Drinking with the brewer: Dan Kenary

Not content with shaping Boston's early craft beer scene, Dan Kenary is still a man on a mission


Harpoon co-founder Dan Kenary is a busy guy, and on our second day at Harpoon we’re told we’ll be able to get a 30-minute sit-down with him, to discuss the brewery’s history and values, and generally tie together all the good things we’d seen and heard about. While I’m sure it’s absolutely true that he’s kept very busy, Dan is also an absolute gentleman, and an hour into our 30-minute chat in Harpoon’s beer hall, I’m slapping my thigh with laughter and thoroughly convinced he should be running something rather larger than a brewery.

His story is similar to so many other first-wave American craft brewers: backpacking around Western Europe in the summer of ’82, Dan was shocked to find not just great, flavourful beers, but also a culture in which beer and breweries were tightly integrated into community life and local tradition.

“The scene here in the US was just dismal,” he recalls. “Just light, yellow lagers coast-to-coast. Even the handful of old regional brewers still in business were only producing light, yellow lagers. Most bars had three or four taps – your good ones had six, and the extra three would be Guinness, Bass and Harp, which came as a package. 

“So, when I got to Europe I was like a kid in a candy store. Holy shit, this is phenomenal! Everywhere has its own different beers and styles. And the culture! Breweries in the centres of towns, beer gardens and beer cellars where people could go with their families. Here, breweries were these grim factories out on the interstate in an industrial park. So I came back and thought why is there no choice here?”

The scene here in the US was just dismal

Teaming up with his two co-founders – college buddies who have since cashed out – Dan managed to raise the princely sum of $430,000 from family, friends, and friends of friends, to open his own brewery and launch its inaugural Harpoon Ale; a traditional, balanced, flavoursome English-style ale that was quite different to anything else available in Boston. It was (and is, when it’s occasionally still brewed) a great beer and did well locally, but this was the ‘80s and Harpoon still had to fight tooth and nail.

“We certainly had plenty of struggles in our early years,” Dan continues. “But when people say the past five years have been a great time to start a brewery, I’m not so sure. In the short term maybe it is, but if you start a business when it’s easy, you’re not learning good lessons. Any business is hard, and we got the shit kicked out of us by Sam Adams and everyone else, so we learned to be competitive. We kept investing in the company, we hired great people, we built a great culture.”

And it’s really the people and the culture that are arguably the most interesting aspect of Harpoon’s story, and is definitely the subject that seems to light a fire under Dan. From the start, the idea of being a good neighbour has been hugely important to the brewery’s ethos, and spawned the creation of its own charitable arm, Harpoon Helps. 

The big change came around five years ago though, when the second of Dan’s co-founders, Rich Doyle, decided he wanted to try something different after 28 years. Determined that Rich’s share of the business shouldn’t be sold to private equity, Dan did his research and hatched a plan to take on bank debt and transfer 48% of Harpoon to the employees themselves. Establishing a panel of six minority shareholders as a “jury” for his scheme, Dan made the case for employee ownership and it was unanimously approved.

“It’s been great,” he says, clearly warming to his theme. “We’ve always had a great culture, but this has really taken it to another level. If you look around, there’s a shitload of greed and inequality in the system, so if we can take our stand against those things and say ‘our stake’s in the ground for employee ownership, for giving everyone a stake in the success of the company’, then let’s do it. 

If you look around, there’s a shitload of greed and inequality in the system

“There’s a little bit of a mission aspect to what we’re doing now, which at this stage in my career - I’m 58 - I’m really enjoying. Four years ago, when we made that major change, we took out a load of debt, and we’ve been working our asses off ever since. But it’s not just to sell more beer, or to make more money for our investors; it’s to answer the question ‘can we make employee ownership work in this industry?’ That to me is a great challenge and I’m really enjoying it.”

The culture of collective effort and responsibility this move has helped foster is evident everywhere, from the enthusiasm of those volunteering for Harpoon Helps, to the ‘Finance IPA’ (Increased Profit Awards) in which employees from the packing line to the board room are invited to submit money-saving ideas. The winner – appropriately – gets a pen, usually a freebie lifted from a hotel room or lawyer’s office: another time-honoured Harpoon tradition.

“If you’re on the bottling line, and you come up with an idea that saves a penny a case, you might think that’s not a lot of money. But you know what, we do a lot of cases! Multiply it, and you’ve maybe increased our valuation by $75,000. If we have ten of those, that’s three-quarters of a million dollars! Holy shit!”

Although he’s a Boston native, Dan is well-travelled, and the decision to set up shop here rather than another state was very deliberate. There’s definitely a sense that New England – that region of the north-east comprising Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut – has evolved in its own way, with its own distinct history and culture. This is what Dan understood, and had faith that if Harpoon could work anywhere, it would be here.

“We looked at which cities had the strongest pub culture, where you had enough of an urban core that you could build your brand on-premise [on-trade]. Back then, you had to do it that way; you couldn’t build a brand through retail because there was too much on the shelf, though from the perspective of today, that seems crazy to say. There was even variation within in New England, like Massachusetts was much easier to develop than Connecticut, which doesn’t really have an urban core.

“Getting people’s attention was still really difficult, because there was a lot of hand-selling. It was real one-on-one, with me handing out t-shirts in a bar and people asking ‘what’s this Harpoon Ale stuff?’ ‘I thought beer was supposed to be yellow?’ ‘Is that a beer or is that an ale?’ How many times I got that question?! Sam Adams started a year or so ahead of us, so they’d been out educating people, so the work had already started in Boston.”

With its UFO range of wheat beers, recent acquisition of Clown Shoes Beer and steady stream of innovative new brews, it’s clear that Harpoon, under Dan’s leadership, is determined to keep pushing ahead 30 years later. The brewery’s convivial beer hall boasts an eclectic line-up – from barrel-aged imperial stouts to the superb ‘Rec League’ low-abv NEIPA – many of which are definitely experimental, with pump handles labelled in chalk pen. While his early recipes still clearly hold a special place in his heart, Dan's enthusiasm for the future of Harpoon and the whole US craft scene is obvious.

I do sometimes think we’re at an extreme point with beer culture

“I’m a big believer in the juicy New England IPA; I really like that style,” he says. “It’s a hybrid, a genuinely interesting development in the beer world. I like the mouthfeel and the different explosion of flavours you get... hell, it’s a real technological breakthrough. The use of hops in that way is new, and I really don’t think it’s going away – it takes that old trade-off between sweetness and bitterness and kind of throws that on its head, because your bittering source gives you flavours that you associate with sweetness. 

“I do sometimes think we’re at an extreme point with beer culture just now though, with people driving and queueing for hours at a brewery to spend $60 on a 12-pack, and everyone thinks that’s great. In two years, maybe, we’ll all be saying ‘can you fucking believe we gave up a whole day for a 12-pack of beer? What was wrong with us?’ The pendulum always swings too far and then corrects itself. So, if we’re at the extreme end of that swing just now, you’ve got to wonder what the new reality will be like when it swings back. Where will that balance point be?”

Rather than seeing this as a negative backlash though, Dan has high hopes that the scene and culture here will continue to evolve and settle into a state that appreciates good beer and quality experiences, but without the same level of hype.

“I think people are coming back round to traditional style though, definitely, and I’d love to see Boston take another swing at cask ales. My idea of heaven is a traditional British pub! Our Flannel Friday in the fall is a hoppy amber, and that’s always done really well. Everyone used to be more comfortable letting the malt or the delicate hops or even the yeast come through, so I do think some of that stuff’s going to come back around.”

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