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Craft Beer Pioneers Celebrate 25 Years

Thursday, 2 Jun 2011 | 11:46 AM ET

Every revolution needs its leaders. Those few people who are willing to take chances and risk everything they have to change the status quo.

Rich Doyle (left) and Dan Kenary in 1986.
Photo: Harpoon
Rich Doyle (left) and Dan Kenary in 1986.

Rich Doyle and Dan Kenary, the founders of Boston’s Harpoon Brewery, didn’t set out to lead a rebellion, but found themselves on the frontline of America’s craft beer resurgence for one simple reason: They wanted to solve a problem that had plagued beer lovers for generations. They got tired of drinking the same beer.

“The goal was to address our unmet needs as beer consumers,” says Doyle. “Dan and I would go out together and got bored with all the beers at our watering holes being so similar. We thought: Why does it all have to taste the same?”

While a Harvard dorm might seem an unlikely place to trace the roots of the rebirth of American beer culture, it was there that Doyle and Kenary developed the friendship that would turn into a business partnership lasting longer than most marriages.

This month Harpoon is celebrating its 25th anniversary and launching a special Web site, www.harpoon25.comto mark the occasion. Over the years, Harpoon has grown to be the ninth largest craft brewer in the U.S.

Doyle and Kenary were inspired by post-college trips to Europe where they saw local breweries serve as an integral part of the community, a gathering place for friends and family.

Upon their return, the duo set out to bring the same passion and fun for locally brewed beer back to Boston.

Their dream, Massachusetts Bay Brewing Company, known as the Harpoon Brewery, launched in 1986. The brewery lays claim to Massachusetts Brewing Permit #001, the result of being the first brewery to commercially brew and bottle in the state in more than 25 years.

Things began slowly, with the brewery struggling to break even. In 1990, Harpoon decided to roll the entrepreneurial dice by throwing the first Harpoon Octoberfest. It was a gutsy move for a company living year to year.

“It was the only time we’ve risked the company,” says Doyle. “We really wanted to throw an event like Octoberfest before we ran out of money, or more truthfully, ran out of credit. We knew we had enough credit to get everything we needed for the event, but at some point people are going to come looking for the money. If nobody shows up, we were in trouble.”

The beer gods were smiling on Harpoon that day, as the weather was good and the event drew exactly what they hoped: 2,000 people. Harpoon broke even on the festival, but the event was the first step in creating one of the philosophical bedrocks of company: recreating the beer culture and a sense of community similar to the European ideal that had inspired the company’s creation. Today Harpoon hosts five major festivals each year, with last month’s HarpoonFest drawing nearly 17,000 people.

While hosting local beer events may have helped put Harpoon on people’s radar in the early days, it was a beer that originally was a seasonal brew that helped put them on the map for good.

“The IPA (India Pale Ale) was a transformative product for us. People bought more of it than we expected, they liked it better than we anticipated," Doyle told CNBC. "It was a very hoppy beer, not so much by today’s standards, but for the time period. We thought some people would like it, but we didn’t think it would be very popular. We made it for the right reasons though. We liked to drink it."

For Kenary, the IPA was reflective of a larger shift in the beer culture.

“The IPA just took off," he says. "We spent so many years educating people as to the concept of dark, flavorful beers. Folks just didn’t know what a dark beer was. There wasn’t general consensus of what it meant to be a darker beer."

The challenge in winning over the public with a different style of beer went beyond an overall lack of beer knowledge. Kenary found many consumers were just plain confused.

"People would say things about a darker beer like 'is that the bad stuff?'” or “'Is that the stuff at the the bottom of the barrel?'" he says.

"Jim Koch (founder of Boston Beer , the maker of Sam Adams) and Ken Grossman (founder of Sierra Nevada), all of us had to preach the gospel. By the mid-90’s people started to get it," he says.

As more people started to buy into craft beer, the Harpoon founders knew that after a half a decade of struggling just to break even, their dream had staying power. Rich Doyle can still recall the moment when he knew Harpoon was going to last.

“I remember it exactly. August of 1992. I was in Northern Ireland with my wife for a wedding. I got a call with the final numbers for the month of August and we made money for the first time. Not only were the sales higher, but I knew they were sustainable.”

Looking back twenty-five years later, the industry pioneers acknowledge they helped pave a path for the hundreds of other craft brewers that have followed in their footsteps. But while they may have opened some doors, they have also raised the bar.

“Brewery startups today need to be better quicker. You can't really learn on the job. You need to bring it,” says Doyle. "If you don’t have great beer right out of the gate forget it. Some of that learning curve stuff is endearing, but that doesn’t last long. You got to be good from day one.”

Despite drawing interest from big money investors who offer to take the company national, Doyle and Kenary say they have no interest in giving up the business they have built.

"Sixty-five to seventy percent of our business is a regional focus," according to Kenary. "We’re going strong in these areas and it radiates out from there. No matter where our product ends up or how big we get, we want people to know we’re a New England beer."

Beyond sticking to their Boston roots, there is also the fact that after a quarter century of watching their dream continue to grow, they're enjoying themselves too much to give it up.

"I look back and I’m thankful for how much fun it’s been,” says Kenary. “To be able to participate in something like this has been wild. Twenty-five years ago the beer culture in the U.S. was a joke and now it’s the place to be, it’s where all the innovation is happening. So it’s been an incredible. It’s a journey beer consumers and craft brewers have been taking together. We’ve been feeding off each other.”

Questions? Comments? Email us at consumernation@cnbc.com.

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