Even after leaving the craft beer industry more than a decade ago, Russell Heissner always imagined himself returning. Now, after three years of planning, that time has finally come.
Backed by Harpoon Brewery and Bully Boy Distillers, Heissner is getting set to launch Barrel House Z, a collaborative, small-batch brewery on the south shore of Massachusetts specializing in malt-forward, barrel-aged offerings.
Heissner, who was hired as Harpoon’s original brewer in 1986, spent six years with the company before beginning a career at JV Northwest, a prominent manufacturer of beer, wine and cider tanks, systems and vessels. Around 2004, though, he said, he left the industry entirely, joining a small team to help start a biofuel company, which ended up being sold to British Petroleum in 2010.
In 2012, while still with BP, he discovered then new-to-the-scene Bully Boy Distillers and the wheels started turning.
“I went to visit the Willis brothers [Will and Dave, who founded Bully Boy], introduced myself, and we started to talk about, maybe, the cool things we might be able to do with beer or beer and distilled spirits,” said Heissner. “We started to think about a unique relationship between a distillery, potentially, and a brewery. And of course, I brought up Harpoon.”
Harpoon and Bully Boy, two well known craft beverage players in the Boston area, own minority shares of the new company, which is slated to begin production in the first quarter of next year. Initial shipments are expected by St. Patrick’s Day, Heissner said.
But the business relationship between the three doesn’t end there.
Harpoon, the nation’s 15th largest craft brewer by volume, will supply wort from its own 10-barrel pilot system and provide assistance with quality control and assurance, said Heissner. He added that when they max out Harpoon’s pilot plant, they plan to acquire a brewhouse for its Weymouth facility, which will be immediately responsible for fermentation, aging and packaging. Bully Boy, for its part, will provide spent whiskey and rum barrels for the operation – and there is, of course, talk of Barrel House Z returning the borrowed barrels for further distilling experimentation.
With plans to release 2,000 barrels in its first year in business, Heissner said the plan is to self-distribute everything. While Barrel House Z won’t be leveraging its partners’ established wholesale networks, it still can take advantage of other connections the company has, added Heissner.
“There are some strategic reasons why we aligned with them,” he said. “One was, it allows us to build brand awareness in a real personal way using their own customers. That will get us in the marketplace a lot faster than having to build a brand from scratch.”
As far as the beer itself goes, Heissner broke the products up into three collaborative categories. The most consistently produced offering will be a “standing collaboration” with Harpoon and Bully Boy that will change in recipe year-to-year. Second, Heissner said the company plans to work with reputable home brewers in the area interested in making commercial beer once or twice a year. Lastly, the company plans to partner up not only with other Massachusetts breweries and distilleries, but also state-based wineries, chocolate and coffee producers, and other food & beverage outfits.
He said he wants the business to represent Massachusetts, adding, “I have a real bias about promoting local beer.”