Airing between regular episodes of the VinePair Podcast, “Next Round” explores the ideas and innovations that are helping drinks businesses adapt in a time of unprecedented change. As the coronavirus crisis continues and new challenges arise, VP Pro is in your corner, supporting the drinks community for all the rounds to come. If you have a story or perspective to share, email us at [email protected]
In this “Next Round,” VinePair Podcast host Zach Geballe speaks with the founder of Wallenpaupack Brewing Co., Becky Ryman, and the team’s head brewer Logan Ackerley. With their headquarters nestled in Hawley, Pa., Ryman and Ackerly discuss the seasonal flux in business, and how Covid made this summer one of their busiest seasons yet. Wallenpaupack Lake is about 20 miles from New York, and as the weather changed, thousands flocked to Hawley to escape the city. However, to make it through the early spring, the team had to get creative.
In this episode, Ackerly and Ryman describe how they brought the taproom experience online and designed take-home gear to keep their business afloat. From 15-beer quarantine kits, to a do-it-yourself homebrew set, the team won the hearts of locals and is now ready to extend its reach a little further.
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Zach: From Seattle Washington, I’m Zach Geballe. And this is “Next Round,” a VinePair Podcast Conversation. We’re bringing you these conversations between our regular podcast episodes in order to examine how we move forward as a drinks business during the Covid-19 crisis. Today, I’m talking with Becky Ryman and Logan Ackerley from Wallenpaupack Brewing Company in Hawley, Pa. Thank you both for joining. And first of all, where is Hawley, Pa.?
Becky: Thank you for having us. So Hawley, Pa., is located in Northeast Pa. We’re on the East Coast, and we’re out in the Poconos mountain regions, near Lake Wallenpaupack, which is the third-largest lake in the state of Pennsylvania.
Z: Gotcha. What’s the nearest town that most of us who don’t live in Pennsylvania would have heard of?
B: So if you’ve watched “The Office,” you’ll know Scranton. That’s actually where I went to college. It’s about 40 minutes from Hawley.
Z: Excellent. And can each of you, maybe starting with you Becky, explain how you got into the craft brewing?
B: Sure. So, my story’s a little bit unconventional. I come more from the business world. As I mentioned, I went to the University of Scranton. I’m actually a CPA and a cousin of mine started a brewery called Marker 48 in Hernando County, Fla. And just something that he thought his community would enjoy. He was really interested in beer, and I had always wanted my own company. I wanted to be a CEO and run something that I was really passionate about. And I fell in love with craft beer, through his influence, and just got into it on my own and just love the industry.
Love the people, love the vibe. And dabbled with homebrewing a little bit, enough to be dangerous, but not enough to do what Logan does every day. But enough to be a good partner to him on the business side. And, three years ago, we opened the doors, and it’s been a whirlwind ever since.
Z: Gotcha. And Logan, how about you? How did you get into beer?
Logan: So mine was probably just a little after college. A brewery opened up two miles from my school. And my buddy and I would just go as customers and have a couple of beers every once in a while. And they ended up needing some help behind the bar. So we both got jobs there as bartenders. And then I just worked my way up through the ranks.
Z: Gotcha. And how did you two get connected?
B: So we had a brewer at the time and quickly realized when we first opened that it was going to be a little bit bigger than we’d anticipated, and had advertised for some initial help in the group.
Logan came to us, with lots of experience in all the things we were looking for right before we opened. Our first brewer actually left for another opportunity, and Logan stuck it out and became our head brewer, and has run our brewery now for about two and a half years.
Z: Gotcha. And so one thing, before we get into some of the specifics about how you all have been dealing with the pandemic and all that, is we’ve talked to a lot of breweries on here, but I would say the vast majority of them have been in big cities for the most part, or at least pretty good sized cities.
And you guys are more, in my understanding, a little more in the country. What is it to have a craft brewery in a space like that? What’s your clientele? Maybe pre-Covid or now, where did they come from? Are they mostly locals? Are they a lot of people who are visiting the region for vacations? How does that work?
B: Yeah. So we’re super seasonal here. A lot of that has to do with the lake and how things change throughout the year, outside of the building.
In the summer, the population around here pretty much quadruples. We get tons of visitors from everywhere. A lot of people actually come from as far as Maryland, Delaware, a lot of second homes in this area. So, we’re not a city year-round, but in the summer, we become one.
It gets pretty populated up here. And, a lot of the flow throughout the rest of the year, you do get people from the Scranton area, Wilkes-Barre, that way. And we’re very close to the New York and New Jersey borders. I actually live over in New York, and it’s only about 20 miles away. Logan is from New York, too. So we do pull a lot of influence from New York. And then we also pull a lot of visitors from New Jersey because we’re located in what’s called the tri-state area. So even though we don’t have a big population here year-round, throughout the rest of the year, we have a huge support from the local community.
Our local community is awesome. They come in all four seasons. And then throughout the rest of the year, we do get more of that transient, visitor population and the second home owners.
Z: So, what’s the last six, seven months been for you all? I mean, obviously, you probably didn’t have the summer you anticipated. How has that gone?
B: Yeah, it’s been a little bit funny. So, March was certainly scary. It started out that every hour we were getting new information about what we had to do, what we couldn’t do, what we could do, there was certainly a lot of confusion and a lot of communication in-house to keep on top of the ever-changing regulations and rules.
It just seemed they were constantly flowing. It was a fire hose. And we did unfortunately have to make some decisions in-house to lay off some of our employees, but we tried to do it quickly, rip the Band-Aid to make sure we were here long-term. And my staff was super understanding, and we got through that really well, I think, and right away, we realized we had just canned a bunch of beer and had a pretty full cooler and we needed to find a way to move it.
So, my team really pulled together. I mean, everyone showed up and really worked hard every day to come up with ways to get through it. And we worked real hard on our to-go side and just pushed take-out, pushed all the to-go gear. Fortunately, our market sales stayed pretty solid throughout this.
And that was a big carrier for us early on in those couple of months. But, by June we were able to start getting open and although we didn’t have the summer we’d hoped with lots of people in the group elbow to elbow cheersing beer glasses, we certainly still had a lot of support on the take-out side.
The population up here was very large this summer. I think every home on the Lake was occupied. I think every dock slip on the Lake was occupied. There are literally thousands of boats on Lake Wallenpaupack. So, people were really seeking that outdoor adventure and open space to spend their summer. So we actually had a solid summer, despite everything, which we’re super grateful for.
Z: Gotcha. So Logan, I’m curious as a brewer, one thing that we’ve certainly seen and heard from breweries across the country is, with a shift, at least for most of them, does that extend away from the taproom into bottling and canning beer? That has different realities, have you had to change anything as far as your production or your recipe or anything day-to-day? Where less of your beer is being served on draft and more of it is in can or bottle?
L: I mean, we haven’t had to change too much other than logistics . We don’t have our own canning line. We use mobile canning. So we have to schedule canning runs, at least a month in advance with the canning company. And then obviously we have to produce that beer, make sure we have tanks to move it, and carbonate it, and can off of. But we’ve actually had three of our top five biggest production months in the last four months. And so it’s been crazy on our side. We’ve been busy with pumping out a ton of cans, brewing more than we ever have. So, we haven’t really had to change the way we do things. We’ve just had to do it a lot more.
Z: Gotcha. And, one thing you mentioned in another piece of this that I’m curious about is you didn’t get to have people packed into the taproom elbow to elbow. One of the things that we’ve heard from craft breweries, from drinkers , is a thing that they love about craft beer — beer in general — but I think specifically craft beer, is that convivial, communal experience. What have you been able to do to at least have some of that? And then especially moving forward into fall winter when outdoor spaces are either not accessible or at least only for the very hardy, what does that look like for you guys?
B: Yeah, so playing on my comment before that I had made, we really got creative back in Covid throughout the summer, and that’s to continue this winter. We did some things like quarantine packs, take-home beer and dinners. So we tried to take the experiences that people enjoy about our brewery, variety of beer and socialization out of a beer pairing food event, where we do food and beer and have conversation, and encapsulate those experiences into a piece that people can take that home and still get a piece of that.
And we did a lot of videos on social, and tried to just come up with different ways to say, “Hey, we’re still here, because there’s still the faces you see at the brew pub when you come to visit. And, we’re thinking about you, we appreciate you buying our products, supporting us, during these really hard times.” And just engage more on social media and just keep that conversation flowing and keep our beers, ourselves, and our whole brand relevant. It was quite a group effort on that front.
Z: Can you go into a little more detail? What are the quarantine packs? How, how is that different than what you are offering previously?
B: Yeah, so in house, we would do flights, we’d do tastings, all that stuff. We pride ourselves in having a really robust tap list. Logan does an awesome job of exploring different styles. If you come in, we’re not just a hazy double IPA brewery. We dabble in that style, but we do lagers, we have a cream ale that’s a flagship. Our hefeweizen has stuck around for a really long time — it’s practically a flagship now, too. So, we do a really nice breadth of beer styles. So with the quarantine packs, it just so happened, we had a certain amount of years, it was 15 years at the time, in cans. ‘Cause like I said, we just came off a pretty heavy brewing and canning cycle prepping for spring when we would get busier.
And we were able to put together these boxes. So you got a can of each beer, you would drink one per day. Cause all this started, they said, oh, 14 days of quarantine, and you’ll be fine. So I ended up putting up a 15th beer in there to cheers on the last day, and hope we all make it through the 14 days.
And it actually turned into this pretty neat thing. And each day we did a video, featuring different staff members. And we’d post it so you could virtually cheers with us at 5 o’clock every day, we did some virtual happy hours, too, in conjunction with it. So, people really enjoyed that. They enjoyed that remote socialization, the ability to hear about these beers from our perspective each day, whether it was in a funny way that we presented it, or a more serious way, having a conversation about what beer was about. But, it was pretty cool. People really got behind it, and it was just a neat way to give them some variety, explore our beers, in the sense that they couldn’t come in and actually do that.
Z: Gotcha. And then I think our own Cat Wolinski — who’s the person who connected us and was visiting you guys a couple of weeks ago — mentioned you also did some take-home homebrew kits. Is that right?
B: Yeah, Logan, you want to talk about that?
L: Yeah. So, as part of part of a video that we were doing with the quarantine packs, we ended up basically taking it through a couple brews on our pilot system. So we figured , the quarantine lasted longer than the two weeks, as we all know. So we figured people were probably looking for something to do while they’re stuck at home. So we put together these homebrew kits, which gave all the grain and hops for a recipe that we wrote for an IPA, ’cause everybody loves those. And we put those together, sold them, and then we recorded a video so that they could brew along with us, while they were doing it at home. So those went over pretty well. We have a couple really good homebrew clubs around here. So they seemed to really enjoy it. It kept people busy.
Z: Gotcha. You weren’t worried about creating competition?
L: Never. That’s the best thing about this industry, is that we work together better than probably any other industry I know. I’m not too worried about whether somebody wants to make more beer. I’ll gladly drink it.
Z: And is that something where, if down the road, you need to hire someone else, maybe it’s someone who’s already got some experience working with your recipe?
L: That’s not a bad idea. We are potentially looking for some more help in the brewery in the coming months. So keep an eye out for that.
Z: Who needs online job listings when you have this podcast? I wanted to ask another question that’s just about this experimentation and connection. Becky you mentioned, actually you both mentioned, doing online engagement via social media. Have you also done some Zoom tastings or things like that, or do you find that it’s just easier or more effective to post on social?
B: We did some online happy hours through Facebook Live. Just so it was open to anyone who wanted to participate, or they could replay it later. We did leave it open for questions, “Ask the brewer.” We got pretty good reception from that. We did that a few times, and it was nice with everything open this summer. We were able to see our customers, all of our friends through the industry this summer, but we were all a little fearful, I think, that as things start to get moved inside again, we’re going to lose that. So we have been talking about revitalizing, especially these online happy hours and stuff, just in the event that people don’t want to come out or are a little bit trepidatious about it. So, yes, it was definitely a good way to keep people engaged.
Z: And then, either the easiest or hardest question I’ll ask, depending on your perspective: Can each of you tell me what your favorite beer of yours is right now?
L: Well for me right now, we actually just released it last Friday. We did a Dortmunder lager, which is just a nice pale traditional German style lager, but then we took that and threw it in Chardonnay barrels for four weeks. So not a ton of time where it’s going to pick up a lot of the oaky character, but you get just a little bit of the oak and a little bit of the wine grapes. All in a nice light lager. So it’s just really drinkable, and I love traditional lagers. So, it’s perfect for me.
Z: Awesome. Becky, how about you?
B: I’m currently drinking our wet-hop farmhouse ales. Every fall, we get a really nice hop harvest from a local hops farm called Avery Mountain Bines and Twine. They’re up in Pennsylvania, about an hour from us. And this year, Logan, myself, one of our assistant brewers John, and our operations manager Sean actually got to go to the farm and participate in the harvest. We were actually helping pick the binds that we wanted for the beer, watch them go through the machines, pull them all off.
We were sorting out leaves and everything else that came up along with them and actually bagging them right alongside the farmers that grew them, which was a really awesome experience. So, I’m pretty partial to this one for having that experience with them. But also because I think this is the best farmhouse ale we’ve come out with. We’re really having some high hopes, maybe doing some competitions with this gear this year. So this is definitely right now my go-to.
Z: Very cool. And then last question for you guys. If people are interested in the beer, I mean, obviously they can come to Pennsylvania and check out the brewery, but are you available, either in the state, or regionally, or what? If people are interested in the beer, how do they get their hands on it?
B: So regionally, right now we’re self-distributed in eight counties, so it’s mostly the northeast part of Pennsylvania down into the Allentown areas where we stop for now. We are actually launching, by the end of October, our online beer sales within the state of Pennsylvania. So we will be able to ship direct to your home if you are within the state by the end of the month. So that’s a big deal for us. We’re pretty excited. We were hoping to launch it this summer, but as I said, it was a little busier than we’d anticipated, which was a great thing, but we do have the product now planned for the winter to get that going.
Z: Well, thank you both so much, really appreciate the time and the insight. And it’s cool to hear about some of the really creative ways you’re connecting to the community, even when it’s a little more difficult than in years past. So yeah, we’ll keep an eye out. For those of the listeners who are in Pennsylvania, check out the brewery, check out the online sales.
And thank you both again so much for your time.
B: Thank you for having us.
Thanks so much for listening to the VinePair Podcast. If you enjoy listening to us every week, please leave us a review or rating on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever it is that you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show. Now, for the credits. VinePair is produced and hosted by Zach Geballe, Erica Duecy and me: Adam Teeter. Our engineer is Nick Patri and Keith Beavers. I’d also like to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder Josh Malin and the rest of the VinePair team for their support. Thanks so much for listening and we’ll see you again right here next week.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.