Beers Are Almost Like Songs: Jeff Rowe of Winter Hill Brewing

Interview by L. Valena; Photography by Canyon Twin

Jeff Rowe is the co-founder of Winter Hill Brewing Company. It was awesome to hang out in the gorgeous space and talk about beer, music, and what makes Winter Hill such a special place to live.

Winter Hill Brewing Company

How did this get started?

I started homebrewing, and I sort of stumbled my way into a job brewing on a professional level. I realized that I really loved the work. Stuck around to learn it- I worked at Harpoon for ten years. I started off loading cases on the back of the line and worked my way up to brewer. My business partner and I always had this crazy notion, but never the means, to start a business. We talked about it for years. Once we finally found someone who was willing to invest in us, we were on the hunt for spaces.

I live right around the corner from the space we're in now. I happened to walk by and see the space. It's small, but we kind of wanted to be something small. The goal is small- it's never to have a huge facility, or something like that. We wanted to do it on a more micro level. We got the space, and it took us a long time to build it out. It takes a long time to get permits, and we did all the work ourselves. All the tile, every table, and bar were all built by us. We realized pretty quick, living in the neighborhood, that this area didn't have a cafe, or anything like it. So we asked, "what would it take to marry the two?". We always wanted to have some food, so we decided to just make it a trifecta.

What's something that has surprised you about this path?

I guess the dichotomy of labor. We have kitchen staff, cafe staff, I'm the only brewer, we have someone who drives the trucks for us. Learning how to make that all gel under one roof. In certain cases, the kitchen staff will make x amount of money, and they're handing their work over to the front of house staff, and they're making a different amount of money, which is generally exponentially more. To me, as far as being a first-time business owner, after getting over the hoops of getting the licensing and learning how to operate, that was by far the most surprising. The great divide between front of house and back of house.

When we were about to open the doors for the first time, the last thing that we thought of was, "will people come?" We just had this singular idea; we were going to get to the day when we open. And then, five minutes before opening the doors, we were like, "will people show up for this?" I remember coming up from downstairs, and there was a line. It wasn't like around the block or anything, but it was maybe like 20 or 30 people, ready to come in and try our beers.

That must have made your heart sing.

Jeff Rowe

Yeah. I guess I didn't even entertain the notion of the opposite of that.

What drew you to beer in the first place?

I liked beer, which I guess is the simplest answer. I also really wondered how it was made- I've always been kind of a curious person. I've done myriad other jobs, and never found real personal benefit from the work. More just doing whatever it takes to pay the rent. And then once I started home brewing, I really liked it. Then I took a long shot and sent out some applications, and once I was in a brewing facility I was... even though I was just putting cases on the back of the line, doing remedial work, there was something about walking away from it and feeling good. Even though it's obviously the vice industry, I felt rewarded for my labor, which was a pretty unique feeling for me- outside of just working and making other people rich off my labor.

What's your favorite part of brewing?

Seeing people drink it. I love recipe development- using different ingredients and implementing them into various parts of the process. But there's hardly anything more rewarding than when I'm wrapping up the day, I come upstairs, and the bar is full. People are drinking the beers that I made like two weeks ago- we get a direct link to our customers, and that's awesome.

What goes into recipe development?

Mostly just thinking about what I want to create, and what ingredients are available to me. We source a lot of local malt and hops, which plays a huge role in the relationships we develop with people. Mostly I thought that people only drank specific things. Everyone thinks of craft beer as being hoppy- that's the movement. I like that stuff, and I also like to have style diversity. I was surprised to see that the people who come here also like that. We always have IPA's on the menu, but the customer base doesn't seem too challenged by us having a diverse lineup.

Winter Hill Brewing Tanks

It sounds like you have a lot of different departments within your company, and a lot of things happening all the time- how do you keep track of it all?

Barely! But thankfully I have two business partners, and we have a good division of labor. I focus on brewing, and some events. We have a GM, and she does a wonderful job with the front of house staff. One of my business partners handles our distribution. Our primary investor and partner handles all our back-end stuff that we would probably otherwise drown in. Every day is a little different- you never know what you're going to get. You can't be just coming in and brewing then leaving. We have thirty-one employees, all told- lots of part timers. It's kind of a huge extended family at this point. Wide-ranging personalities, which are wonderful. I refer to our staff as co-workers.

When I was not in a position to own and manage, I remember the things that generally frustrated me as someone who was working for a different company. It can be annoying to have people nit-pick every little thing, I feel like you often have to take a pause and remember that this is not a personal shot. I'm glad that people care enough to honestly see something that's not being done as well as it could be and say something about it. Because 10 out of 10 times I will agree.

I tend to think of passion-driven businesses as a creative expression of something within the operator. I don't know if you see this that way, but if you do, what are you expressing? What is it that you're bringing to the world?

I've always played music, and I always looked at beers almost as songs. There's an origin story, in a lot of cases there are memories that you borrow from to implement and process. A lot of our beers have their own little story behind them. Our flagship beer is called Darlin's IPA. My partner, I call her Darlin, and the beer is literally geared for her palate- it always has been. We have a beer called 328 House Ale. There's a hop called Vanguard, Vanguard smells of lilacs, and where I grew up, we were surrounded by lilacs. So, every time I smell it, I'm reminded of my youth. A lot of the beers have these little eccentricities- there's rarely a beer made just for beer’s sake. We try not to just fill a line for the sake of production- we try to get inspiration. I struggle to do almost anything if I'm not inspired- I'm one of those people. I can't just do it for the sake of it, I need to feel at least a little bit inspired in order to do something well.

Tell me about your music.

I've always been in punk bands- I grew up in punk bands. I play solo. I still play music- I bounce around. The two worlds are oddly similar- craft beer and music. They both have their little subcultures. I never would have drawn the parallels before owning my own business, but meeting the broader brewing community, I can see it. It's just a lot like music.

You mean you and your crew show up, and everyone checks each other out?

Yeah. You've got the wall flowers, the people who are clearly very cool, and the people who are just trying really hard.

What else do you have to say about your journey?

Winter HIll Beer Taps

Even though we do distribute beer outside of here, we are very much rooted in Winter Hill. This is our community- I live right around the corner. We participate and help raise funds for a lot of community programs that we believe in. That was always the goal, and that remains the goal to this day. Regardless of where the business goes, if it winds up getting a broader distribution- it seems like every year we have a different perspective on the future. The goal is always this. Our community supports us, we support our community. I think that's a really cool symbiotic relationship, and I know a lot of people talk about that stuff. But really seeing it and implementing those relationships and getting to know people. Getting to know the reasons why they're doing what they are doing, and how we can help, it makes all the difference in the world. Two of the owners are always here. There's never an hour when we're all gone.

What is it about the Winter Hill neighborhood that you love so much?

When I first moved here, I knew very little about Somerville. I had friends here. I liked it. I loved my neighborhood, and I started to get to know people here. It's a cool, diverse crew. Lots of arts, lots of grassroots community development, and it's kind of the last. At least from my perspective, it's almost a forgotten about neighborhood, cut off from the city itself. There's a lot of development happening, and it rarely seems to happen here. A lot of the community is really driven towards progress in the area, but they also keep a keen eye towards walking the line of gentrification- some sense of preservation of culture.

This business is not here without gentrification- I am fully aware of that. But there has to be a give and take to that, and I love the neighborhood for that reason. It doesn't seem like such a great struggle. There's a lot of cool history here. We get a lot of people who want to know why we don't have a beer named after Whitey Bulger. And really, there's a lot of reasons- would you name something Mussolini Stout? That wouldn't make sense.

Right. And would you really want to hang out with the people who would really want to drink that beer?

Really! Outside of that, it has a very cool history. This was part of Charlestown at one point, and I like how it was looked at as the impoverished part of Charlestown, so they decided they wanted to separate as much as they could. They used to call this area 'beyond the neck'. It's got a cool, underdog history. I'm comfortable in that box. It's kind of cool that you really have to make an effort to get here- it's not a lot of people who just stumble across us. And a lot of people make that effort, which is amazing.

Winter Hill Brewing Company is located at 328 Broadway, Somerville MA.