The craft brewing world is experiencing a period of huge growth. While that momentum may keep up with large mergers, many breweries are shifting their focus from store shelves to their own physical spaces in order to forge strong, lasting relationships with their local communities. As is seen with breweries such as Victory, a lively footprint in your local neighborhood can be a phenomenal first step toward long-term success.
Jason Lavery of Lavery Brewing Company keeps his focus in Erie with a small brew system, local cuisine and strong relationships. Lavery’s relatively small brew house gives way to a wide range of styles, and the company’s ties to the local community are evident through the unique food choices and friendly community involvement.
BOP: Tell us about Lavery Brewing Company. What size brew house are you working with?
Jason Lavery: I started the company in 2009 with my wife, Nikki. My brother-in-law taught me how to homebrew in 2004 when I was 22, so I was super into home brewing for five years, and then decided I wanted to do it for a living. I had a master’s degree, but I couldn’t find a job in that field, so I decided to do an internship at The BrewErie in the summer of 2009. I obviously fell in love with it, decided when I was 27 that I wanted to do it for the rest of my life, and started the process of opening the brewery. My wife and I founded the company in August 2009, right after my internship ended, and were licensed in February 2010. So we’re about six and a half years old, and still fairly small.
We have a 10-barrel brew house, with about 55 barrels of fermentation capacity. We do distribute statewide, and 80% of our beer is sold in Erie and Pittsburgh, so those are our two local markets. We’ve been doing some barrel aging with our Christmas beer aged in bourbon barrels and some sours aged in barrels. I’d say for the most part we’re an “IPA brewery,” but we like to make lagers here. I actually heard a quote from Neshaminy Creek, “We’re set up as a lager brewery that makes IPAs,” and I feel like that kind of nails it on the head for us too. I feel like it is a natural progression for brewers: we started brewing pale ales, porters and things like that. And then as we were growing we were really fortunate to have amazing hop contracts so we can do these crazy beers, like Dulachan. That’s our flagship IPA, and it is just loaded with Mosaic, Simcoe and Citra hops for a little 5.6% IPA. We’re lucky enough to have the hops, so we make the IPAs. We love ‘em, and people love ‘em, but personally, I look for who has a new lager because I know how hard they are to brew, to get them right, and how delicate they can be. It’s hard to mess up an IPA, but with lagers there is nothing to hide.
We also added a pub to our brewery in September 2013, and that place has been packed. We have a food menu that rotates seasonally. We try to use as much local stuff as we can; like every town, Erie has some specialty dishes that we call our own—things like Greek Sauce, Ox Roast—and we have a really awesome hot dog place here called Smith’s. We try to feature as many local twists as we can.
Can you tell us about your use of yeast?
We have three strains cruising around. We have our standard American strain, and then we have a pilsner strain that we use for all of our lagers. We also use it for everything from Baltic porters to Oktoberfests and everything like that, but the pride and joy of our brewery is our Saison strain. We’ve been using it since 2010 and have been cultivating our own original generation since 2013. We haven’t had to re-order it, so we’re on generation 60 or some ridiculous number like that. It’s a really fruity French Saison strain: it’s changed so much, but it attenuates to 93% every single time—no matter what you throw at it. We’ve used it in an 11.5% IPA Saison, which is basically a super-hopped version of a Saison, as well as a 4.5% farmhouse ale with Brettanomyces. It’s a work horse and our most unique yeast strain.
You’ve worked with students with disabilities; is that something that is important to Lavery Brewing Company?
That has been a huge part of my personal life and my wife’s personal life. We actually met at an organization that helps find homes for adults with developmental disabilities. So I’ve been working with those guys since I was 19, and I worked there for 11 years. My wife works there; she’s a doctor and works with blind and visually impaired adults and children. It’s really one of the most isolating disabilities, and these kids are super intelligent. She started this program to show them that there are things they can do. So they came down to the brewery, and they were using glue guns to build boxes and did a deep cleaning of the pub for us. They all really grabbed onto it; one kid actually said he wanted to come work here when he turns 18!
You mentioned you have a master’s degree. What is it in, and has it helped you in running your business?
I have a master’s degree in marketing and communications, which helps with the brewery. We name all the beers, and we do all the designs in house. We kind of pride ourselves on always coming out with something new. It’s hard in the industry these days to sit back. You always have to be upping your game and doing something bigger and better to get people’s attention.
Do you have plans for expansion of the brewery or the brewpub?
Yes, we bought a Frankenstein 10-barrel brew house, so it’s three different manufacturers for our kettle, our mash tun and our hot liquor tank. All of our tanks are piecemealed together, but it’s a really nice looking brewery and people think it looks really cool when we do tours here. We’ve actually been a pretty fiscally responsible brewery; we’re finally pretty much debt-free, so we kind of have a wide open horizon for us now. We’re in a really cool position—2017 is going to be a big year for us. All that money we’ve been paying off for years, now we’ll be able to reinvest and grow.
What do you like about having a small brew house?
When I was at the Craft Brewers Conference in Philadelphia, I went to a talk with the Russian River folks during a session titled “How to Stay Small and Beautiful.” Basically, they explained how they upgraded their system, but they didn’t upgrade size, just technology. Some people like to make a large volume of beer, but we like to make a wide variety of beer. I actually have a tank coming in today: it’s an 8.5-barrel tank. We’ve pretty much stopped buying 10-barrel tanks because the 8.5-barrels give us that ability to pivot and make new beers. We’re kind of at this fork in the road where we want to decide if we’re a distributing brewery with a taproom or a brewpub that distributes a little bit. We really love the brewpub model.
Where’s the best place to grab a drink in Erie (besides Lavery Brewing Co., of course)?
There’s four of us within a half mile of each other. There’s Erie Brewing Company, Erie Ale Works, and The BrewErie at Union Station, and we’re great friends with all of them. There are about 11 within our larger region, including Voodoo; they’re one of my go-tos.
Any words of advice for young, entrepreneurial brewers?
The Brewers of PA is really strong, and joining the community is really important so you can enjoy the benefits. You learn so much about quality, consistency, how to sell beer and legal things. Also, brewing is really coming back to local roots, and it will be hard for breweries to survive without a dynamic, versatile, economically successful brewpub. I would tell the younger guys to consider that when they’re planning. It’s not good enough to make good homebrew anymore, so get out there and work for a brewery.
The Brewers of Pennsylvania is a nonprofit trade association that brings together leaders of Pennsylvania-based breweries in order to promote and protect the brewing industry in the state. Established in 2011, the Brewers of Pennsylvania serves the consuming public of Pennsylvania by encouraging brand diversity in the market. We believe in the nobility of brewing and hold dear the great traditions and history of Pennsylvania brewing.
Photo credit: Eric Smyklo