On this episode of “Next Round,” host Adam Teeter chats with Carrie Shafir, the general manager of Blue Point Brewery. Shafir details exciting new developments at the brewery and discusses a new player in the craft beer industry: the hazy IPA. Shafir explains how Blue Point adapted and began producing new and innovative products such as Toasted Lager, Spectral Haze, Hoptical Illusion, and its own versions of hard tea seltzers and canned cocktails.
In addition, as it’s Sustainability Week at VinePair, we asked Shafir how the craft beer industry needs to evolve. Shafir explains that in practicing sustainability, the craft beer industry needs to be more approachable, hiring more women, people of color, and people from various backgrounds to ultimately help push the industry forward.
Tune in to learn more about Blue Point Brewery and the future of craft beer.
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Adam Teeter: From Brooklyn, New York, I’m Adam Teeter, and this is a “VinePair Podcast” “Next Round” conversation. As everyone knows, we’re bringing these conversations between the regular scheduled podcast to give people a better picture of what’s happening in the alcohol beverage industry. Today, I’m really excited to talk with Carrie Shafir, the general manager of Blue Point Brewery. Carrie, what’s going on?
Carrie Shafir: Not much, happy Friday! Excited to be here.
A: Oh, yeah, we are recording on a Friday. I don’t know when this will run, but for everyone who listens, it’s all good. Obviously, Blue Point is a super-storied brand. It’s been around for over 30 years. For me, I wasn’t aware of Blue Point until I moved to New York, but then it became even bigger. Where do you see Blue Point sitting in the world of craft beer? Do you still consider it a New York brand? Is it more of a national brand now? What is Blue Point nowadays?
C: Oh, man. That’s the existential question that we ask ourselves everyday. Blue Point is 23-years -old, we’re not quite 30, but we are one of the original craft breweries on the East Coast. We are the original craft brewery on Long Island and one of the first in New York State. We’re super proud that we’re still here and pumping out great beer as well as focusing on innovation, 23 years after the first batch went out to the local Long Island distributor. However, in terms of how we view ourselves, we are still focused on our local community on Long Island itself and the greater metro New York area. We do have some pretty strong distribution up and down the East Coast. Florida is actually a really big state for us but if you think about it, we have a lot of New Yorkers and East Coasters that spend the winters down there. It’s not too much of a stretch to think that people want to drink their Toasted Lager up in the summers in New York and then down to the winters in Florida. I think where we sit is in this legacy craft brewery world but we have a lot of new kids on the block, as you can imagine. There are so many amazing breweries producing great beer in our market, which obviously increases our competition. In my mind, it forces us to step up and be on our game. We can’t really rest on our laurels and go with the status quo of the beers that have worked very well for us in the past. It’s really influenced how we approach innovation as we have over the last three to five years. We have a ton of hyper-local competition. We keep trying new stuff, and we can’t believe how much good beer is coming out of our area right now. It’s pretty inspiring.
A: Yeah, it’s pretty crazy how many insane craft beers are in New York now. Is Toasted Lager still the most popular Blue Point beer?
C: Oh, yes. Toasted Lager is still our No. 1. That is our main brand. It’s what we say keeps the lights on. We love toasted lager. It’s continued to be a workhorse for us. It’s really one of the most approachable beers in our portfolio. We like to say it is a gateway beer for people’s first craft beer experiences. It gives them something different than the traditional domestic lagers and even the imports. It pairs really well with food, all kinds of food, but it’s not overly malty, it’s not overly bitter. It’s just that perfect balance. Week after week and month after month, it’s still in our top three beers that we’re pouring at our brewpub out in Patchogue. After 23 years, it’s pretty impressive to not just see it perform on the shelf, but also see it just in our backyard.
A: Right, where the diehards go.
A: Is the brand completely national at this point?
C: No, we did expand toasted lager national at one point a few years ago. It’s really hard for a brewery from Long Island to resonate with a consumer in Southern California. Especially without a national media budget where you can spend millions and millions of dollars on building awareness. We pulled back and we are sold pretty much in every state up and down the East Coast right now.
A: OK, so I do have a question there. Some people out there may ask, “What do you mean they don’t have a national media budget, they’re owned by ABI.” Obviously, national media money is important, but are there any other strategic reasons? I think you touched on some of them, but it’s so often you get to talk to a national craft brewery brand. Are there more strategic reasons for not going national that are close to what you alluded to? It’s hard for some of these craft brands, even when they do get bought by larger entities to be fully national because craft beer is so inherently local and people are so loyal to their own brand.
C: You answered your question itself: Local is king, right? Again, it’s what do we message as a brewery from the East Coast out on the West Coast? Whether or not we have media dollars to support it, it’s how do you approach a consumer. A lot of what we do is centered around our home market. Our home community. Again, with our pub, we can touch so many people who are actually coming on-site and experiencing the brand firsthand. The further you get away from your nest, the harder it is to be sticky. I think it’s been a learning experience for us when we went national and then had to pull back, but I think the local piece of this is always going to be the most important thing. We want to make sure that our beer experience is fresh. We’re making our beer on the East Coast. Brewing it out on the West Coast would create a lot of supply chain complexities, too. Yes, we are owned by Anheuser-Busch and we do have a lot more resources than we did when we were an independent craft brewery. Even though we could go national doesn’t mean it was the right thing to do. I think that, if anything, solidified that we need to invest in our backyard and make sure that our consumer is happy because that’s where the majority of our business has been and will continue to be.
A: Interesting, I think there’s a lot of questions people have about what happens to these brands when they get purchased and how do they grow? The perspective you have is really interesting to me. Another thing that I was curious about is a new release you guys have called Spectral Haze. This is also along with the same question of being a larger brewery or having larger distribution. The haze craze is real in craft beer right now. There are so many people that want super-hazy beers. However, these very hyper-local breweries have tried to stress that it’s hard to do a hazy at large distribution because it’s super expensive. You want it as fresh as possible. Only cold storage from the point it leaves the fermenter to the point that it hits your lips. Were there any innovations at Blue Point created in order to be able to create a year-round haze beer?
C: That’s a great question. You’re right that the haze craze is real. You could go into any craft beer store, frankly any grocery store at this point, and you will see hazy beers. I say that with air quotes because a hazy is technically not a style of beer, right? There’s a hazy New England. You can have hazy wheat beers. There are all types of hazy beers that are out there but what’s really stuck are these hazy IPAs. Yes, it is incredibly difficult to brew a hazy beer at scale, but I think it’s something that our brewers really took a hard look at. What are we trying to deliver here? Sure, there are the Other Halfs of the world putting out these amazing, super-fresh, double dry hops, hazy IPAs in 16-ounce cans, but to your point, if you’re not drinking those as quickly as possible, it’s really hard. It’s hard to have a great tasting experience with one of those. We do have some beers where we make these very small batches. Super-hazy adjunct with all the sexy hops and ingredients that we release on small batches. We have our Illusion Series and a lot of pub-exclusive releases that serve the consumer. With Spectral Haze, we really wanted something that could sit on a grocery store shelf, a 6-pack. There haven’t been many players who were able to do that successfully. I still would love our beer to be slightly hazier, to be honest, but I think that we’ve found much more in the flavor profile, a more approachable style of IPA. I think that’s ultimately what hazies are doing. A few years ago, when everyone was making Hop Bombs, it was how many IBU‘s can you put into this thing? It’s very hard from your palate perspective to have a bunch of those. Having a 6-pack to yourself. People do it all the time but definitely not a balanced style. I think what’s really been interesting is seeing the New Englands and the hazies come in, where you’re much more looking for an approachable, softer, tropical, less bitter style. Whether it’s hazy or not boils down to how good is your brewery at trying to get that haze? I think that it’s more of the style that’s really appealing to us because we have our original flagship IPA Optical Illusion. It’s been around for almost 20 years at this point. That’s much more West Coast style. That’s much more for the traditional IPA drinker. Now, what we really love about Spectral Haze is that it’s a nice introduction to our brand and it’s much more of an approachable style. For us, in terms of reaching a newer consumer, that was more around what we wanted to do versus focusing on all the technical aspects in making a hazy at scale. As we were thinking about how to innovate and how to reach a new consumer because again, we are a 23-year-old brewery, and we’re having trouble reaching that younger, newer craft drinker. To us, that’s the most exciting thing about the beer. I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to try it, but it’s one of my favorites that we’re making right now. I think it’s definitely an impressive feat that we’ve been able to do it. By no means does it solve for the high-ABV, super hazy that needs to be consumed within the 30-day window. We are also very lucky in terms of our resources that our brewery has a pasteurizer. That definitely helps extend our shelf life with that fresh taste and fresh aroma.
A: So you guys just recently went through a rebrand. What was the reason for that? I mean, obviously, you know, Blue Point’s a brand that a lot of people in the New York area knew. Was it, again, to sort of reach this younger demographic you’re sort of talking about? What was the feeling like? Where do you get to as a brand? Like, you know what? It’s been 23 years. We need to do a rebrand. What was that decision like?
C: Yeah, it’s a great question. They’re a lot of internal discussions and debates. Blue Point actually went through a rebrand for the first time in 2017. From 1998 to 2017, same logo, same Toasted Lager packaging, same packaging in general on the shelf. In 2017, the brand was playing catch-up to where the craft beer scene was, what craft looked like on the shelf. As you know, craft has changed so much in the last three years, let alone five years, that one of the things that have always been important to us is being on the forefront, pushing the boundaries and limits, and being market leaders. Back in the day, Blue Point was one of the first brands to have a unique tap handle because our founders knew that that’s what was going to stand out at the bar. We had these amazing hand-painted ceramic tap handles that are still to this day what we use for some of our varieties. Our Summer Ale handle, our Winter Ale handle, we have these unique custom tap handles. That was always the core of who the brand was. We wanted to get back to that position of leadership. Our rebrand this time was about reaching a new consumer, but it was also getting back to what Blue Point was. We might have spent the last few years catching up to where the craft beer industry now is, but now we want to become market leaders again. That was the bigger discussion at first. The other thing was, art has always been a huge part of the brand. Music, art, etc. We always partnered with different artists to make all of our packaging designs. Over the years, when we didn’t really have a brand hierarchy or packaging hierarchy, the art actually got in the way of the brand. On the shelf, each of our packages looked like they came from a different brewery. That was another thing that we really wanted to make sure we touched on was that we could look at the shelf and say, “Oh, that’s all the Blue Point beer.” Your eyes are drawn to it. It has much more of a billboard effect. When people are in the store, you see that craft beer shelf right now at Whole Foods. It’s overwhelming. I think that was another thing, we wanted to be much more findable and consistent. The artists that we worked with on all these brands are from around the world. It was so inspiring and amazing to bring that art into a more organized canvas, so to speak. We definitely wanted to make sure that was also a key piece in getting back to the roots of the brand, which is supporting artists and the beauty of how packaging can be art.
A: Very cool. This is another question because you guys are on this trend, and I believe you might have some insight into what I’ve been curious about. It seems that a fair number of craft breweries are moving into the spirit space, and Blue Point is one of those craft breweries. I’m curious as to why. Why are we seeing that now from lots of different craft breweries? Obviously, beer is the base for spirits in a lot of ways. You create a brew and then distill it. It’s not as if you don’t have people who already know how to do that at the brewery. But is there a larger reason why you think this is happening?
C: Yeah, I think the same question can be asked about seltzer and why a lot of breweries are making non-beer products. Take yourself out of my shoes, you go to a restaurant, and the independent restaurants have figured out that even if you want to have a beer first, you have to offer spirits, you have to offer wine. You have to offer things that different consumers want, because there’s a number of people who are gluten-free or don’t like the bitterness of beer. Sure, you can make a sour or you can make low-IBU beer, but you’re not reaching every consumer. Even at our pub, our brewpub, we were selling rosé cider as a gluten-free option, and then we were selling some canned wine. The amount of rosé cider and canned wine we were selling by just having it on the menu and not pushing it was enough for us to realize that there are consumers out there that want different things. We really had to evolve to what the consumer’s asking for. Our canned cocktails were probably two years in the making. We waited for a little over a year for our distillery license, and then Covid hit. We were really excited about where we landed with our cocktails, because I don’t think we’re ever going to get into the full high-end ABV, distilled liquor bottles. I don’t see a world in which we’ll ever release a Blue Point 750-milliliter gin, tequila, etc. One of the beauties of our packaging line is that we are able to can and package very well. I think that was very appealing to us as we see the growth of the occasions that people are consuming canned products. We have a lot of fun with this project. We have three different vodka-based cocktails. We’re using all-natural juice and ingredients. We are also using all-natural cane sugar and no artificial sweeteners. It’s funny, we packaged the first test batch and everyone said, “Oh, that’s my favorite.” Then we packed the second test batch, and everyone said, “Oh, no, no, no, this one’s my favorite.” It was something that we were nervous about. I’ve really only been tasked with producing craft beer for so long. To extend into new products, we were a little nervous about how well it was going to be received, but we have been selling our test batches in our pub. The amount of overwhelmingly positive feedback we’ve gotten from our consumers has only made us incredibly excited to roll these out. We’re not chasing after the consumer, but sometimes, you’ve got to listen to what the consumer is telling you they want and not forge ahead with what you’re comfortable with. I think that’s something I’m super proud of where we landed with not only our cocktails, but with our Hard Tea Seltzer because now, we have a real portfolio of brands. If someone trusts Blue Point, they can now go beyond just the craft beer aisle for us to get into their refrigerator.
A: One last question for you, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask it. I think you’ve answered a little bit about how you do this with the Blue Point brand, but specifically for beer. There’s been a lot of press, and VinePair has written about it a bunch, our head beer writer Cat Wolinski is very passionate about this. Beer has done a really bad job at speaking and appealing to women. As a female in the craft beer world, what can and should craft beer be doing better to expand to the female demographic? We read all these stories on how craft beer doesn’t have any place to expand anymore, and is craft beer all grown out? When we look at it, it’s completely expanded to white men, but there’s this huge demographic of women, people of color, etc., that it still is not speaking to. What could craft beer be doing better?
C: That’s a great question. It’s not lost on me that there is a huge amount of runway to reach new consumers. Craft beer is not dead, we just need to evolve. I think first and foremost is hiring more women and people of color, different people from different backgrounds into craft breweries, because ultimately it starts with who’s actually working there and developing products. For a while, it was not a very diverse industry. I think it’s gotten better, but we still have a long way to go. I think the other thing that’s so exciting about what we’re doing and what we’re working on in the innovation front is looking at different styles that might not necessarily be what the data is telling us is hot right now. Hazy IPAs are a great example. It’s a pretty polarizing category and an intimidating category, very similar to wine. There’s a learning curve, and you don’t want to sound dumb. I think a lot of it comes back to education. How do we educate our consumers? How do we reach them in a very approachable way where we’re not being overly pretentious? To me, it’s one of the things that influenced our packaging, too, to be honest. How do we look more approachable on the shelf that it’s not a very overwhelming, intimidating shopping experience? It’s pretty straightforward. These are the descriptors of the beer that I’m getting, these are graphics that appeal to me that are not telling me that this is going to be a hop bomb. Your question is one that I could probably spend hours thinking about and dissecting, but I think it ultimately comes back to hiring more diverse teams and bringing different people in with different perspectives. That’s ultimately who’s going to be making the decisions on products. Also, educating and being more approachable, not being as stuck up as I think some of the craft beer industry has gotten. That approachability is how a lot of spirits companies have won and also wine companies. We need to continue to fight the good fight. I think we have a lot more runway to grow craft beer with new audiences. We need to stay the course and make sure that we’re innovating in the right way.
A: Very cool. Well, Carrie, this has been an interesting conversation. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me about everything new at Blue Point and about the craft beer industry in general. I really appreciate it.
C: No, thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.
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Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and in Seattle, Wash., by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder Josh Malin for helping make all this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tasting director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team who is instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.