February 2, 2012

Interview: Alan Newman of Alchemy & Science

A few months ago news broke about a new company run by Alan Newman, founder of magic hat, and financed by boston beer company (AKA Sam Adams). The only details on the company was that they were going to be a "craft brew incubator", Later news broke about their first acquisition, the angel city brewpub in LA. I was doing research for a post on Alchemy & Science but all i could find were the same two press releases being regurgitated all over the internet. I contacted Alchemy & Science directly to learn more and Alan was kind enough to take the time to give me an interview. 

HBC: Why did you guys choose the west coast for your first acquisition? 
Alan: ‘cause it dropped in our lap. Its really about opportunity, when we started talking about doing this alchemy and science business we recognized that a lot of stuff we can control. So we started looking for opportunities, there was an opportunity so… you know? ... We took it. It’s really not that complicated. 
HBC: So you’re not thinking of nation wide domination? 
Alan: WORLD WIDE DOMINATION! ... No not at all. The task is really to just do great world-class beers and do great things for people interested in beer
HBC: Do you see A&S doing anything outside the beer industry? Maybe getting into ciders or outside the beer industry?
Alan: You know?  Not really looking at other industries was really before A&S took this forum. Stacey and I were looking for opportunities to run another business. Its really all opportunity driven. We were looking for opportunities available around Burlington, had beer come up we might have looked at it, beer never came up. So, we were looking for opportunities in other areas.  Then I had a conversation with Jim Koch and all that changes. 

HBC: That leads me to my next point; we know Boston Beer’s backing is limited to financial backing. Will you also have access to their facilities and distribution to help reach your goals for A&S?
Alan: This is not an attempt to be evasive; the challenge is how do we do things without disrupting BBC? They are a very successful company and one of their concerns as well as one of our concerns is we could become a distraction, so essentially, they are open to us sharing any resources that make sense for the circumstances as long as were not a distraction. Would we ever brew at their facilities? Of course we would, they have some of the finest craft breweries in America and I would love to be able to use their breweries for some of the stuff were doing. 
We got some stuff were working on now that would definitely be done at one of their breweries. Because the LA brewery is not up and running yet were doing some new product development at the Boston brewery we will move it all over to LA once the LA brewery is operational but they were kind enough to offer us the ability to get working on some new product development ahead of time. So we took it, wherever there are opportunities to share resources were open to it and there open to it. There really is no master plan on what we will and wont use of their resources were really playing it by ear and figuring out as we go. 
HBC: BBC is the biggest craft brewer in the nation and the brewers association changed their definitions of craft to accommodate them. How do you guys define “craft” at A&S? 
Alan: I have long, long standing disagreements with the brewers association on their definition of craft beer. There are two issues: What is a craft brewer? And what is a craft beer? and they are very different to me. Had I been involved with the brewers association, which I was not when they made that decision, I would have argued it has nothing to do with Sam Adams. That is has to do with do we want to penalize people for being successful? And if we do how do we ever expect to turn more and more people on to good tasting beer without pushing them all to the big brewers? 
  To me it was just a natural extension of the brewers association adapting to the times when the brewers association started, when magic hat started, I don’t know that anybody was doing more than 100,000 barrels. I seem to remember that Sam Adams and Pete’s were right around 100,000 barrels, Anchor was right around 100,000 barrels, Sierra may have been right around there and that was the upper limit. Over the years as craft beers have gotten more popular all those business have grown, the idea that Sierra Nevada is not going to be a craft brewer as they pass some imaginary number makes no sense to me. The idea that New Belgium will not be a craft brewer once they break through some false ceiling number makes no sense to me and I don’t think the industry is doing itself a favor by casting out the most successful of the craft brewers. 
I think it was a reaction to the times, I think they did the right thing. I think Sam Adams was the first to hit that point and as many things in the craft beer industry Sam Adams is the first. They were early on the scene, they were not the first craft brewer, but they pushed the bounds in many areas in how craft beer was sold and business models. They pushed the envelope all along so its not surprising to me that they were the first to break through that imaginary barrier but I really don’t believe it had anything to do with Sam Adams and was more recognizing that the industry is evolving and we need to make sure the most successful the craft brewers remain categorized to the customer as craft brewers. 
HBC: You Acquired Angel City and they were kind of on the ropes when you acquired them. Are you looking only to get struggling brewers as part of A&S? 
Alan: That’s your word “on the ropes” not mine. I don’t think you can look at angel city and make any assumptions about future activity from that one action. It was an opportunity that came up. I go way back with a guy named Michael Bowe, who was the founder of angel city, we have know each other about 15 years. Whenever I was in LA we would have dinner together. We just catching up and he said, “well what do you think about buying angel city?” and I said “hum that’s kind of interesting” it really was not a planned activity, it was not indicative of anything else. Every once in awhile I see something written that were out there scouring for all the breweries on the brink and its just not true at all. This was a particular situation and we took advantage, not of Michael at all, I think Michael would agree that we treated him very fairly. We found a way of doing something that made sense to both parties and that’s the only thing it indicates. 
Were working on some stuff were going to create from scratch, we continue to be interest in other brands but there is no one focus on how were going to create businesses or grow businesses, were looking at all opportunities.
HBC: You mentioned you have some projects your starting from scratch; can you give any details on that? 
Alan: I can’t. If you check back in about a month, the only reason is my experience is nothing is final until its final and I would hate to be out talking about something that doesn’t actually happen. But were in the process of developing something that I think is really fun and cool, were really excited about it and I cant wait until I can talk about it. 
HBC: Back to Angel City then; was there any resistance to your involvement in angle city from the local market? 
Alan: I haven’t heard a word, everything I have heard has been pretty positive. People are happy; I think the angel city vision was fabulous. I think what Michael was thinking about with angel city and the move he was in the process of making was pretty damn exciting and people are excited by that vision that an experienced builder of craft beer is coming in to help it. It will remain a local LA brewery with a pub. Our goal with it is to really become part of the LA community. What we learned with magic hat was the way to build the business is to really stay involved with the community that you’re working with and I think one of the things we did best when we started magic hat was we were heavily involved in our local community here in Burlington and northern Vermont. Then as we grew we stayed heavily involved in those communities. We worked with a lot of nonprofits, we worked with a lot of organizations, we worked with a lot of performing arts activities and we stayed heavily involved in the communities we were selling our beer in even as we expanded our territory we expanded our reach. Whether angel city ever has the kind of geographic reach that magic hat has, I have no clue but the focus is totally on building a local fan base. How can angel city be a part of the local arts community, how can angel city be a part of the historic downtown renaissance. How can we be part of that community and how can we bring value to that community? That’s really the focus. 
HBC: I think that’s what’s great about craft beer; it’s really a catalyst for community activity. 
Alan: I agree, and to me that’s the heart of craft beer. It’s the small independent breweries that build roots into the community and really create a symbiotic relationship. I think if you look at the most successful breweries that’s what they’ve all done and the reason that more and more people are trying craft beers. 
Usually the way people get converted to craft beer is because there is a brewery in their neighborhood and they go “let me try that” and once they start tasting better beer that made right in their neighborhood they’ll look around and see what else is available, but I think the strength of the growth of the craft category has a lot to do with the small local breweries that are bringing in their neighbors by being part of the community. 
HBC: Why the name alchemy & science?
Alan: You know? I always liked the juxtaposition and whether its brewing beer which is, to me; a combination of alchemy and part science; it’s part science and part magic. Business is also the same thing, to me; it’s a mixture of alchemy and science. You can look at the information all you want, you can be methodical all you want but at then end of the day there is a magical element that you cant control. So I guess that’s where it came from, I have always been fascinated by that dichotomy. 
HBC: What beers are you guys are into right now? 
Alan:  Well the beers in our office fridge are mostly Sam Adams ‘cause we really like them and we have easy access to them. Today My go to bee is Sam lager, I always liked Sam lager, I learned to love it when I was traveling around for magic hat because there are many places where it was the only craft beer and its always good, its always fresh. In my opinion it really is a great beer and I kind of rediscovered it, but that’s really my go to beer.  
That said, one of my all time favorites is rodenbach. I happen to know the guys that do the importation and distribution of rodenbach and they are nice enough to me that every time they come by they bring me some so I have a nice selection of rodenbach at home. I’ve got a great selection of Sam’s large bottle Belgian beers. 
I tend to like Belgian beers most I think, Belgian white is my favorite style, and I love the sours. I tend to like malt over hops. I’m not a fan of the current west coast kill it with hops thing I find that I can only drink one of them, it ruins my taste buds. So if I have a highly hopped beer I usually save it for my last beer of the night. I tend to like malt I love the well-balanced beers. 

I want to thank Alan again for taking the time to give me an interview. I'm sure the craft beer community is waiting with excitment to see what alchemy & science brings to the east coast.  

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