How a Pioneering Craft Brewery Is Reinventing Itself

Brooklyn's Sixpoint, now a regional brewer, rolls out a mobile app, fresh recipes, and plans for a 'campus' for beer aficionados

The entrance to Sixpoint Brewery's new courtyard (Photo by Lesley Alderman)

Like the sneakerheads who line up for hours before a new shoe drops, beer geeks have a passion for novelty. It inspires them to travel across state lines and wait in lines around the block to get their hands on a few cans of a special-edition brew. They’ll pay $5 or more per can as well, which has fueled an outpouring of cleverly named, ingeniously decorated, and exotically flavored brews. Where does this leave less-obsessive beer aficionados who want to sample the craze? Sometimes at the back of the line, or empty-handed.

Sixpoint Brewery, one of Brooklyn’s first craft brewers when it launched in 2004, has a plan to make the special-edition scene more accessible. Last Saturday, the Red Hook business opened up its courtyard for the first time, where customers streamed in to pick up (or immediately quaff) small-batch beers that they had pre-ordered through a new Sixpoint mobile-phone app. Said Max Nevins, Sixpoint’s v.p. of marketing: “We didn’t want people to have to wait in line.”

Shane Welch, the brewery’s founder and owner, was on hand to chat with customers and tout the new technology. “We’re the only one,” he said. “It’s the first time in history that a brewery developed a native app and sold directly to customers. People can come in and get their beer and leave, or come and hang out. Offering them both experiences is key.”

Sixpoint’s new mobile app lets you reserve a six-pack of special-batch brew (Courtesy of Sixpoint Brewery)

Sixpoint’s two special brews for the day reflected this new aspect of craft brewing, which is that every 100-case batch has a story to tell, both in its packaging and recipe. One of the brews was Toppen-ish, which Sixpoint described as “a lightly hazy, super fresh IPA made with El Dorado and Centennial hops 100% direct sourced from Cornerstone Ranches in Toppenish, Wash.” (The source of the hops is an important part of the story, since the bitter flowers are the key ingredient that gives today’s intense India Pale Ales their characteristic flavor; Sixpoint derides blended hops from multiple sources as “hop sausage.”) Sixpoint’s other special brew that day was Lil’ Raspy, a “super tart kettle-soured ale with loads of raspberries.” Lil’ Raspy had a bright red hue, which Welch inspected approvingly as he swirled it in his glass at last weekend’s event.

Shane Welch, Sixpoint’s founder and owner (Photo by Steve Koepp)

When Welch launched the brewery 13 years ago, he was a home brewer with a collection of 1,000 recipes making the leap to commercial brewing in an 800-sq.-ft. garage in Red Hook. As demand caught on, Sixpoint began selling its beer in distinctively tall, skinny cans, which can be found widely in retail stores. Four core brands emerged: Sweet Action (a blonde ale), Bengali (an IPA), Resin (a double IPA), and The Crisp (a pilsner). The brewery has an array of seasonal beers that it distributes on a more whimsical basis, including such concoctions as Tesla (a hop-charged lager) and Beast Mode (a porter).

Inside Sixpoint’s courtyard at the original brewery in Red Hook (Photo by Steve Koepp)

In the last few years, Brooklyn’s original craft brewers like Brooklyn Brewery and Sixpoint have been joined by more than a dozen others, including some who vigorously pursue the hophead market. Other Half Brewing, which launched in Carroll Gardens in 2014, often has fans lined up by the hundreds for its small batches, dreamily portrayed on its Instagram account. (This Saturday’s release: Alternate Side Zamboni, an imperial IPA with a hefty 8.8% alcohol content.) Threes Brewing, which launched the same year, has cooked up more than 60 styles of beer with droll names like Day of the Dead, Gender Neutral and I Hate Myself.

A Sixpoint customer departs with a couple of small-batch six-packs (Photo by Lesley Alderman)

This leaves the once-upstart Sixpoint, which has grown into a regional brewer with its main production plant in Memphis, Tenn., as almost the old guard. So a natural response is to go back to its roots and develop its hyperlocal, experimental side. The goal is “having a better connection with our customers,” said Nevins. The new approach included the opening of its courtyard, boldly decorated with murals by locally based artists like Doug Aldrich and Vexta. At the corner of Van Dyke and Dwight streets, Sixpoint has assembled a collection of owned and rented buildings, including one that the company is gut-renovating to serve as a proper taproom, opening sometime next year. “We want to turn it into a small campus, basically,” said Welch. His strategy for the buildout is “deliberately small, so we can incubate it,” he said.

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The company has amped-up its R&D side as well, hiring a chief product officer, Eric Bachli, the former head brewer of Trillium Brewery in Boston, where he helped grow the company’s output tenfold. To create continuously inventive packaging, “we have two excellent graphic artists on staff,” said Nevins. The small-batch app, developed with mobile specialists Posse, is currently in beta mode, which customers can join here.

Can Sixpoint stand up to the new competition? Well, it survived Hurricane Sandy. Five years ago this month, the original brewery was under several feet of water, but bailed itself out and got back to brewing.

Steve Koepp is the editor of The Bridge. Previously, he was editorial director of Time Inc. Books, executive editor of Fortune and deputy managing editor of Time.