Home Posts tagged beer

Yes They Can


From left, Vanished Valley principals Joshua Britton, Michael Rodrigues, and Manny Vital

From left, Vanished Valley principals Joshua Britton, Michael Rodrigues, and Manny Vital.


Josh Britton remembers the early, heady days of Vanished Valley Brewing Co. — and the challenging ones that followed.

He had started brewing beer in his garage around 2015 when he met Michael Rodrigues, owner of Europa Black Rock Bar & Grille in Ludlow, and Manny Vital, who owned Europa’s building on Route 21. Vital retrofitted a building out back that became the first Vanished Valley brewery; the name was chosen to honor the drowned Quabbin Reservoir towns of Dana, Enfield, Greenwich, and Prescott.

“We started that process in 2016, but the licensure took nine months for approvals at the state level. Then we started hammering it out in 2017,” Britton said. Within a year or two, the brewery was rated third-best in Massachusetts by BeerAdvocate.

“We had lines out the door,” he added. “We were only producing like 10 barrels at a time, which for that space is a lot of barrelage; it’s pretty tight in there. We were selling cans in a tent next to the building and doing well. And we were fueling Europa with our kegs. We had people show up and ask, ‘oh, where’s your taproom?’ And they found out it was just a small, 20-by-20 space.”

Rodrigues decided to retire the Europa brand early in 2019 when he saw an opportunity to expand Vanished Valley with expanded production space and a food operation, and the three principals started gutting and updating the building, and also putting up an addition.

“Mike stayed up nights smoking meat — night after night after night, just to meet demand. So we were delivering barbecue and beer to door to door, and it stuck.”

“We wanted to add the food element in a bigger retail space, so it made sense, obviously, to do it right there,” Britton said. “We worked on it all throughout 2019 while still producing beer, and then we were ready to go in January 2020.”

Everyone knows what happened next.

“We had just opened our doors, and then a couple months later, it came to a halt because of COVID,” he said. “It was an interesting time. It forced us to kind of relook at the brand and pivot and decide what fell within the guidelines of what we could and couldn’t do.”

The pivots they came up with not only kept the business afloat during the pandemic, they may have actually raised its profile.

“No place could open and serve food, but we were allowed to deliver food — and beer, for the first time in Massachusets. So we started doing takeout. We didn’t have barbecue as a food option at the time, and Mike came up with the great idea to say, ‘hey, how cool would it be to have fresh barbecue and beer delivered to your door?’

“So we added that as a takeout option, and it was the most popular one we had,” Britton continued. “Mike stayed up nights smoking meat — night after night after night, just to meet demand. So we were delivering barbecue and beer to door to door, and it stuck. We still have great barbecue today; we kept it on the menu.”

Murals in Vanished Valley’s lower level reflect the theme of the drowned Quabbin towns.

Murals in Vanished Valley’s lower level reflect the theme of the drowned Quabbin towns.

Between the successful delivery operation, as well as two Paycheck Protection Program loans and an Economic Injury Disaster Loan, the team was able to keep the operation running. “It was a stressful year, but we made it. Once we were allowed to open the doors, we took all the necessary precautions with social distancing and things like that. It kept the lights on, and it kept the brand alive.”


Beneath the Surface

Some of the brewery’s beer selections — 1939 Amber Ale, Cellar Hole Series, Lost Town Stout, etc. — pay homage to the history of the Quabbin.

“The name itself, Vanished Valley, is the tip of the cap to the Quabbin Reservoir and the people that sacrificed for the benefit of others,” Britton said. “We try to keep the names of the beers as Quabbin-esque as possible. Sometimes it’s hard to do, and we just come up with other ideas. But the brand itself commemorates the Quabbin area.”

At any given time, Vanished Valley makes, pours, and distributes — to liquor stores and other restaurants across Massachusetts, from New York to Cape Cod — an array of IPAs, ales, stouts, and more, he added.

“We are very IPA-heavy, but that’s not to say that we don’t appreciate and still produce the classic brands, like a good lager or a pilsner. Some of our bestsellers in-house are actually our light beers. But when we distribute, the more popular ones are the IPAs.”

Britton explained that Vanished Valley straddles two different models.

“When you’re thinking about a brewery, you can be one of three different types of breweries. You can be a contract brewer, where you hire someone to brew your beer for you, and they send it out, and that’s it. Look at Jim Koch’s story with Sam Adams; that’s how he started. Then there’s a straight manufacturing-like brewery, where all you’re doing is pumping liquid out the back door and putting it on the shelf in the store.

“Then there’s us. We’re a brewpub,” he went on. “We wanted to have the food element, but we didn’t want to give up on the opportunity for mass distribution. So we built the brewery to be a distribution model, but the retail side of the house is a straight brewpub. So I don’t need to produce a ton of beer for here, but I need to produce a ton of beer for the market. We wanted to go at it from both angles.”

As for the food element, Vanished Valley serves a broad menu of appetizers, soups and salads, wood-fired pizza, burgers and other handhelds, and, of course, barbecue platters featuring pulled pork, brisket, chicken, and St. Louis-style ribs. Dinner hours are more crowded than lunch, and Thursday through Sunday draw the biggest crowds.

“We have a beer garden out there in the warmer weather, with a massive tent,” Britton said, adding that Vanished Valley now allows groups to rent the space for weddings and large parties. “We have music out there; Manny built an amazing stage for our bands. We have a firepit … all the stuff that makes for a better environment.”

Inside, the brewery has also hosted events from a murder mystery dinner to a bonsai tree event to charcuterie board design, as well as events featuring outside vendors, like a chili cookoff.

“We wanted to have the food element, but we didn’t want to give up on the opportunity for mass distribution. So we built the brewery to be a distribution model, but the retail side of the house is a straight brewpub.”

“We rent this for smaller parties, too: birthday parties, anniversaries, retirement parties, stuff like that. We try to be a one-stop shop for as much as possible,” Britton said. “It’s hard to do sometimes, but compared to other brewpubs and breweries in the region, we are very, very diverse.

“I think we’re doing really well compared to a lot of other breweries in the industry,” he went on. “There have been some closures in the state, and we’re not going to be one of them. But you constantly have to tailor things to the customer, and that’s a constantly moving target. So one of the bigger challenges is staying fresh.”


Lager Than Life

Despite some shifts in the market, Britton said, Vanished Valley is doing well on both the brewpub and distribution sides.

“Our first struggle was dealing with the holy-grail beers — you know, what’s the next best thing? That’s what the craft-beer fanatics want — the search for the white whale, or whatever they want to call it. We were one of those whales initially, and we gained a lot of loyal customers, but there were some falloffs of people that wanted to find the next best thing.”

Another challenge has been the rise of ready-to-drink cocktails. “That sector of the industry is really doing a number on craft beers,” he said. “And now you have CBD-infused seltzers and stuff like that. So our distribution has gone down a little bit because of that.

“But our overall growth in sales has continued every year because of what we do here in the retail area with the restaurant,” Britton added. “If we were a straight production brewery, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation right now. But on the restaurant side, the amazing customers we get here — from a local standpoint and people from out of state — have helped us stay afloat as a small, local business. We’re still very young. We’ve been going at it since 2017, but we’re still young.”

Vanished Valley also makes an effort to give back to the community, such as a beer produced to honor veterans every November, with proceeds donated to veteran organizations. The brewery also sponsors golf tournaments and gets involved with events like Ride to Remember, which honors fallen heroes.

“This is our backyard,” Britton said. “We all grew up here, and we’ve got to take care of it.”

Despite the challenges throughout the years, he added, Vanished Valley has continued to grow — from three employees just a few years ago to more than 30 today.

“We’ve done really well for ourselves. We’ve made a home for a lot of great customers that we appreciate so much. And the town has been nice to work with; they appreciate what we’re doing here from an economic standpoint. It’s just been a fun ride.”

Features Special Coverage

Pivot Move


Mike Yates, left, and Ray Berry

Mike Yates, left, and Ray Berry agree that expansion into Amherst is a common-sense move for the company.


When asked how he would eventually become business partners with Marcus Camby, the former UMass and NBA star, Ray Berry, founder of White Lion Brewery, leaned back in his chair as if to indicate it was a bit of a long story.

It starts with Travis Best, another former NBA player who made his first headlines while playing for Springfield’s Central High School. It was Best who put together several annual Basketball Hall of Fame enshrinement weekend events, including a post-induction gathering. Following the opening of White Lion’s downtown Springfield operation just over a year ago, Best was looking to include the company in the festivities — and did.

Indeed, Best and Berry would collaborate with the city on a block party on Bridge Street during enshrinement weekend — the same weekend, it turned out, that UMass Amherst would be honoring Camby, Julius Erving, and John Calipari with statues in their honor on campus. Best and Berry decided to reach out to Camby to see if he wanted to co-host the event in Springfield, which he did.

“Marcus was all in — he was already in town, and he was excited to be part of what we were doing,” Berry recalled. “We shut down Bridge Street, rolled up the garage doors, and had some entertainment; it was our first grand event at our brick-and-mortar spot. At one point, I think we had 700 people between the brewery and the block-party environment. It was a beautiful evening downtown.”

Fast-forwarding a little, Camby became more than a little impressed with the White Lion operation and Berry’s status as one of the very few minority brewery owners in Massachusetts — so much so that he attached his name to an IPA produced by White Lion. And later — we’re moving very quickly now, but will go back and fill in some detail in a bit — when Berry was presented with an opportunity to expand his footprint and bring the White Lion brand to Amherst with a location in the heart of downtown, Camby agreed to come in as a partner.

The venture will be called White Lion Brewing Amherst, and will be based in a location that has been making headlines in recent months — 104 North Pleasant St., home to the recently opened Drake, a live-event venue that is already fulfilling its vast promise as a destination for music lovers from across Western Mass. and far beyond.

The White Lion taproom will be located just below the Drake in space that was formerly the High Horse restaurant and, before that, Amherst Brewing, where Mike Yates served as head brewer — before working behind the bar at High Horse.

He now has that same title at White Lion, so this new venture amounts to going home for him.

And with that perspective, he believes the White Lion brand is in the right place at the right time, and with the right business partner.

“It will feel good to be back there. It’s a great little town — I love Amherst,” Yates told BusinessWest. “I think this is going to be a big hit here. Since Amherst Brewing left downtown, there’s no brewery in the downtown area. This is essentially a tourist town — every year you have a new crop of students coming in and parents looking for a place to go for lunch or dinner, and a brewery is always a good option.

“I think this is going to be a big hit here. Since Amherst Brewing left downtown, there’s no brewery in the downtown area.”

“Combine that with our partnership with Marcus and our establishment’s reputation here in Springfield as a prominent player in the brewing business, and I think it will be a big win,” he went on. “I think they hit a big home run with the Drake — that’s what Amherst sorely needed — and we will be another big piece of the puzzle.”

For this issue, BusinessWest looks at how this new venture came together, and what it means for Amherst — and White Lion.


What’s Brewing?

Berry told BusinessWest that he recently took part in a panel discussion before a convention of craft brewers at the Samuel Adams facility outside Boston.

The subject being addressed by the panel was satellite facilities, and, more specifically, when and under what circumstances they should be considered.

Summing up his remarks, Berry said he told them, “from a business lens, if the situation if right, and you’re not over-leveraging yourself, it could make sense for that brewery’s respective business model.”

That is certainly the case with this new location in Amherst, he said, adding that it makes sense on a number of levels. “Amherst is a great town. It’s a natural fit for White Lion and its progression.”

So much so that the Amherst Business Improvement District and other stakeholders, diligently trying to replace the lost Amherst Brewing operation, initiated talks with Berry back in 2019, by his recollection, about bringing his brand there.

He listened, but back then, he was devoting almost all of his time and energy to opening his brewery and taproom in the former Spaghetti Freddie’s location in Tower Square, a project that would eventually be slowed — as in slowed — by COVID-19 and its profound impact on construction and the larger renovation efforts at Tower Square.

When that location was well on its way, Berry and Amherst officials essentially picked up where they left off.

“They kept in communication — the conversations would come and go,” said Berry, adding that he eventually went to Amherst to look at some spaces there, including the former High Horse/Amherst Brewing location, which was attractive, but far more space than he needed. Consumed with opening his Springfield location, he put the Amherst project, if it could be called that, on pause.

Marcus Camby has already attached his name to an IPA

Marcus Camby has already attached his name to an IPA, and now he will take his involvement with White Lion Brewery to a higher level as a partner in the Amherst venture.

And it stayed there until, by coincidence (again), Camby was back in Amherst for event. While there, he and his business agent were inquiring about the “space across from Antonio’s Pizza” — the Amherst Brewing space.

That conversation started a dialogue between the two about what whether that location was available and what could be done with it, conversations that got more serious over time, prompted more visits to Amherst, and eventually spurred consideration of not the Amherst Brewing site (because it wasn’t exactly available at that time) but one just down the street, owned by the same party.

But then, the space under the Drake did become available, and the parties involved made an important pivot — yes, that’s a basketball term — back to 104 North Pleasant St.

With that backstory now complete, Berry and Yates have their focus on the future, one they believe holds a great deal of promise, because of the community, Amherst, the specific location, and what White Lion can bring to the table.

“From a White Lion lens, this makes total sense, and for a number of reasons,” Berry said. “For starters, the Drake is iconic. What they’re trying to do on that second floor is a game changer for the downtown Amherst community. To be below that music venue has a number of benefits, from a business perspective.”

“To be on the Main Street corridor in downtown Amherst has a number of benefits from a business lens,” he went on, adding that, while Springfield and Amherst are vastly different in terms of size, he sees many similarities in their downtowns and the work done by the two communities’ business improvement districts and efforts to bring more vibrancy to their respective downtowns.

“We see the many benefits that come with being in the heart of downtown Springfield, and we see the benefit of the partnership and the work that our own Business Improvement District does day in and day out, which includes special programming with White Lion,” he went on. “And the leadership at the Amherst BID has a similar fabric relative to their approach with downtown Amherst; they encourage and participate and facilitate and coordinate outdoor programming, special events, and business-improvement initiatives. Based off of what we’ve witnessed and knowing what they’re doing, it made total sense to be right in the heart of downtown Amherst.”

What also made sense, he said, was to meld the White Lion brand with the brand that Camby has developed, especially in the community where he originally made his mark a quarter-century ago.

“Amherst is a great town. It’s a natural fit for White Lion and its progression.”

Berry said preliminary design work is underway, and the Amherst facility should be open for business by the end of December, in time for the winter semester of classes at UMass and other area schools.

The facility will be a taproom, restaurant, outdoor social space, and a small pilot, nano-brew house — the main production will still be in the Springfield location — one that will allow for what Yates called “one-off” experimental ales.

“It will be a smaller scale — probably a three- or five-barrel brew system, which will allow us to spread our creativity wings a little and try some things that we couldn’t afford to do on a large scale like we have here in Springfield,” he explained. “It will be fun; I’m excited. Springfield’s great, and Springfield’s coming along, but it will be great to do a little bit of both.”


Draught Pick

Summing up his thoughts on the two communities where White Lion will have a presence, Berry said Springfield and Amherst have “similar bones.”

By that, he meant they’re trying to achieve the same things in their downtowns — specifically the establishment of an eclectic mix of businesses that complement one another and, together, create a destination.

White Lion has become a key piece of this puzzle in Springfield, and Berry is expecting the same in Amherst, especially with his new business partner attached to the project.

Together, they’ll be making a full-court press in a town where Camby is synonymous with success.


George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Daily News

SPRINGFIELDIn January, UMass and NBA star Marcus Camby and Springfield’s White Lion Brewing Company formed a strategic partnership and launched Marcus Camby New England IPA. This fall, Camby and the team at White Lion will focus efforts on downtown Amherst, bringing White Lion’s strong community culture to the greater Amherst community. 

Our brand is built on the community’s fabric, creating a diverse, inclusive, and fun place to be in downtown Springfield,” said White Lion Brewing Company business partner and head brewer Mike Yates. “We look to replicate much of that exciting vibe in downtown Amherst. As a UMass-Amherst alum and a resident of the Happy Valley, I could not be happier to be back in Amherst. I built much of my professional brewing career here and I look forward to bringing brewing back to downtown Amherst. We plan to activate 104 North Pleasant St. with an eventual nano-brew house offering one-off experimental ales, a test kitchen, taproom, and outdoor social space.” 

Gabrielle Gould, executive director of the Amherst Business Improvement District, said the partnership the culmination of an ongoing three-year conversation with White Lion founder and president Ray Berry. “Collectively, patience appears to have paid off — a partnership between White Lion and Marcus Camby is an all-star win for the business district. 

“The Amherst BID’s vision is to curate businesses that complement our already outstanding and loved small businesses,” she went on. “This is just the beginning as we rebuild and create a vibrant downtown for residents, scholars, and visitors to enjoy over and over again.” 

Said Camby, “our partnership extends beyond a conventional business venture; it was important for me to engage the greater Amherst community. I have witnessed White Lion do amazing things in the greater Springfield area; I am confident we can capitalize on that momentum and utilize my career relationships to enhance the downtown Amherst experience. Lastly, the centerpiece of success is to work with Umass-Amherst and the local education community to create opportunities for the next generation of leaders.”   


After a Year to Forget, This Springfield Label Is Ready to Roar

Ray Berry, seen here at the canning line at White Lion’s downtown Springfield brewery

Ray Berry, seen here at the canning line at White Lion’s downtown Springfield brewery, is moving on from ‘cans to go’ to the next chapter in the story of this intriguing business venture.


He called the promotion ‘cans to go,’ which pretty much says it all.

Indeed, while he could brew his craft-beer label, White Lion, at his new facility on the ground floor in Tower Square, Ray Berry couldn’t sit any visitors at the attached pub because the facility wasn’t finished and painstakingly slow in its progress. But he could sell cans to go — and he did, quite a few of them, in fact — on Wednesdays and Saturdays from 2:30 to 7 p.m.

May 26 was the last of those Wednesdays, and the last day for the promotion. Berry was sad to see them go. Well … sort of, but not really.

He called a halt to cans to go so he could direct 100% of his energies into the next phase of the White Lion story, a chapter that has been delayed more than a full year by COVID-19 — the opening of that much-anticipated downtown brew pub and a resumption of outdoor events with the now familiar White Lion logo attached to them.

“We want to make sure all the I’s are dotted and T’s are crossed, take a pause, exhale, and made sure everything is in place for our June opening,” he said. “We want to be ready to really hit the ground running.”

As he talked with BusinessWest, Berry was checking the schedules of a number of prominent elected officials, trying to find a date when most of them could attend a ribbon-cutting for the opening of his downtown facility. That ceremony will be both a beginning and an end — a beginning, as we noted, of an exciting new chapter, and the end of 15 months of COVID-fueled frustration that didn’t derail White Lion, but struck at the absolute worst time for the brand born in 2014.

“COVID set us back a full year,” he said, adding that the owners of Tower Square, who also act as the general contractor for the buildout of his facility, had set May 2020 as the date for that project to turn the key and open for business. “We’ve been creative, and we’ve made a number of pivots along the way and diversified our portfolio, but the bottom line is we lost a full year and more.”

He said moving up the timetable for fully reopening the state will certainly help, giving him an additional 10 weeks of operating without restrictions that he wasn’t anticipating — although he was watching the situation closely and was hoping the date would be moved.

“We’ve been creative, and we’ve made a number of pivots along the way and diversified our portfolio, but the bottom line is we lost a full year and more.”

“We were already going to gear up for some sort of opening during the month of June,” he explained. “But we always wanted to be in a situation where any opening would be an unrestricted opening first, rather than a restricted opening, so we’re very happy to be in this new normal.”

Berry acknowledged that the office crowd that has helped make his outdoor events so successful — and will be one of his target groups for his Tower Square facility — hasn’t come back yet, may not return until the fall, and certainly may not be all that it was, sizewise, at the start of 2020. But he said that audience is just part of the success formula for this endeavor and that the ultimate goal is to bring people into downtown from outside it.

“We’ve never predicated our business model on one particular group,” he explained. “Craft breweries are destinations — they are considered experiences to the consumer. So consumers will take it upon themselves to find out where the local craft breweries are.

“Even when we had cans to go two days a week, we would have an influx of people from outside the area who would say they were driving through or were eating somewhere local downtown and looked up ‘local breweries,’ and White Lion popped up, so they came in.”

As for other aspects of the White Lion business, Berry said the beer garden that was a fixture in the park across Main Street from Tower Square will return in some form in 2021 — and at multiple locations. He’s currently in discussions with those running Springfield’s Business Improvement District and other business partners to schedule what he called “a series of special events that will encourage people to come out and support the local businesses in the downtown corridor.”

Overall, a dream that was years in the making took another full year to finally be fully realized. But, at long last, White Lion is ready to roar to life in downtown Springfield.


—George O’Brien