Boston Brewing: Beers with Michael Oxton, co-founder of Night Shift Brewing
Interviewed March 22, 2016
At Night Shift Brewing — Everett, MA
As any fan of beer should look to do when traveling, a recent trip to Boston led me on a search for "whatever the locals drink." I quickly discovered a thriving Boston area beer scene—one that has many parallels with the one back home in Chicago. With many a brewery popping up near the city center, there was no shortage of options during my brief visit—a stark contrast to a previous trip several years ago. After some quick searching and a few online suggestions, I noticed one area brewery that kept making its presence known: Night Shift Brewing in nearby Everett, Massachusetts.
Co-founder Michael Oxton is the man at the helm of one of the Boston area's fastest growing, most popular breweries–and one that's gaining attention away from the East Coast. Spawned by three friends and their love of nocturnal homebrewing, Night Shift and their buzzing taproom have quickly grown into a Beantown must-visit destination. Over a sampling of their mainstays and a few limited releases, Michael caught me up on the state of Massachusetts beer, the story behind Night Shift, and his impressions of a local stalwart.
I don't remember Night Shift from last time I was in Boston. How long have you been at this?
We actually just celebrated our fourth anniversary. Before that, it was about five years of really intense homebrewing. It started as just a hobby, like a lot of homebrewers. We started to pick it up, increased our equipment, and invested a lot more time.
Are you still a brewer here?
I was a brewer. I was one of our first brewers. Myself and one of the other founders did most of the brewing. Now I don't brew anymore, which is kind of sad.
Do you still get a chance to get your hands dirty?
I hopped on and shadow-brewed the other day with one of our brewers. Rarely will I be brewing, but we all try to force ourselves into production every now and then. I miss it, and if you're brewing or bottling for a day, you realize stuff the brewery needs. You get a sense of things that are happening.
"Night Shift" – does that imply an affinity for late night brewing sessions?
We used to have day jobs, back when we were homebrewing. The name came about because we worked by day and homebrewed by night. We just called ourselves 'Night Shift Brewing'—we thought it was funny, and relevant. Officially we weren't selling anything. Suddenly we decided to turn it into a business and the name made perfect sense.
This is quite the operation you have here. How many beers do you distribute?
Right now we're canning and distributing seven different beers regularly. We do The 87 Double IPA, Awake Coffee Porter, Whirlpool is our flagship pale, Morph is our rotating IPA, Furth is our hefeweizen–and Santilli, our flagship IPA. Finally, we have Trifecta which is our Belgian IPA and the first beer we ever brewed commercially. It's kind of cool that one stuck around.
Can I just get Night Shift beers in New England?
In Massachusetts. And a really small amount gets up to Maine–just this year we started doing that. We're committing about 5% of our volume to Maine. But generally speaking, about 90% of it is within 25 miles of the brewery.
I love to hear that. It means I'm likely to find fresh Night Shift on shelves around town then.
Yea, we're kind of crazy about making sure everything is fresh. We date the bottom of every can and we're really vigilant with our wholesale accounts. We only partner with people who really care about the product. We rarely see old product sitting around on shelves.
As we walk through the brewery, I'm seeing a ton of barrels. What's going on there?
It's a huge mix of what gets barrel-aged. Right now we have over 400 oak barrels. It's a split between non-funky stuff and funky/sour stuff. Some of them are our Bean Porter which comes out in the fall, our Darkling Imperial Stout which comes out in the winter–they're bourbon barrel-aged, and beers that we've established brands for. Some are a little more experimental, funky saisons, that we'll be adding fruit to. Those don't have any definite timeline. It's ready when it's ready.
We also do what's called The Barrel Society, which is a membership based beer program like a CSA. We have seven releases that come out every year for that.
So tell me about this space. Were you here from day one?
No, we started just down the street at a smaller space. It was about 3,000 SF at it's largest. We had a taproom that was 90 SF, which is the size of our entrance way today. The production space was really small. We had a 3.5-barrel system, what you'd consider to be a pilot system. That was the whole thing.
Wow, hard to imagine starting out there just four years ago. That's just a large homebrew setup.
Yea, it was glorified homebrewing. We did 250 barrels our first year. So, really really small.
You must have grown really quickly then.
The taproom was really successful, almost from the start. Even more so than we expected. We quickly regretted how small it was but there wasn't much we could do. We were there for two years. In 2014, we opened this space and we've been here now for two years.
I've been told this place gets packed after work.
Yea, it can get really bumpin'. The acoustics are the only thing we kind of complain about because it's just a concrete box. But it's a funky fun taproom. We have a fun staff, with a great atmosphere.
So teach a Chicagoan about Everett, MA. We're just across the water from Boston, but it feels completely different. What drew you here?
When we were first looking for spaces, we looked in Cambridge, Somerville, and a few surrounding towns. We spoke with the Everett City Hall and they were just super excited about having a brewery here. They were really open to giving us a license pretty easily and weren't going to give us a ton of push back on stuff. A couple of the other cities seemed a little more hesitant about allowing a brewery in. Also, the rent was really cheap. So originally it was just that Everett was cheap and open to having us.
But we've also realized how exciting it is. It's ten minutes from Boston, but rent is way cheaper. It's great for our self-distribution, because we're so close to Somerville, Cambridge and Boston proper. Everett has really embraced us as one of the burgeoning businesses in the city that also attracts a demographic they don't often get. They recently hosted the Village Fest–which is Everett's big celebration every year–in our parking lot. It was great, and we had about 3,000 people.
Ok–craft beer in Boston. Everyone knows Sam Adams, but who else should I know in the local scene?
We're in the midst of a brewing explosion. The Massachusetts brewing scene went from something like under 40 breweries, when we started, to over 100 now. When we started, there were a bunch that were beginning right around us. You had Clown Shoes, Pretty Things, Mystic, Cambridge Brewing Company (which is also a brewpub), Slumbrew, and Backlash. They were all contract breweries that started right around that time, about three to five years ago. Then you had us, Idle Hands, Mystic, Jack's Abby, and Trillium who started more recently. This is all centered around the greater Boston area.
How's the reception been from the city. You've clearly grown a lot so it must be good.
The reception has been great. Craft beer in Massachusetts has long been an established thing because we've had Harpoon, Ipswich, Sam Adams—a bunch of stalwarts that have been around. So there are a bunch of breweries around the Boston area that made consumers aware there was good beer that wasn't made by the macros. And now, all of a sudden, you're seeing tons of diversity. When we started, the taproom became popular way quicker than we expected, and has just exploded since then. We regularly see over 1,000 people on Saturday–which is just mind-blowing to me because we didn't even know if we needed a taproom when we started.
You just have a much more informed consumer in general. Craft beer has been taking a bigger and bigger market share for a while now. With that comes increased consumer expectations for quality. You see higher and higher standards being created.
We recently spoke to Marty Scott, the quality guy at Revolution in Chicago. He spoke to the challenge of maintaining consistent, quality beer as you grow. How have you handled that as you grow at such a rapid pace?
We've always taken quality seriously. But I'd say we really stepped it up once we came into this space and upgraded our brewing system to 20 barrels. We just realized the amount of beer we were putting out there had to be world class or you're going to start to lose support and your brand is going to get wrecked. We have a full-time scientist "yeast guy." He has a masters in chemistry and tests everything. We don't put anything out that has any infection. Having him on full-time since we opened this space has been a huge boon to our quality control program. He asks for all sorts of equipment and we try to give him whatever we can afford. Every month we invest a little bit more in our lab. We see it as one of the most important aspects of the brewery.
Where do you think the Boston scene is headed next?
The biggest thing I see is a stronger and more passionate interest in local beer. People are constantly asking what's brewed around here, "Who's from Massachusetts? Who's from New England?" That inherent focus that's becoming a part of more and more beer drinkers is going to affect the success of breweries trying to get their beers on shelves. Our retailers tell us they want to bring us in because customers are asking for something from down the street. I think you'll probably see more and more out of state brands struggle, especially as you see more Massachusetts breweries pop up. Our focus is definitely on the local market as much as possible. I would feel silly trying to sell my brand in Florida, for example, if I hadn't focused on my local market first.
In Chicago, people tend to be pretty open to craft from around the country. On the other hand, drinkers in Michigan and fiercely loyal to in-state brands. Which camp do Boston drinkers fall into?
It probably extends to New England, because everything is regionally pretty close. You see a lot of restaurants doing a New England list. They even say, "We're only going to do New England beers." So personally when I go out I look for something that's from New England because I consider that our local community. You do see a little bit of Massachusetts loyalty but I think it's more centered around New England. If it's from Maine or New Hampshire, that's close enough. It also helps there's awesome stuff coming out of those locations.
The other thing I'll say is that if it's good enough, it can come from anywhere. There's amazing beer being produced all over the country. There are a craft beer traders who do just about anything to get some special release from Texas or California.
I've gotta ask, what's the impression of Sam Adams in Boston? It seems like they're fighting an uphill battle.
I think their size obviously changes a lot of people's perceptions. But in terms of their dedication to the craft community, it's been pretty awesome. One of the things we've seen them do is a hop sharing program where they had an excess of a bunch of different hops. They reached out to different Massachusetts breweries and offered them at cost.
And they probably have access to varieties you don't.
Oh yea, they absolutely do. They've helped us out in getting barrels sometimes. They do this thing called "Brewing the American Dream." I mean, it's good for their brand, but there's also an authentic interest in helping the craft community. I do not hold any harsh opinions about them.
So, you drink Sam Adams, then.
I'll drink them, yea. It won't usually be the first beer I go to. I've also had it a lot–and I try to diversify.
I mean, you must have grown up drinking Boston Lager.
I definitely grew up drinking that. In college, there was plenty of Sam Adams, and a lot of Allagash being up in Maine. But yea, they're not my favorite beer to drink but I think they're doing a lot for the craft community and they do enough high quality good beer that they warrant a spot in the craft community.
I'll say one other thing, and not everyone is as aware of this as we are. One of our founders is on the board of directors for the Massachusetts Brewers Guild and I've attended a lot of the meetings as well. Through our association with that, we've learned a lot about how much Sam Adams has fought for legislation for craft beer. That's been interesting because I didn't even know it until I got involved in the Guild. The amount of money and work they've put into it is really significant. You never really hear about it, but they helped keep us relevant in Massachusetts. It matters, but it's not something they boast about.
What were some beers that you got you 'into' craft beer?
I'm probably going to sound like a cliché with some of these beers, but I'll do it anyway! Dogfish Head World Wide Stout. In line with that—60, 90, and 120 Minute IPAs.
Those aren't the answers we typically get in the Midwest.
Well good then!
Shipyard up in Maine. Everything by Allagash...if I had to pick one, probably Allagash White. I loved White, then tried their other stuff like the Coolship Series and thought, "Holy crap, I didn't even know this is what beer could taste like." Cuvée Des Jacobins is one that really got me into sours and let's see...I really like Maharaja IPA by Avery. Jolly Pumpkin was another inspiration for me.
Finally, what do you drink at home?
I drink a lot of Scotch. Right now I'm drinking a lot of our Furth Hefeweizen. I'm not drinking a lot of wine these days. Oh, and I'm drinking Spencer Brewery, we just visited them last week.
Select photography by Tom White, as well as provided by Night Shift Brewing where noted.
A huge thank you to Michael for walking me through Night Shift and educating me on the local scene. The brewery is a short cab ride from downtown Boston or a short walk from the nearest "T" Orange Line. Be sure to stop by the taproom on your next visit to Beantown.