Sixpoint Brewery founder Shane Welch is making innovation the “primary focus” of the Brooklyn craft brewery heading into 2018.
In a conversation with Brewbound, Welch, who founded Sixpoint in 2004, said the fight for relevance among brewers has never been tougher: More than 5,900 domestic craft brewers are now competing for retail placements while simultaneously facing competition from large, multinational beer manufacturers such as Anheuser-Busch InBev and Molson Coors at a time when category growth has slowed to single digits.
Despite the challenges, Welch said he’s as excited about the future as he was when the brewery opened 13 years ago.
“It’s important to feel that way because the industry has never seen this kind of upheaval or headwinds,” he said. “That spirit of innovation is basically what keeps us in business. It’s what makes us relevant.”
In order to foster that spirit of innovation, Sixpoint formed a new product development team in August, and hired Eric Bachli as the “chief product officer.” Bachli, who served as the head brewer at popular New England IPA maker Trillium Brewing Company for two years, will lead the division.
“He’s only been with us for a short time, but there’s a whole wave of new stuff coming out that’s going to be amazing,” Welch said. “2018 is going to be really sick.”
Welch said he was attracted to Bachali’s past as a research scientist, but also his cultural fit within Sixpoint. Bachli holds a graduate degree in biotechnology from Harvard University Extension School, and he’s also earned brewing degrees from the Siebel Institute for Technology and the University of California-Davis.
“I’ve known him for five years, and I just really liked his approach as a scientist,” Welch said. “I kind of approach the craft in the same way — from the same perspective.”
Bachali, who helped Trillium perfect the hazy New England IPA, will bring a deep understanding of the style to Sixpoint, which previously released a similar style IPA, called Puff.
“We are absolutely going to be pairing some of our great relationships with hop farmers with Eric’s desire to flex on what he wants to do with those styles of beers,” he said.
However, Welch said he, Bachali and fellow development team member Horace Cunningham (Sixpoint vice president of brewing and quality) have been discussing ways to innovate within the style — not only flavors but also processes and formulations.
“We were talking about different styles and derivatives that you can work with on those New England-style, unfiltered, cloudy IPAs that haven’t been done yet,” Welch said.
Bachli’s influence will extend beyond hazy IPAs as well. Sixpoint’s 2018 calendar of specialty releases will include lagers brewed with hops sourced from German farms, grisettes, sessionable farmhouse ales and several beers aged in various hard liquor and wine barrels.
“We’re trying to create a dynamic range of flavors,” Welch said.
Many of those new releases will be available exclusively through Sixpoint’s smartphone app, which launched in September as a way for the company to sell limited-release offerings directly to consumers. Thus far, Sixpoint has offered three specialty-release beers via the app, and each release — a couple hundred cases per offering — has sold out within an hour.
For now, the app will serve as Sixpoint’s only direct-to-consumer link. However, Welch said that will change once the company opens its first taproom.
“We’re commencing a complete gut renovation of these buildings that are 140 years old,” he said. “The process has been adventuresome and awesome. But it’s not just something you get the spit shine and then you have a tasting room up and running. We’re doing an extensive project.”
Meanwhile, Sixpoint, which outsources large-scale production of its core beers, is on pace to sell about 90,000 barrels in its 18-market footprint by the end of the year, Welch said. According to industry trade group the Brewers Association (BA), the New York brewery sold an estimated 74,500 barrels last year, making it the 43rd largest domestic craft brewery.
Welch said the increase in sales is being driven by Sixpoint’s four core offerings — Sweet Action blonde, Bengali IPA, The Crisp pilz and Resin double IPA, which account for about 80 percent of the company’s sales.
“That number has been remarkably stable since we started,” he said. “In today’s world, more than ever, it’s important to have a good core group of products. I think it’s a pitfall if you think you’re going to grow your business with a new beer every week. You’re not selling loyalty, you’re selling novelty. The moment you start doing that, it’s the beginning of the end.”
Looking ahead to 2018, Welch said he doesn’t have a stated growth goal nor does he plan to set one.
“The more you start getting bogged down in spreadsheets and how much of this are we doing and that, the less focus you’re putting on the customer and the actual experience,” he said. “I just try to keep my eye on the latter and then let the numbers fall where they may. If people love it, we’ll sell a ton of it. If they don’t like it, we’ll have to go back to the drawing board.”