“We want to make brewing and beer part of the culture again… we want to bring people together around beer.”
Dan Kenary started Harpoon Brewery in South Boston back in 1986, long before “Limited Edition Can” releases, grapefruit-flavored beers, and “Session Ales” stocked the aisles of your local supermarket. Nope, in the 1980s, no brewers were clamoring to create “hoppier brew”—there simply wasn’t much consumer demand. In fact, there was almost none. Back then, there were only a few hundred breweries in the U.S. (as opposed to the over 8,000 breweries that exist today). So, when Dan quit his day job to launch a brewery, it was in a market much less welcoming than today’s. It was almost harsh—oh, and by the way, there was no internet to ease the process. Nonetheless, it was in this time and place that Dan built his business. He convinced bar and restaurant owners, one account at a time, that Harpoon deserved a shot—and that they should add what a lot of people thought was a “froofy craft beer” to their row of taps.
I really enjoyed talking with Dan, and I hope you enjoy hearing what he has to say. As a fellow Bootstrapper, Dan has great stories about the early, scrappy days. (e.g. sales meetings in the bathroom because it was the only room that had heat; entire batches of beer up in smoke because it turned out the water used was chlorinated; and filling up on free pens at hotels and conferences to save cash). But what's really interesting (and inspiring) is that 30 years later, this O.G. of craft beer still approaches his business with the same vital energy and bootstrapping approach that he started with, and he makes a point to spend a large part of his time instilling that attitude in his employees. A lot of bigger companies like to talk about having an “entrepreneur's mindset,” but in my experience very few actually live it. And that's partly because it's challenging. Or, as Dan says, “anything that’s big and has to do with people is hard.” Culture is tough, but by visiting the brewery and talking with Dan, you get the feeling that thinking like an entrepreneur is a part of every day at Harpoon.
As celebrated as their products are, it’s not just the beer that Dan was pioneering back then. There was another big idea that, at the time, was pretty far out, but is now commonly accepted—the idea of the taproom. When he first launched Harpoon on the South Boston waterfront, Dan made a key decision to invest in a space that could also house a taproom. This decision was made in large part due to Dan’s love of European beer culture, and his desire to have a space where he could bring the people of Boston together. It was a prescient call, and 30 years later this beer hall is more alive than ever—a physical representation of the role Harpoon plays in the larger community.
“We wanted to be in an accessible location close to South Boston. This taproom is very important to us. It’s the gathering place for the neighborhood. And it allows us to get incredibly close to our customers. People want comfortable places to gather.”
I loved hearing about this. To me, this brings beer back to its rightful place as the down-to-earth social drink that helps us all connect with each other. In fact, craft beer and the taproom are actually the opposite of “froofy.” They shed pretense in favor of human connection. Something we think highly of here at Phear Creative.
And like Harpoon’s beer and taproom, the company’s CEO is equally down-to-earth and approachable. You can tell Dan’s earned a lot of wisdom over the years, but he dishes it to you straight over the plate. With the flood of cash in the market over the past few years, there is a fair amount of BS floating around. Dan’s not having any of it. As a leader in the industry (and as a human being), he talks a lot about “walking the walk.” He doesn’t pretend to have a crystal ball into the market, he eschews hypocrisy (of which there is plenty in this market), and he still enjoys a beer in the morning. Dan and I talked about how beer is a “relationship business”—and you can see how his BS-free vibe wins a lot of folks over.
Often, when you try to scale a small business, what made it successful in the first place ends up falling apart. Yet here's Dan, 400 employees later (all of whom own a piece of Harpoon's ESOP), still applying the “entrepreneurial spirit” he utilized to kick off Harpoon back in ‘86. If you're hard at work building any business, then you'll find this conversation inspiring.
***N.B. – As I watched our video edit, I realized the video could never convey all the wisdom Dan bestowed. Therefore, this week’s By The Bootstraps will also be accompanied by the full audio version of our chat. Watch above and listen below!
Visit Harpoon Brewery’s taproom and learn more about their products at https://www.harpoonbrewery.com/
By The Bootstraps is my way of highlighting the stories of intrepid entrepreneurs as they bootstrap their way to success. Every week I’ll release a video (and sometimes audio version) of these conversations. If you’d like to read more about the project or submit your own entrepreneur story for consideration, visit here.