Funny ha-ha

Richard Croasdale discovers why the peculiar chemistry at Clown Shoes is a formula for success


Clown Shoes founder Gregg Berman and head brewer Dan Lipke make a slightly odd pairing. Huddled around coffees in their small office (one of the few in Mass Bay’s open-plan administrative space) Gregg is full of energy, spinning mile-a-minute stories about his brewery’s history, with frequent tangents which only later link back to his main theme. This is the kind of interview where you just try to hang on, rather than risk bringing the whole thing to a grinding halt with anything as crude as a question. Dan, by contrast, has the stoic gravitas of a veteran brewer who’s spent his entire career being asked to do the impossible; innovating, managing expectations and ensuring brilliant ideas result in brilliant beers. In this, they’re the perfect team.

Gregg is the scion of a family of merchants stretching back four generations, his great grandparents having moved from Russia in the early 20th century. His great grandfather drove a meat cart into Boston every day, which eventually became a grocery store and, after the end of prohibition, a liquor store. When his father eventually joined the family business in the 60s, he became passionate about wine and began travelling with friends to Europe – Bordeaux, Burgundy and Italy – and in time developed a large importing operation, which Gregg duly joined in his turn.

“I like wine but was never super passionate about it,” he says. “It was always the business and the strategic aspects of that which interested me. But it was at this point, about 12 years ago, that I got exposed to craft beer in America. I really didn’t have much understanding of what was going on at first; I probably had a wine guy’s perception that beer was inferior, and that if you wanted really high quality you probably had to go to Belgium or Germany.” 

The beer that changed everything for Gregg was Dogfish Head’s Immort Ale, which was recommended by a colleague – “one of those guys who had to make converts”. Dan was shocked at the amount of flavour, complexity and thought that had clearly gone into the brew. So he began exploring, strictly as a consumer, first among the family business’s own stock and then, once this had been exhausted, at a larger specialist retailer where he befriended the manager.

“I tried everything that I could from around the world and domestically. And then I realised that, with our wine license, we’d also taken a malt license – the two came together – so I was already set up to distribute beer and had the channels to do so. My idea was to go after the very best beers in America and bring them all to Massachusetts. I learned a lot travelling around the country, but the main lesson was that none of these great breweries wanted to work with me or come to Massachusetts. Or if they did, they wanted to be with someone who wasn’t a wine distributor. So I had a bunch of doors slammed in my face, and a few that almost cracked open but then shut again.”

Undeterred, Gregg hatched another plan: if he couldn’t bring the beers he loved to Massachusetts, he’d just have to start brewing his own here. 

“I started poking around, and it probably took six months before I found Dan, who at the time was working for Mercury Brewing in a beautiful town called Ipswich. It was really a connection right from the beginning; I travelled up to meet Dan and his former boss Rob Marin, because I wanted to make a black IPA, really just for fun. I described the beer to Rob and Dan and they said they were interested in the beer and in the business, but they wanted to think about it and I should come back in a couple of weeks.”

When Gregg did as they suggested, he was surprised to find on his return to Ipswich that Dan had brewed a test batch, based purely on Gregg’s initial description, and that is was perfect.

“I knew I wanted it to be around 7% – the other black IPAs on the market at that time were 10%,” recalls Gregg. “I also wanted it to have a much more vibrant hop profile, using west coast hops with more fruity notes than you’d usually find. The beer Dan brewed was exactly what I‘d imagined, and went on to become Hoppy Feet, the first beer we sold. He’s a genius, and when you have genius brewers you can just describe flavours and they’ll make them. I’ve been very lucky.”

“It hasn’t always been that straightforward though,” chimes in Dan with a grin.

Hoppy Feet made a splash locally, and pretty soon people were asking what would be next for Clown Shoes. The answer came in the form of two beers, a brown ale and a clementine IPA. The latter is still in production, but almost didn’t make it out of the experimentation phase, until Dan had the bright idea of blending two “not quite right” test batches – one dry-hopped and the other brewed with clementine essence – to create something much greater than the sum of its parts.

Perhaps because of his background, having seen many brands come and go, Gregg is instinctively mistrustful of relying too heavily on brand loyalty, and works tirelessly to stay on top of consumer tastes and meet the appetite for “what’s new, what’s next”. With this philosophy comes a fairly hard-nosed approach to culling beers whose popularity is beginning to wane, including the inaugural Hoppy Feet.

“Every year we’ve grown – we’ve done well over 100 beers, we’re constantly rotating,” he continues. “This year, we had the most aggressive calendar of releases ever. There’s a bunch of new products, and then every month we did a one-off in a 16oz can that went national, as well as our barrel programme at the brewery in Vermont, which has grown about 50% this year.”

Which brings us on to the big change that allowed Clown Shoes to really step up its ambitions: its acquisition two years ago by Mass Bay Brewing Co. Gregg’s original intention was to build a new brewery and he even hired an investment banker to help raise the $6 million he would need. He quickly saw how much of a trap this kind of highly structured debt could be though, and was wary of being in hock to banks and equity investors, having seen friends come unstuck through similar deals. So he tore up his initial plan and began looking for a strategic partner instead.

“I talked to a lot of horrible people in that whole process. People who wanted me to fire my whole team, take the brand, turn it into a cash cow. People who want to turn me into other brands they’d purchased and have me help fatten everything up, sell it off. That just didn’t interest me. 

“Mass Bay was the one organisation that made sense to me, which is ironic because my impression was that it’s a super button-down, conservative organisation. And then you’ve got Clown Shoes which is edgy and a little bit absurd. But we quickly found out underneath that, in terms of our view of people, ethics, long-term vision and strategy, we had a lot of commonality. In fact, it’s a benefit that our brands are different, because we’ve spent this year learning from each other. So we came here, the whole team, and they’ve committed to letting us maintain our personality, to make the beers we want to make, and to really communicate our messages.”

Dan adds: “When we were in discussions about a merger, the chief brewer here asked, ‘why are you guys interested in coming over’. The answer was quality, of course; Harpoon and Mass Bay have such a reputation for being a top-notch facility run by top-notch people, so the chance to be able to make our beer with these people backing us up was great.”

While 2018 was about growth – an astonishing 20%, in fact – and getting properly settled into Mass Bay’s state-of-the-art brewhouse, 2019 will be a year of pushing the boundaries even further, and Gregg and Dan’s excitement is palpable. There are new frontiers on format and packaging, with more 16oz cans and a move into the ever-popular 12-packs, but also on the brewing side. Just as one example, Gregg is dashing across town after our interview, to meet with a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology specialising in analytical chemistry: “MIT is the perfect spot to get some bright minds with unjaded views of the brewing industry,” he says.

Here though, he also sounds a note of caution, that even in the hyper-competitive US craft beer market, unbridled creativity isn’t the be-all and end-all. 

“Being innovative is great to a point – we’re competing for attention with 7000 breweries nationwide – but I think being refined in what you do is also so important. The analogy I use is that food here used to be very stodgy back in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. Then in the ‘90s and 2000s everyone in America got obsessed with fusion cuisine, where you’d throw everything at the cooking. Now if you go to a fine dining restaurant, there may be some fusion, but it’s all well thought out. It’s refined. That’s where we need to go as a brand, and where the innovative brands need to go in general I think.”

Fortunately, Clown Shoes also has the brewing expertise to channel all this creativity to great-tasting beers. When Dan first met Gregg, he’d been at Mercury Brewing for around 10 years. He was happy in his work, but found that brewing mostly the same recipes that had been brewed there for decades was leaving him with a creative itch he was unable to scratch.

“I definitely have a more creative side,” he says. “Both my mum and my sister are artists, my dad’s side of the family has a bunch of chefs and distillers so I always loved the creative side of brewing. But in terms of coming up with new beers and things that were fun and exciting, there wasn’t much there until Greg came along. That was a great opportunity to flex muscles I hadn’t really been using. Not everything worked, obviously, but there were lots of successes too and lots of fun projects. I think of clown shoes as a super creative brand.”

Gregg and Dan seem like a great team, but the proof of these things is always in the beer. Happily, from the inspired recipe concepts and impeccable brewing, right through to the irreverent, eye-catching branding, everything about Clown Shoes is as delicious as it is innovative. In its new home at Mass Bay, we have every hope that Clown Shoes will continue to buck the trends of a slightly weary craft beer market.

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