By Chris Maza
SPRINGFIELD – With the growing popularity of craft beers nationwide, Western Massachusetts has seen a boom in local beer production.
Along the Interstate 91 corridor alone is a large portion of the state of Massachusetts’ multitude of breweries, however, none of them can be found in the city of Springfield.
Ray Berry and Mike Yates want to change that with the White Lion Brewing Co.
White Lion aims to establish itself in the next year and become the City of Homes’ first brewery to operate within the city since the late 1940s.
“There’s been an increase of popularity with craft beer and even Springfield being the third largest city in the Commonwealth, as we scanned the environment, we realized that for whatever reason Springfield doesn’t have its own hometown craft beer,” Berry, president of the company, said. “We felt that now was a unique opportunity.”
Berry, the CFO of the United Way of Pioneer Valley and former Springfield license commissioner, who received his bachelor’s degree from American International College and his master’s degree from Springfield College, said he believes that White Lion will be the latest breakthrough in what he called a “regional renaissance.”
A brewery with a home base in Springfield is a prospect that Yates, the master brewer, said he is very excited about.
“Springfield is dying for something like this. Springfield needs something to rally behind. [Beer] crosses all cultural and economic borders and brings people together,” Yates said. “Ray is the driving force behind this. He has a great plan. He’s really dedicated to bringing something good to Springfield. I’ve been in this business for 15 years and I’ve been waiting for an opportunity like this.”
Yates, who is also the head brewer at the Cambridge House Brew Pub in Granby, knows the market, having also worked with other local companies including Amherst Brewing Company, Berkshire Brewing Company and Thomas Hooker Brewing. He thinks the four beers scheduled to be rolled out – an American cream ale, an American Pale Ale, a red ale and a black India Pale Ale – represent “a good cross section of beer styles people will enjoy.”
Berry and Yates recently hosted the second introductory tasting with a guest list that was a who’s who of public officials and business owners, including City Councilor Thomas Ashe, former state Sen. and Clerk of Courts Brian Lees, New England Farm Workers Council President Heriberto Flores and MGM Springfield President Michael Mathis at Samuel’s Tavern.
“I’m pretty confident about all these beers, but it’s nice to find out what people think and events like this also help create some excitement for the product,” Yates said. “With this feedback we can create beers that these people can feel proud of and be a part of. It allows them to get behind it and have a little bit of local pride.”
The first product is expected to hit the shelves and the tap lines of local restaurants sometime later this fall. Without the benefit of a brick and mortar facility at the moment, Yates explained the company would contract its brewing to a company in Eastern Massachusetts with the intention of opening the company’s own facility located in Springfield by 2015.
Berry pointed out that contract brewing is not uncommon for new companies and even Samuel Adams, now considered the largest craft brewery in the country by the Brewer’s Association, started with that model.
“Even though we are going to start brewing outside of the city, we understand the importance of resonating throughout this region,” Berry said. “It will come full circle. We thought it was important to be strategic and not overextend ourselves. We really want to have the brand and product resonate locally and regionally and demonstrate that the company is sustainable in order to bring multi-barrel production to the city of Springfield.”
Berry said the Springfield facility would most likely start out by being operated three or four employees with hopes for continued expansion.
“We want to be engrained in the business community and realize there will be job creation,” he said. “In 2015 and 2016, we’ll be able to better assess the number of jobs that we’ll be creating.”