with kellerbier and y’know, so who knows…
C: Well, I hope that’s a direction that comes… But now that you’ve established a pretty… I mean there seems to be, every weekend I’ve come, a large crowd of people… now that you have what seems to be a pretty good sized following, do you have to think more about what your customer wants in terms of some of your brewing so that… if that’s the style people want or expect from you because they like the characteristics of Positively 11th Street or Letters From Zelda, does that have to be figured into your decision making?
BF: Yeah, because it is a business when it comes down to it and we can’t have people showing up and not having any of the stuff on tap, so we try to keep enough of a variety so that our regular customers are satisfied when they come in and they want their hops and more casual people who come in maybe they don’t like hops and there’s a porter on or a biere de garde. So we kind of always have an alternative beer and as we go forward, if we did this thing with, say, more lagers or whatever it wouldn’t be pulling beers off of that list it would be adding another option on to that list. You want to make everyone happy and we do think about that. Well, you try to make everyone happy…
C: Ha, well you’ll never make everyone happy..
BF: We’ve learned that.
C: But you’re doing a pretty good job of pleasing most.
BF: We try.
C: Again, with the growing popularity, are there any plans for expansion in terms of taproom or anything? I mean, your seating is somewhat limited, at a certain point it no longer… I believe, Iron Duke is in the process of building because they can no longer handle… is that something that is in the works?
BF: We talk about it often. The first year we were in business we only sold growlers, and we would give people free tastes, so the room was perfectly adequate for that. When we got our pouring permit, things changed. A different set of customers started showing up. They wanted to spend more time. So we realized our idea of it being kind of an open, standing-room place wasn’t really going to work so we did put in a couple tables shortly after we started pouring beers here. We never had a very big staff either, we only had maybe one employee up until six months ago, and now we have two part-timers. Going forward we’re probably going to be adding more staff and probably adding some more hours to the tasting room to accommodate this other kind of business we hadn’t really anticipated, people who want to drink some beers and hang out.
C: Jumping off of that, after two years, what do you see for the next two years of Brick & Feather?
BF: We’ve been extremely conservative with everything we’ve done here at the brewery and part of that is because of the environment we’re in right with just so many brewery openings and so many options… even within western Mass. And a lot of these breweries are making wonderful beer and… we’re very careful to not get in over our head and regret it in two years, and that mostly means not taking on a ton of debt and not expanding to quickly. So the next two years are just going to be more of our slow, intentional growth. We think things through very long and very hard before we make decisions, maybe even to the point where it frustrates people who’ve been waiting for cans for the last year. So yeah the next two years is going to be more of that, we’re gonna be able to double our production next year and then in two years from now maybe we’ll be thinking about another expansion… We’ll see.
C: We’ve touched on a lot of the business side of things, but how often are you in there brewing? Is it everyday you’re working on a batch or do you have set brew days?
BF: I’m here every day. I have a part-time assistant who is here 20-hours a week, also. So, there’s work to be done almost every single day. You can usually take Sunday off. And some days I’m only in here a few hours, checking on a few things, and some days I’m in here for fifteen hours. It’s definitely not one of these things where, like, I have a day job and I just do this on the weekends like some people kind of imagine. We’re a pretty 7-day a week kind of thing here, as far as production goes.
C: Is there something you like to be drinking to be taking inspiration from when you go into brewing?
BF: While we’re working I’m not really looking for inspiration. While we’re working I’m typically looking for a Gatorade or something, cause I’m sweating my ass off and I’m busting my back. The inspiration happens when we’re out at night or visiting a brewery on a day off or something. We find inspiration all over the place. My brain is constantly working and my assistant brewer has a wonderful palate and a great, imaginative taste in beer like me and we think about stuff all the time. But while you’re working it’s more of a focus on the exact thing you’re doing in front of you, and sometimes we’ll crack a beer open towards the end of the day, but not often.
C: Sorry, I didn’t mean quite while you’re brewing.
C: Not during those hours, but in the process of brewing… In your off hours…
BF: Ok, so what am I looking for? What am I gravitating towards?
C: Yeah, is there a specific beer that before you start working on a new beer you like to refresh yourself with or..
BF: I mean I don’t really have like a specific beer… Often it’s something that a friend has brewed at another brewery that blows me away or sometimes it’s something that someone has brought us here as a gift that we crack open. Sometimes it’s a special keg that the Sheltons bring over from Germany or Belgium that I get to taste over at like Seymour or like The Moan And Dove or something, and those beers can be incredibly inspiring, almost life-changing sometimes. I’m always looking for the inspiration, wherever it is, and always got your ear open and listening…
C: And you were saying about…
BF: I’m going to have to interrupt you for just a second, Chris, sorry…
[an eager beer drinker wanders in asking if they are open]
C: Oh, so… you were saying about beers made by friends and whatnot, western Mass seems to have a fairly close-knit community between brewers, have you found that helpful in breaking into the world of having your own brewery or is that more just competition and friendly rivalry?
BF: It was… It’s extremely helpful most just from the encouragement and support I got from the other breweries in the area. When I moved here five years ago, I had already been doing it for a while professionally so… I guess, I did get a little bit of logistical help from some friends in the area but mostly it was just like, ‘Lawrence, we’re so psyched you’re doing this. You’ve got a great spot. We can’t wait to drink your beer.’ And things like customers walking in and being like ‘oh the guys over at Lefty’s told us to come check you out’ or ‘the guys over at Element told us to come check you out,’ so that’s been wonderful. That’s been absolutely wonderful. And in my previous job at Berkshire Brewing Company, the owner there has been absolutely incredible to us. Again, in the few instances where I needed a little help with something, he’s one of those guys that would be there for me and that’s been wonderful, absolutely.
C: I don’t have a good transition into this question, but where did the name Brick & Feather come from?
BF: My wife and I were looking at properties for the brewery and we were visiting a lot of old mill buildings and 19th century industrial buildings, some of which were in various states of disrepair. Dusty old factories and crumbling brick. The whole history of this area was just, like, completely on display when we went to see those properties and it was just such a cool feeling. You could kind of, like, feel the history breathing through you and breathing through the bones of these old buildings and we wanted something that was evocative of that. We were just, literally, writing words and phrases down on a piece of paper, and my wife, literally, just said ‘Brick & Feather’ and that one stuck. That one just stuck, it was pretty obvious. And everyone we mentioned it to kind of also fell in love with it. To me it also came to represent these sort of dynamics of brewing – where you have these sort of opposite thing. You have this geometric, industrial heavy thing and then you have this delicate, ephemeral, like philosophical, artsy kind of thing and most brewers kind of have to dance within both of those worlds to some degree to make beer.
C: At the end of the day, what’s you favorite Brick & Feather beer?
BF: Well, I couldn’t tell you what my favorite… I don’t have a favorite. All the beers are there because I love them. I gravitate towards something with a little more manageable alcohol content. I take home 11th Street. When we had out hells lager on in the summer, I drank a lot of that. There’s a time and place for all those beers, really.
C: We talked a little about the brewing community in the area, but in terms of the western Mass community, the Turners Falls community, what is the community involvement of Brick & Feather? It seems like a lot of the local bars carry your stuff. Are there other things you do to really ingrain yourself into the community?
BF: Well, we work with a number of non-profits and sort of under-the-radar things we don’t talk about a lot, but we try to help out when we can. As far as community goes, some friends of ours started something calledWestern Mass Beer Week, I don’t know if you’ve heard of it… There’s been two of them now, each the past June. The last two Junes. We were supporters of it early on, when they first came to us with the idea of some sort of week long celebration of western Mass beer and they’ve been nice enough to include us a lot in a lot of the planning and a lot of the, just, design of the concept and it’s been really cool to work with them and see it blossom into this thing. It’s doubled in size from its first year. So that’s really cool, to be a part of that.
C: Are there any other local ties ties that Brick & Feather has?
BF: Four years ago I brewed a collaboration beer with Chris Sellers from The People’s Pine and Justin Corby from Stoneman Brewing. I’ve done some work down with Donald at the Northampton Brewery using their can filler. Y’know, obviously, working at BBC for so long. I’m probably forgetting some people, so I hope I’m not making anyone mad in this article… But, yeah, there’s stuff like that. It’s a tight community here. Despite the sort of cliche that you here, we do all get along pretty well. Even working with some of the bar owners has been really fulfilling too. Some of the events that get put on – often for the benefit of a non-profit or a charity – and there’s just a lot of positivity in this part of the state that i didn’t always get in eastern Mass when I lived there. And there’s definitely this idea of we have this shared place that we live and we all want to make it as awesome a place as possible.
C: Thanks again for doing this… If there’s anything else that you really want to say but I didn’t ask you about your brewery…
BF: Hm… Not really. Nothing that I could say is really that important… Ha.