Innovating the Beer Industry: a Q&A with Night Shift Brewing
Massachusetts is one home to some of America’s top craft brewers, including industry-leaders like Sam Adams and Harpoon Brewery, as well as almost five-dozen smaller operations in and around Boston. Like many of its competitors, Night Shift Brewing offers some fantastic beers. But what makes Night Shift so unique is the way it’s quietly innovating—from their unique, locally-sourced ingredients to the their innovative approach to marketing.
Night Shift Brewing was founded in 2011 by three friends who turned a passion for nocturnal brewing into their profession. Started as a hobby in their Somerville kitchen, they now brew at their nanobrewery in Everett, MA. Fusing unique ingredients into an array of rich, complex flavors, Night Shift is creating some of the most innovative and memorable craft beer in the world. I caught up with Michael Oxton, one of the brewery’s co-founders, to talk about their recent success, unique beer, and spirit of innovation.
Q: How did you decide to transition Night Shift from a hobby to a real brewery?
A: The idea of starting transitioning Night Shift from a hobby to a real brewery started around batch 3! I’m only sort of kidding. We fell in love with brewing almost as soon as we started it, which was right out of college in 2007. Even then, talks about someday owning a craft brewery had already begun. We go more serious a few years later, once we were producing great beer that tasted as good as the stuff on the shelves. Our homebrew system was fairly advanced, and we took the process itself very seriously. We also got a lot of great feedback from tasting parties we held, and that encouraged us as well.
I’d also say that we all have that “entrepreneurial spirit” or whatever you want to call it. We wanted to be our own bosses, be directly responsible for our own company, grow something from nothing. That appeal was enormous to us. As daunting as the task seemed, it was also unbelievably exciting, and allowed us to apply (and develop) so many different skills. And, of course, we’ve still only just started.
Q: What makes Night Shift different from other breweries in the Boston ecosystem?
A: Night Shift Brewing is different for a number of reasons. First of all, we’re completely our own operation, and we started our brewery from scratch. As opposed to contract brewing (which is a great option, just not what we’re doing), we own our facility, and do everything in-house. Because of that, we control every step of the process and are able to get really creative. Yeast selection, especially, is important to the flavors we are creating; with our own brewery we are in total control of which yeast gets used, exactly how much, and the entire fermentation process that follows.
Having our own brewery also allows people to visit it and see where the product is made. We have a tasting room set up where guests can sample beers, talk with the brewers, and buy merchandise, growlers or bottles. We also offer tours of the facility to anyone who’s interested.
We’re also a nanobrewery, which is vastly different than the larger Boston breweries. Because we only produce about 450 bottles per batch, we’re able to get that much more experimental with our recipes, and also tweak recipes from batch to batch.
Q: Talk about your sales and marketing plan; how are you planning to grow over the next year? Over the next 5 years?
A: As a tiny brewery, our sales and marketing strategy is slow but steady growth. Because we’re self-distributing for now (i.e. I drive around Boston and drop off cases of beer to liquor stores, bars andrestaurants), our geographic territory is somewhat limited in range. But, we see this as a good thing. The goal is to maintain a very “local” focus for now, establish a strong presence at the 20 or so accounts we sell to, and slowly expand from there. Once we’re in a position to do so, we’d like to upgrade our brewing system from 3.5 barrel production to 15 or 20 barrel production. At that point, we’ll likely need to start using a distributor (if we aren’t already) and we’ll be able to reach more than just the Greater Boston community.
That being said, we’re really committed to keeping our local presence as strong as possible even as we expand. We source from local businesses like Taza Chocolate and Mem Tea Imports right now, but would love to source from even more. We’d also like to get further involved in community events and programs, and become a more established part of the local economy. Just takes a little time.
Q: As a startup brewery, how does digital media fit into your marketing plan?
A: Digital media is an especially integral part of our business, as it seems to be for almost any startup these days. Brewing and bottling beer is of course our priority; it’s how our business stays alive. However, our brand becomes so much more through the use of digital media. I hardly use Facebook or Twitter at all anymore for personal use (I actually don’t even have my own Twitter account), but I use both on a daily basis for Night Shift. There’s just no easier way to reach a such a wide audience and share your brand’s identity, whether it’s a news announcement, a random photo from the brewery, or a survey we’d like some feedback on. Our slogan, “Share the Night,” came from a Facebook survey that landed us 38 different slogan suggestions. And all it took was 10 minutes of my time to set that up… you can’t beat that kind of efficiency.
Or take our launch parties, for another example. With the help of Pintley, we hosted two launch events that, combined, gave us over 70,000 unique exposures on Facebook. Again, you can’t find an easier, more effective way to reach such a wide audience.
Q: In what ways is Nigh Shift innovative? How are you doing things differently?
A: I hope that we’re innovating on a number of fronts. Our beers, first and foremost, are specifically meant to be innovative and memorable. We’re trying to create and produce flavors that you don’t often find in a beer (and sometimes anywhere) without sacrificing the beer’s quality itself. Like wine, beer can be incredible complex and intricate, and paired very well with food. A lot of people don’t realize that, so we’re trying to create something that helps promote that understanding. We all also really enjoy cooking, so there’s a culinary element to our recipe and beer creation that I think is fairly unique. That’s partly why we use so many unorthodox ingredients - they add complexity and uniqueness to a beer’s flavor, and when they’re done correctly, the taste is that much more interesting.
I also think, relative to our size (which is very, very small), we’re innovating the way our business is branded, marketed and sold. We’ve put so much time and effort into the small details—our logo, label design, label material, website, blog, marketing material, T-shirt and glassware selection—that I’m not sure you often see from a business of our size. The sacrifice is that we’re often working 100-hour weeks, night and day shifts, but I hope we’ll see a payoff for all the work. The beer market is a great one, but also incredibly competitive, so we want to come out of the gates stronger than most would expect from a 3.5 barrel brewery run by three twenty-somethings. You often hear that quote, “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” We’ve tried to apply that to our brewery; from the very start, we’re treating it like the business we want it to be in 2-3 years.
Q: Now that you’ve launched, What’s next for Night Shift?
A: What’s next for Night Shift? On the beer front, a lot. Without revealing too many details, I’ll say that we have a quad and a sour—neither yet released—that have been aging for about 2 months now. We’ll launch both of beers over the coming month or so, and I’m really excited about how both are tasting. We also have a number of other beers-in-waiting that will hit the market as summer rolls in. Hint: habanero peppers.
We also plan to do a lot more with our brewery itself as the year goes by—we’d really like it to become a fun, interactive destination for both the local and tourist community. Also expect more to happen on our blog, including many more guest bloggers. And we’ve got more merchandise plans in the works. I could go on forever about future plans, but I’ll instead just say that we constantly expect a lot from ourselves, so anyone following us should do the same. Anyone with questions or comments can always contact us directly at info [at] nightshiftbrewing [dot] com.