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These Home Beer Makers Went from Gatorade Coolers to a 30,000-Square-Foot Brewery
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These Home Beer Makers Went from Gatorade Coolers to a 30,000-Square-Foot Brewery

Marisa Olsen
Published 6 months ago

On a typical weekend off industrial Santilli Highway in Everett—a small town four miles north of Boston—friends and families gather to sip on craft brews from Night Shift Brewing, play games, and taste local, rotating food truck offerings.

Back in 2010, Night Shift Brewing began as a homebrewing hobby by three friends and founders Rob Burns, Mike O’Mara, and Michael Oxton in their six-bedroom apartment in Somerville. Today, Night Shift Brewing has grown to a 30,000-square-foot craft brewery that distributes throughout the entire state of Massachusetts.

Taproom.

Burns and Oxton met at Bowdoin College and shared a penchant for beer. They moved to Somerville after college and started playing around with homebrewing. When Burns went back home to Yardley, Penn. one Thanksgiving, he gave his childhood friend, Mike O’Mara, some samples of his beers and he was hooked. O’Mara eventually moved up to Boston and the three guys got to work on testing out their obsession. By 2011, the Night Shift Brewing entity was formed. The trio started working on homebrewing, meeting with industry professionals, and creating a business plan. They received support from some family and friends, and hosted an event at Burns’s parents’ house in Yardley, featuring eight homebrews with food pairings. A few friends invested and the team eventually raised the cash to move to a 1,000-square-foot space to create a three-barrel brew house.

The partners focused on making innovative beers that were culinary-inspired, and they loved to incorporate other local purveyors whenever appropriate. Bee Tea, for example, was a strong wheat beer with green tea, orange blossom honey, and orange peel, imported from Mem Tea, which was Somerville-based. Their Taza Stout was a Belgian-style beer with ginger, chicory root, and cocoa nibs from the Somerville stone-ground chocolatier, Taza. Previous cork and cage champagne bottles even included local restaurant dishes and pairings on their labels.

The trio continued to curate and create innovative beers that didn’t exist on the market. People started talking and, naturally, word began to spread. In less than a year, they expanded and took over an adjacent space, doubling their square footage. Although they were fairly cash poor, the founders came up with a membership concept called the Barrel Society, which basically worked like a farm CSA. “Members” would pre-pay for special barrel-aged beer and the owners could use that cash to buy more equipment and, of course, brew beer! They started selling memberships in the fall of 2012, which brought in about 200 people, and released the beers to members in 2013. This worked two ways: Not only did they get some much-needed cash up front, but they also created loyal and repeat customers who served as word-of-mouth brand ambassadors.

In 2013, the partners needed more space because their taproom was quite small. They had guests spilling over into the manufacturing area, which hindered production. They looked for another location in Everett at 87 Santilli Highway and eventually leased 15,000 square feet. The brewery has grown to 30,000 square feet, with another 30,000 in Chelsea.

In tandem, they received the first brewery loan from Mass Development, which gave them a boost and lift. Mass Development now finances more than a dozen breweries in the state. Night Shift’s three-barrel brewing company then grew to 20. To give some perspective on growth, partners produced about 200 barrels in their first year. In 2017, Night Shift Brewing produced a whopping 19,000 barrels.

In addition to growing, the nature of Night Shift Brewing’s beer types shifted a bit. When they began their conquest, the partners generally avoided anything that was too hoppy and were very focused on sour beers. Fast forward forward to the present and 80 percent of their beers are now hoppy, which has been a consequential change. “We kept our lens innovated and are trying to do something that’s different and not duplicating. We always try to make the best beer possible,” says Burns.

Their core crew of beers include Whirlpool, Santilli, The 87, and Morph, which you will always see on tap. Night Shift Brewing uses a different brewing process to create softer flavors, which has a lot of wheat (not so common in pale ales). It presents a nice drinking experience and boasts a low ABV—perfect for the everyday pint. Burns explains, “Morph is an always-rotating IPA that allows our brewers to get creative and play with the best ingredients, techniques, ideas they have. We used that concept back in 2014 to also crowdsource what IPA would appeal to our fans. We refined and tweaked the Morph recipes until we came up with the Santilli.” And in 2016, Santilli won the Bronze medal at the 2016 World Beer Cup.

Night Shift Brewing also features a handful of rotating beers at anytime. These are smaller batches of beer with limited offerings. Additionally, they have been experimenting with nearly 400 oak barrel-aged beers, which can be time consuming and and finicky, but a lot of fun in the end.

Whenever possible, Night Shift Brewing continues to source locally from nearby purveyors. They obtain their malt from Valley Malt in Western Massachusetts and Blue Ox Malthouse in Maine. Their sour beers feature blueberries from Maine, cranberries from Cape Cod, and apple juice from various New England farmers.

In late 2016, due to the sheer nature of guests and overflow, the trio expanded their taproom to include an annex, which can also be booked for private events and can hold up to 400 guests. Other fun happenings such as yoga classes, fun runs on weeknights, and even weddings and children’s birthday parties have been held in the annex.

With a popular brewery under their belt, the partners set out to create their own Night Shift Distribution Company in Chelsea, Mass. Prior to creating the distribution, Night Shift would self-distribute beers to the bars. In order to gain more control and work on their own terms, they decided to sell and distribute not only Night Shift, but 14 other breweries throughout the state.

If you’re craving a Night Shift beer, one can usually find a brew at one of the nearly 600 locations that sell the beer in Massachusetts. They are also popping up in Maine and New York City. But don’t expect Night Shift to be very national. “Our beers are more delicate and meant to be drunk fresh and close to the source. We are interested in growing our East Coast footprint though,” says Burns. Seeing his beers at cool places throughout Boston, such as Row 34, Lord Hobo Beer Bar in Cambridge, and their canned beers at Toro, feels quite humbling and amazing.

When reflecting on the experience patrons have at Night Shift, Burns says, “It’s a family-friendly place that’s approachable. We dabble between super beer geek and everyday beer consumer. We offer a variety of styles that cover the spectrum of what beer can be. Nothing is pretentious. It’s a welcoming experience. I also love the rotating food truck aspect combined with the rotating beers on tap. A guest could come in twice a week and have a different food and beer experience.”

Burns is also proud of the amount of jobs the brewery has created. The company began with three employees and has grown to 80. They follow the same standard of what they put into their beers: a quality work environment attracts a quality team set.

Burns wears many hats, both as a founder of Night Shift Brewing and as the president of Massachusetts Brewers Guild (a volunteer position that helps to protect and promote state craft breweries, which includes roughly 150 businesses in the state). He has spent time lobbying on Beacon Hill to get bills passed, arguing how different legislation can help the beer industry grow.

Looking at the future, Rob is excited to get more beer into hands of thirsty drinkers. There are soon-to-be-announced plans to replicate the taproom, but in the meantime, patrons can head to Santilli Highway to enjoy some hand-crafted flights, pints, and grub.

About the Author

Marisa Olsen

Marisa Olsen is a food lover at heart. Hailing from New York City and New Jersey, Marisa now resides in Charlestown, MA with her husband Will and daughter Marin. Marisa was previously the Marketing Manager at Harvest Restaurants, a family-run group featuring 11 restaurants in northern New Jersey. Before coming to the restaurant world, Marisa dabbled in the arts for many years at Lower Manhattan Cultural Council and Sotheby's. Now she is a freelance writer, marketing consultant, and tries to eat when she has a minute! Girl Loves Food is her food blog, which explores her zest for food, dining, and travel. Marisa loves all food and tries not to discriminate, but, has a penchant for stinky cheese, pasta, pizza, sushi, roasted vegetables, onion dip, seltzer, and red wine.