This Time Around, N.H.’s Craft Beer Industry Shows Signs of Staying Power

Written by Kathleen Callahan for

Beer, it’s been said, is recession-proof. Or at least that’s what Bill Herlicka set out to prove in 2009 when he opened White Birch Brewing in Hooksett.

At the time, he was working as a project manager at one of the world’s largest investment companies, managing budgets in the millions of dollars; by night, he was a home-brewing beer aficionado, concocting everything from Russian Imperial Stouts to hoppy Belgian ales.

So when he sensed a round of layoffs looming at work, he figured it was as good a time as any to try his hand at professional brewing.

“Life is too short to do something you don’t love to just plug along,” he said. “I want to wake up and feel like I’m excited about going in to work.”

Starting small, he opened White Birch in June of that year. By August, the beer – which he brewed in 15- to 20-gallon batches – was ready to be poured.

“We had to figure out how to grow – we didn’t want to open the business like so many breweries do,” said Herlicka, who hit the road, trekking to beer festivals across New England to give away samples, hear feedback and meet his future customers. “It was either find an audience, or go home with the Cadillac of homebrewing systems.”

In its first calendar year, White Birch went from brewing one barrel a day to two, sometimes stretching capacity to three when demand was strong (a barrel, by the way, is 31 gallons). Now, two years later, White Birch has traded up to a seven-barrel system, and its ales are available in stores and bars throughout New England and into New York City and Philadelphia.

White Birch was New Hampshire’s first nano brewery, but not its last, especially not in the wake of a newly enacted state law that expands the barrier to market entry for small brewing operations. And, say lawmakers who introduced this year’s legislation, more bills are already on the horizon for next year.

“We’re in the golden age of beer right now,” said Herlicka.

While definitions vary, craft beer is more easily defined by what it is not. Craft breweries are not owned by giant beverage corporations and do not produce more than 6 million barrels of beer a year. Unlike their mass-produced counterparts, craft beer often isn’t filtered and doesn’t contain preservatives or adjuncts like rice and corn. Made with premium ingredients like malted barley, wheat and rye, craft beer is brewed for style and distinction, not mass appeal.

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