By Elizabeth Mueller '11
The recession inspired Bill Herlicka ’96 to trade his career as an investment banker for one with a bit more hops.
In 2009, Bill Herlicka '96 opened White Birch Brewing, a nano-brewery in Hooksett, N.H. A creator at heart, Herlicka decided the time had come to hang up his suit, retire his loafers and turn his passion for home brewing into his trade.
''Many of my friends and colleagues on the investment career path were losing their jobs,'' Herlicka said. ''My wife and I decided that we would like to create a workplace that we would enjoy and where we could be proud of having other people come work with us outside of the large corporate model.''
When Herlicka opened White Birch, he was making 15 gallons at a time, using six fermenters and two pallets of carboys (containers used for brewing) he borrowed from friends. He could produce about a hundred 22-ounce bottles a batch, and would do one or two batches a week.
''There was a brew day, a bottling day, a sales call day, and a delivery day or two. A hundred bottles doesn't seem like much, but when you put it all together, your weeks start to disappear surprisingly fast,'' Herlicka said.
Local restaurants and retailers started carrying White Birch. Business blossomed. By 2010, just a year after opening, Herlicka expanded into a space twice the size of his original facility. He opened a store and hired a brewmaster. Last year, White Birch moved into a 10,000-square-foot building, roughly five times the size of where it all began.
Nothing Beats BelgianBelgian Ale has always been one of Herlicka's favorites. From tripels to dubbels, from quads to saisons and back again, he loves the many Belgian varieties. And he especially loves taking the classic Belgians and amplifying a particular nuance or flavor through subtle variations in the hopping, a style of brewing for which White Birch has become famous.
''In the beginning we would go to tastings and conventions all over New England. People would always ask us where we were from. And we would say, 'Hooksett, New Hampshire.' To which they replied, 'Well, where’s that?' ''
White Birch responded by launching Hooksett Ale, the brewery’s second signature beer. Hooksett Ale is a classically hopped West Coast American IPA made in a Belgian style with White Birch’s house Belgium yeast. A sort of east-meets-west mashup in which the middle ground falls firmly in New Hampshire.
Extra Hands Make Short Work
Instead of banishing interns to hours of excel spreadsheets or monotonous deskwork, Herlicka designed the Apprentice Program, a modern take on an age-old tradition. White Birch apprentices learn the brewing industry from the inside out – covering everything from cleaning the barrels to mixing, hopping, marketing and delivery. Each apprentice also conceives of, brews and launches his or her own beer.
''Kate, our most recent apprentice, did a jasmine Belgian red ale,'' Herlicka said with a mix of wonderment and pride.
When White Birch unveils an apprentice's beer, the brewery throws a graduation party and sells the beer as a limited edition available across New England.
''The program has been a great way to address the need for extra hands around the brew house, and our customers absolutely love it,''
1,000 Bottles of Beer on the Wall
Today, White Birch brews about a 1,000 bottles of beer a week, a 10-fold increase over the two lightning-fast years since the brewery's inception. Now slow, steady growth is the name of the game. Herlicka's beer is available only in 22-ounce bottles, but diehards are clamoring for a White Birch draft and six-packs. While kegs are on the way, what many don’t know is that just the machinery for 12-ounce bottling costs $300,000 or more.
''The economy has been stagnant for a while, but White Birch is doing really well,'' Herlicka says. ''As Americans, we work really hard, and I think craft beer is a treat we are turning to more and more. You know, good wine is around $40, but the best wine in the world averages about $300 to $1,000 per bottle, and the best scotch is over 6,000 euros. What’s great though is a lot of the best beer in the world is being made right here in the U.S. and it rarely costs more than $20. I am so happy to make a quality product that makes customers happy, makes myself and my employees a decent living and allows us to give back.''