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Episode 126: August 22, 2022

George Interviews Ray Berry, founder of White Lion Brewery

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien has a lively discussion with Ray Berry, founder of White Lion Brewery. The two talk about everything from the state of the craft brewing industry in Massachusetts to Berry’s plans to partner with former UMass and NBA star Marcus Camby  on a new and exciting White Lion in downtown Amherst. It’s all must listening, so join us for BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest  and sponsored by PeoplesBank.

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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

SPRINGFIELD — Out of some 8,000 breweries in the United States, only 60, or fewer than 1%, are black-owned businesses. In Massachusetts, which boasts more than 200 breweries, only about a half-dozen are black-owned. One of them is White Lion Brewery in Springfield.

“The fabric of the craft-beer trade doesn’t mirror the fabric of the communities we work, play, and live in,” said Berry, White Lion’s owner and founder, who sits on the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion committee of the Massachusetts Brewers Guild.

In response, Berry and the owners of three other Massachusetts breweries — Arcpoint in Belchertown, Crue Brew in Raynham, and 67 Degrees in Franklin — have banded together on a project they hope will draw more people of color to the industry.

The project is called “As One.” Fittingly, it’s a beer — specifically, a juicy New England IPA. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of this limited-release brew will go toward the creation of a scholarship at Holyoke Community College (HCC) for students of color who enroll in its beer, cider, and winemaking program.

“Throughout the country, there have been a number of initiatives driven by breweries, trade stakeholders, and guilds who recognize the diversity and inclusion deficits and want to be change agents,” Berry said. “Some of those initiatives happen to be scholarship-driven.”

The idea for “As One” came from C.J. Eldridge, co-owner of Arcpoint, who had read an article about the experiences of black Massachusetts brewery owners in an historically white-dominated industry. The story featured interviews with Berry and Kevin Merritt, owner of Crue Brew, and also mentioned 67 Degrees, which is co-owned by Arnold Cruzeau.

“I saw all those guys in the article, and it inspired me to want to get together with them and brew something and also bring some awareness,” Eldridge said. “We want to attempt to spread brewing out to more people of color, not necessarily just black, but people of color in general, and get them into the business — let them know what it’s about.”

HCC debuted its beer, cider, and winemaking program in the fall of 2020, so the decision to partner with the college made sense, Berry added. “Craft beer is all about local. If we want to expand the conversation, this is a perfect opportunity for us to align ourselves with a great local institution.”

The label for “As One” includes the names and logos of all four breweries plus HCC’s, along with this description: “As One, a collaboration of unity, is just that. We came up with a conversation starter, something to bring people together.”

It continues, “As many of you may or may not know, people of color make up approximately 1% of ownership in the craft-brew industry. To this end, we have teamed with Holyoke Community College to create a scholarship for their brewing program. The financial aid will help people of color break into the industry that is far underrepresented. We hope you enjoy this beer with open minds and open hearts.”

Katie Stinchon, executive director of the Massachusetts Brewers Guild, noted that “we are very excited about the pipeline of talent that this scholarship program could generate while also helping to break down barriers, open doors, and hold them open for people of color in our community. As an industry we are very aware that the makeup of our brewery owners, staff, and consumers are predominantly male and pale. This is a great step to work to change that, and something that can be emulated in other regions and institutions across Massachusetts.”

The scholarship, as yet unnamed, will be administered by the HCC Foundation.

“Every scholarship tells a story about why someone feels it’s important to give back, or what they hope to make possible with the establishment of the fund,” said Amanda Sbriscia, HCC’s vice president of Institutional Advancement and executive director of the HCC Foundation. “The scholarship that will be created as a result of this brewery partnership is so powerful because it’s all about creating opportunity, and it’s a real example of people coming together to create positive change. HCC students can see themselves in each of these business owners and realize that they, too, can chase and achieve their dreams.”

Sbriscia joined Berry, Eldridge, Merritt, and Cruzeau on March 11 at White Lion Brewery in Tower Square in Springfield for the one-day brewing of “As One.” Canning is scheduled for Monday, March 29. The beer will be available starting Wednesday, March 31, during White Lion’s weekly “Cans to Go” sessions at the brewery, which run every Wednesday from 4 to 7 p.m., and every Saturday from noon to 4 p.m.

“Springfield has a lot of diversity, so it’s great that we’re doing this in the heart of Springfield,” Eldridge said. “A lot of people of color, they’re gonna be like, ‘oh, damn, look at these guys here, just like me. They’re pumping out beer and working together for something like that.’”

Although the batch is small, the goal is to make the brewing of “As One” a special, annual event that will continue to seed the scholarship fund at HCC over the years. “It’s not a one and done, that’s for sure,” Berry said.

Coronavirus

For This Springfield Business, Better Times Are on Tap

Ray Berry

Ray Berry, seen here at the site of White Lion’s new facility in Tower Square, now under construction, says the pandemic impacted virtually every aspect of his business.

From the beginning of the pandemic, Ray Berry’s White Lion Brewery was deemed an essential business by the state’s governor.

That means it was allowed to remain open when many others had to close amid efforts to flatten the curve and relieve the tension on the region’s healthcare system.

But as any other venture on that large list can attest, ‘essential’ does not mean free of challenges, headaches, anxiety, and uncertainty about what might come next.

Indeed, there’s been plenty of all of those things for this Springfield-based company that was looking toward 2020 as a watershed year, and still is in at least some respects.

Especially with plans for a much-anticipated taproom and accompanying restaurant in Tower Square — specifically the former Spaghetti Freddy’s site — now moving forward again after a halt to most forms of construction during the spring.

“Pre-COVID, we were really ramping up and starting to fire on all cylinders relative to sales and construction — we were about to onboard another salesperson and were also looking to obtain another vehicle and perhaps another part-time person to deliver our product,” he told BusinessWest. “And then … the pandemic hit.”

And it hit hard, impacting the company from “front to back,” as Berry put it.

“Pre-COVID, we were really ramping up and starting to fire on all cylinders relative to sales and construction — we were about to onboard another salesperson and were also looking to obtain another vehicle and perhaps another part-time person to deliver our product. And then … the pandemic hit.”

By that he meant virtually every aspect of the business, from the closure of the hundreds of bars and restaurants (as well as MGM Springfield) that sold White Lion to a halting of construction work on the brewery; from the canceling of high-profile events where the brand had a presence, such as the Holyoke Road Race, to the suspension of the beer gardens the company has hosted in downtown Springfield and Westfield during the summer and fall months.

“It was just like a crash — it all happened at once within a 48-hour period when the state and federal governments stepped in and put restrictions in place,” he noted, adding that, as sales plummeted (only liquor stores, also deemed essential, remained as a distribution point), the company had to lay off some of its employees in stages and figure out how to manage with those who remained.

White Lion has been helped by assistance programs on a number of levels, from the federal Paycheck Protection Program to the local Prime the Pump initiative created by the Development Department in Springfield, said Berry, adding that this help, coupled with the remaining business from liquor stores, enabled the company to stay on its feet during those brutal spring months.

And as the state continues to reopen businesses, the outlook for White Lion continues to brighten. Restaurants have reopened across the region, and the state’s casinos have been given the green light to open their doors, although MGM Springfield has not given a specific date when it might do so. And work has resumed on the project in Tower Square, and Berry is projecting that his crew can be in and brewing beer by the end of this month.

“The taproom component is under construction now,” he went on, “and we hope that by mid-August, the taproom piece, as well the kitchen piece, will be complete, and that by the end of August or early September we can start welcoming people into the space.”

Meanwhile, White Lion has recalled most of its seven employees and expects to be “whole” in that regard by late July, he said.

Projecting beyond the next few months is difficult, but Berry believes the company will be able to open its beer gardens in late August or early September, noting that these ventures will be part of phase 3 of the state’s reopening plan.

Looking back — and ahead — Berry, echoing countless other business owners across every sector of the economy, said the pandemic has provided a stern test, one he believes his team is passing through determination and imagination.

“It’s been a challenge in every way you can imagine,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s just a predicament that we’re in, and we have to pivot and continue to find ways to remain resourceful and efficient for the benefit of the sustainability of the company.

“I always said that we’re all resilient as people,” he went on. “And there’s always going to be a light at the end of the tunnel. We don’t know how long that tunnel may be, but there will be a light, and we’re starting to see some of that that now.”

—George O’Brien

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