Massachusetts contract brewery Clown Shoes spread itself thin last year.
On its way to producing about 12,500 barrels of beer in 2016, Clown Shoes maxed out its allotted capacity with longtime partner brewery Ipswich Ale Brewery. So, to make up the difference, the company added brew days at Shmaltz Brewing (Clifton Park, New York), Stony Creek Brewery (Branford, Connecticut) and a one-off beer at Notch Brewery (Salem, Massachusetts).
Clown Shoes director of operations Matt Smith told Brewbound that some of the feedback his company received from consumers was that the liquid from the other facilities tasted slightly different from the Clown Shoes beers they had come to know. Smith admitted that the logistics of working with so many different breweries proved to be too challenging for Clown Shoes last year.
“They were brewed somewhere else,” he said. “The water is different. The process is different. Everything is different, except the recipe. That’s one of the challenges of working with four different breweries at the same time. It’s a complex puzzle.”
But this year, that puzzle is coming together.
“We’re bringing all of our production back to Ipswich this year,” Smith said.
The move comes as Clown Shoes, known for its colorful, comic book-inspired labels that often feature a Unidragon (unicorn dragon), plans to produce between 14,000 and 16,000 barrels of beer and expand distribution into two new states.
Smith said the consolidated production was made possible after Ipswich, which produces its own line of beers and contracts for other craft breweries, expanded its capacity. It’s also a play for more consistency in a familiar environment; Clown Shoes brewmaster Dan Lipke was the head brewer at Ipswich for more than 11 years.
Meanwhile, Clown Shoes has begun transitioning several of its beers — Whammy Bar No. 2 IPA, Mango Kolsch and Clementine witbier — into six-packs of 12 oz. cans. This summer, the brewery will also begin releasing beer in four-packs of 16 oz. cans, starting with its best-selling beer, Space Cake #7 double IPA, which Smith said accounted for 20 percent of the company’s overall sales last year.
“It’ll see distribution in most of the markets that we ship to,” he said. “We’ll start out pretty limited with it and see how it goes and grow it as much as we can.”
And in a move toward offering more sessionable beers, Clown Shoes will release its first beer below 6 percent ABV, Baked Goods, a 5.5 percent ABV American-style pale ale.
“People have been asking us for a long time to do a slightly lower ABV beer,” Smith said. “Our average beer is between 8 and 9 percent ABV.”
Baked Goods was initially named Space Cookies, but the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau rejected the name due to it being a strain of marijuana. That beer will be made available in six-packs of 12 oz. cans, Smith said.
Many of Clown Shoes’ products had been sold in 22 oz. bottles, but don’t expect the company to move away from that package for its higher ABV barrel-aged beers, or 12 oz. bottles for its Chocolate Sombrero Mexican-style stout and Galactica double IPA.
“We don’t want to move completely away from that format,” Smith said.
Meanwhile, Clown Shoes, which currently ships its beer to 25 states, plans to add Oregon and Arizona to its footprint later this year. The company will also focus on international expansion, including Sweden, where the brewery has earned tenders for American Monastic Belgian IPA and Crunkle Sam barley wine.
“We’re at the point now where we are very selective about where we expand to,” Smith said. “We’re trying to be really smart about the way we do grow. It’s an ebb and flow thing. If we have the capacity, we’ll pursue other opportunities, but we’re making as much beer as we can right now.”
Clown Shoes’ strongest markets remain its home state of Massachusetts, as well as Minnesota and Texas, where the brewery recently transferred a sales rep. The Texas market has grown over the years without representation, but the company is finally putting a focus there in 2017.
“Texas is unique in that the 22 oz. format doesn’t seem to be doing as bad as it is in other places,” Smith said. “In Texas, we’ve had a lot of success with that format.”
Smith said the emphasis will be on growing sales in those markets and the company is also exploring hiring additional territorial reps in several other states.
In its strongest markets, Clown Shoes plans to continue producing state-specific beers brewed with special artwork and local ingredients, a concept that started three years ago when the brewery launched in Ohio with Unidragon Russian imperial stout and has continued with beers such as the Good, the Bad and the Unidragon in Texas and other states.
“That’s something we want to grow more this year,” he said.
One of those state-only releases — Josh the Guava King double IPA, which was released in Texas last year — is now going to be on tap in Yard House chain restaurants throughout the country.
Smith also said it’s the brewery’s way of maintaining a local feel, even though it doesn’t have any brick-and-mortar tasting rooms for drinkers to visit. He added that Clown Shoes’ staff has discussed the possibility of opening physical spaces in the future, but it’s not in the cards yet.
“People ask us about it all of the time, but for the time being we’re focused on just making the best beer that we can where we are now,” he said. “It’s certainly not something that we’re ignoring as an option. For now, we have a model that works really well for us. We’re just trying to refine it the best we can. It’s worked for seven-and-a-half years.
“Margins and profitability are one thing,” he continued, “but we have adaptability now and we’re able to pivot quickly. It’s harder to do if you’re running a giant brewery.”