Rich and Dan Talk Harpoon IPA
By: Rich and Dan, Harpoon Co-founders Published:
Recently, Harpoon cofounders Rich Doyle and Dan Kenary sat down with Brand Manager Chris Bonacci to celebrate 20 years of Harpoon IPA. Read on to hear about the early years in the brewery and the creation of Harpoon IPA!
It took us a little while to figure out, was it ’92, ’93, ’94 to try and remember when Harpoon IPA came out, which struck me as a reminder that this wasn’t a plan to develop a flagship.
RD: It was not by design at all! People spoke and people have spoken for 20 years, so it really had a mind of its own. It was not brand management, it was getting out of the way and letting the product do well. Sometimes you have to get out of the way. But yeah Harpoon IPA was a summer seasonal beer in 1993. We had Winter Warmer, we had done a stout, and we decided to make a statement. The IPA was not the typical summer seasonal beer – well there wasn’t a typical summer seasonal back then – this wasn’t a light lager, it wasn’t flavored, this made a statement. It was a strongly hopped and at that point very high in alcohol, great beer, and some people will like it, some people won’t. We were all astounded that it was the runaway popular hit that it was. It wasn’t made to be popular, we never thought it would be popular.
How is Harpoon IPA different?
RD: It is harder to craft a beer where every piece works well together. The yeast aroma works with the hop, the malt side balances at the hop finish… All that stuff has to work together and we find that that’s why we really like it and that’s why it has been popular. And that’s why it is different than the hop bombs.
You’ve mentioned the concept of New England-style IPA. Can you tell us what that means?
RD: When we started brewing Harpoon IPA 20 years ago there weren’t other IPAs. The category has grown up around us, it is now the most popular category in all of craft beer making and beer drinking. And I think what’s happening is there is such a broad spectrum of IPAs, in terms of alcohol content, bitterness, and aroma. And you have people that say they don’t want to try an IPA and we get discouraged because what we have is well-balanced IPA that sort of harmonizes all of the ingredients. We look at Harpoon IPA as a New England-style IPA, something that harmonizes the ingredients instead of having one dominate. The reason we do that is it helps the customer understand what they are going to get. It helps to define the customer expectation.
Lets talk about your inspiration for starting Harpoon.
RD: Back in 1986, there were great bars in Boston as there are now, and there just weren’t as many good beer choices. We were consumers as opposed to brewers, so one way to seek out better choices was to travel, which we did, and the other was to start your own brewery, which we did as well. Dan was gainfully employed, and I was a student so I had the time to write the business plan.
DK: Yeah I’d echo what Rich said; we came at this as frustrated consumers. I thought back to, you know, when I travelled in Europe and there was a brewery visit in Ireland that we had made that was incredibly memorable… It turned into a whole afternoon, and they ended up driving us to the train station, so it wasn’t just that the beer was flavorful or that it was a different color, stuff id never seen here, but it was also that the brewery was right in the center of town, they were great people who really loved what they were doing. When you start to realize that we could participate in this, it was something to get really excited about.
When did Harpoon first start welcoming people to the brewery?
RD: Really almost immediately. What good is it to have a local brewery if you cant see where its made and talk to the brewer and give your own comment on what theyre doing, or what you really like. What we did for years was rotate the tours, so when there were five of us, every fifth Saturday was your day to give the tour. So we would give tours… for years. (laughing) Years!
DK: This is a special room in a lot of ways but I think this is the only part of the brewery that has had the exact same use since we moved in. Rich you should have fond memories of this – Rich and I with sledgehammers, knocked those bricks out, and it was a real pain to do it actually…
RD: Yeah, it hurt. For those at home, if you ever knock out a brick wall that’s double thickness, make sure you wear steel-toed boots. I didn’t, so my… my right toe was numb for five years.
DK: We thought it was going to be easier than it was… And goggles if you use a spray gun over your head.
RD: We did do that, though. And something else ill mention, since were enjoying ‘old home week’ here, is the furniture here was probably from World War II – like it was the offices they used when they were building ships in here. Just old, ramshackle, dusty, whatever… We used that furniture for probably 10 or 15 years. And we didn’t buy any furniture for years – when you came to work at Harpoon you brought your own chair. We had desks, but you brought your own chair.
DK: So the idea was, this was going to be the tour room, and people could come in and look right down on the brewhouse.
So when you first opened, you started with what, Harpoon Ale?
RD: Harpoon Ale was the first product. Winter Warmer came out after that.
So you go from selling an ale in 1987 which was surprising enough, and then you introduce a spiced seasonal ale. What was that like?
DK: There was nothing… nothing brewed east of Colorado at that point. So we got a lot of ‘what is it’ like we did with Ale, but Winter Warmer – people had real strong reactions to it. People either absolutely loved it or said ‘this is not beer, what is it,’ but its gained an incredible following over 25 years.
Where did the ideas come from at that time?
RD: Events, tours, seasonal beers all fit with what our original vision was for what a local brewery did. So again for us at that time, we just wanted to do things before we ran out of time to do them, before we went out of business! We also had a really nice business in the Summer of ’88 – the Cape, the Islands, etc., and it made practical sense to get us through the winter season but also allowed us to celebrate the season in New England.
You’ve been in this industry for 27 years. What comes to mind when you look back?
DK: It has been an incredible ride. We were optimistic about what would happen to the American beer scene, but we certainly didn’t envision a wholesale transformation for the US to become far and away the best place in the world to be a beer consumer. And that’s fantastic!
We couldn’t agree more. To see the full interview with Rich and Dan, head to our UStream page. Cheers to 20 years of IPA and many more!