Right now, there’s one beer flying off shelves in Massachusetts faster than anything else. Most stores will never get it. The ones that do will have it for a matter of hours, or minutes, before it’s gone. The bright yellow can is hard to miss; see it in the wild and you’ll pounce.
The beer is Sip of Sunshine, a double IPA most notable in this context because it’s not brewed in Massachusetts; rather, it’s the flagship IPA of Vermont’s Lawson’s Finest Liquids, a little outfit based in Warren, VT, that contract brews the bulk of its beer at Two Roads Brewing Co. in Stratford, CT. And as of this moment, it’s the first time it’s been widely distributed anywhere outside of Vermont and Connecticut.
Sip, as it’s sometimes known, is objectively one of the world’s greatest beers. It rates a solid 100 RateBeer and BeerAdvocate, representing a balance of flavors and technique surprising for its 8 percent ABV. Though it was first brewed in 2014, it’s often spoken of in whispered tones in the same sentence as The Alchemist’s revered Heady Topper. Many who have had both more than once, including me, actually prefer it.
Beers of this caliber are not typically delivered to your figurative doorstep. You don’t get to walk to the liquor store and pick up a four-pack of Sip (unless you live in Vermont). At best, you get to drive to Vermont and hope you find some. Which you might not. Better luck next time.
So it was with surprise and elation that the beer-loving residents of Massachusetts learned this month that Sean Lawson, founder of Lawson’s Finest with his wife Karen, had signed on with a local distribution company and would start pushing his liquid sunshine out across the state. Not on a limited, trial basis, but in perpetuity. Just like that, Massachusetts became a Sip of Sunshine state.
“Massachusetts is such a huge market for Lawson’s. And that’s why we’re here,” Lawson told me over the phone, adding, “Vermont is a very tourist-driven state. Massachusetts and the Greater Boston market are huge for Vermont.”
In other words, Vermonters have long been loyal customers of Lawson’s. But so have the residents of Massachusetts, a fact not lost on the husband and wife behind the brand.
Signs started popping up on liquor store windows and doors — much like those you’ll find in Vermont on the hunt for Heady Topper.
The impact in Massachusetts has been immediate. Distribution began here on Jan. 31 and it’s safe to say the majority of cans to hit local shelves were gone within a day, if not minutes. Fort Point Market, recognized widely as one of the state’s best purveyors of craft beer, sold through eight cases in less than 20 minutes in the middle of the afternoon. The story was the same elsewhere. Some stores, I’m told, were limiting customers to a single can per visit. Signs started popping up on liquor store windows and doors — much like those you’ll find in Vermont on the hunt for Heady Topper.
It might seem obvious, then, why Lawson’s chose to expand its distribution. Contract brewing at a large outfit like Two Roads helps them brew at a capacity and rate to meet surging demand. If they can pump their products into another, neighboring state and sell out quickly, why wouldn’t they?
Because craft breweries with a cult following like Lawson’s don’t do that. They brew a mile deep not a mile wide. They appeal to the local core of drinkers, the ones who have been coming to the source and buying there since day one. Love you some Sip but live in New Hampshire? Excellent; now come and get some.
More and more, new craft breweries are adopting this mentality. And it makes sense. Serving your beer out of your own taproom and self-distributing to select accounts gives brewers ultimate control over their product. Big IPAs like Sip, which depend on massive amounts of hops notorious for a short shelf life, are canned cold, shipped cold and should be served cold. Once distribution leaves the family, how do you know for certain that’s what’s happening?
This, it turns out, is part of the key behind Lawson’s decision to expand south of the border. Yes, they’re trusting a new distribution company to handle their precious good. But, it turns out, geography is actually in their favor.
“Stratford [where Sip is contract brewed] is closer to the Boston Metro market than it is to Warren, VT. That’s my thinking,” said Lawson. “We can get it to people super fresh. We’ve always had the vision that the Two Roads beer can serve the Metro North markets: Boston, New York and Philly.”
I wouldn’t hold your breath on other Vermont heavyweights like Hill Farmstead, The Alchemist, Fiddlehead or newcomers Foam and Four Quarters crossing state lines any time soon: They operate within a couple hours or so from each other in the northern reaches of the state.
But what about breweries closer to multiple metropolitan areas? Could Sip of Sunshine’s southern spread start a trend of more hyper-local breweries sending their beer to bordering states?
“My sights are not set on being a national brand. That’s never been our goal,” said Lawson. But so far, the Bay State foray has been “100 percent positive across the board.”