Note: This profile originally appeared in Issue 52 of BeerAdvocate Magazine
‘It is a fundamental and time-tested truth that with growth come growing pains. The recent expansion and sale of Goose Island serves as a reminder of the difficult and limited options facing brewers as they grow from a small local operation into a regional icon.
Rabid popularity combined with enough breweries churning out mediocre products nearly snuffed out a nascent resurgence of better beer during the boom and bust of the 1990s. Mark Buford, Brewmaster and co-owner of the Long Island-based Blue Point Brewing Company, opened his brewery in 1997 with partner Pete Cotter and has developed a blueprint for surviving the zeniths and nadirs of turbulent economies and consumer tastes.
Buford and Blue Point endured dry times and wallowed in the flush ones by remaining loyal to the local foundations that helped in the beginning, refining their methods to increase efficiency and reduce their impact on the environment, and, of course, by keeping their beer in the spotlight.
Get Big, but Act Small
Buford and Potter will never forget everything that it took to build Blue Point into existence. Long before they maxed out their credit cards and poured every cent of their savings into the company, they started with a dream of giving Long Island something they felt it deserved—a brewery of its own.
“Back in the mid 90s to later on 90s—I was working in some other breweries and my partner worked in the distribution side,” Buford said. “There weren’t any commercial production breweries here on Long Island, just some brewpubs. It was really just the right time to do it and sort of the right time in our lives. It was either do that, or work for somebody else.”
The two quit their day jobs to focus full time on their dream of owning their own brewery, and managed to scrape up enough money to take over a building formerly occupied by the Penguin Ice Company in Patchogue, New York. But the hard work was just beginning, as Blue Point would need the support of the local community in order to survive.
As they did to get funding, Cotter and Buford dutifully dedicated themselves toward building relationships with their neighbors and introduce craft beer to Long Island.
“We really went into every single account once we got going trying to explain what it was, and we got a lot of people who thought we were crazy and thought you couldn’t brew down the street,” Buford said.
Their customers caught on quick though, and Blue Point enjoyed steady growth to the point that Cotter and Buford no long self-distribute, and are currently looking to move their brewing operations to a newer, larger, and more efficient location. That doesn’t mean they will forget what made them successful in the first place.
“I think the one thing we learned from doing all the self-distribution and meeting people was how valuable having the one-on-one relationship with the customers was,” Buford said. “Once we went to regular distribution we made it a big focus for us to keep those contacts somehow. You sort of get distant from your customers when you do regular distribution.
“I think it’s important to try and minimize that separation between your customers. I realize you can’t see everybody all the time, but you want to try to make it out there, but you let people know you’re there.”
Get Big, but Leave a Small Footprint
The beer industry is earning a reputation as a leader in environmentally conscience business practices, and Blue Point is no exception.
“I think it’s the only way we’ll survive going forward,” Buford said. “I think people will appreciate the fact that we’re trying to reuse everything. I think breweries are extremely green by nature because they’re trying to be efficient… everything definitely plays a part in your mind because you want to sort of leave the least behind.”
Buford is willing to chalk Blue Point’s environmental responsibility to the frugal and practical nature of the brewer looking to extract every hint of sugar from grain and reduce the heft of the water and heating bills, but he quietly goes about making the world a better place through beer as well.
When the states around the Gulf of Mexico were dealing with waves of oil rushing to their shores, Buford wanted to help. A local charity was helping clean the animals affected by the spill, and Blue Point was helping it.
Buford brewed a Black IPA cleverly named BP Toxic Sludge—a play on Blue Point’s own initials, as well as British Petroleum—and donated proceeds from the sale of the beer toward the local charity.
“[The Beer] was a nice project that is finished at the moment, but I expect it to come back sometime soon,” Buford said.
Of Course, The Beer
Hard work, people skills, funding, and good deeds are all great tools for a businessman, but Blue Point would not have survived today into a 41,000-bbl/year brewery if it made forgettable beer. Buford and Cotter have learned a lot over the years, but knew all along that the beer was the soul of the brewery.
“We’re trying to make the beer first then market it and figure out how to sell it after,” Buford said. “That way everybody believes in it before it goes out… we’re sort of a brewer-owned and focused brewery. That’s where things start and end, we figure out the rest after.”
Blue Point continues to brew the first beer it produced, its Toasted Lager, as well as a variety of seasonals and specialties. However, Blue point is probably best known for its IPA—Hoptical Illusion. Brewed with Mount Hood, Amarillo, Columbus and Centennial hops, Hoptical Illusion carries a complex hop profile that pulls on the sensory strings of hop heads.
“It’s certainly not the craziest one I’ve ever had because they can get to extreme levels nowadays,” Buford explained. “I always try to bring balance to the beer. I like to drink them, so I have to be able to drink them.
“I like to bring a little bit of that continental hop flavor in to blend with the citrus flavors of west coast hops.”
As Blue Point grows into its new facility, Buford plans on experimenting more with barrel-aging—it currently plays around with Cabernet and Tabasco barrels among others—and other specialties that wouldn’t be possible without expanding storage capacity and production.
“It certainly changes a lot of stuff,” Buford said. “We’ve got a much larger organization now so you have to deal with a lot more folks… the best thing I like about it is in a growing situation it really keeps you involved and connected. It keeps you completely going full speed at all time. It’s a fun way to come to work and have so many challenges constantly. When you’re running a growing business the problems are good problems. There are plenty of businesses facing different problems right now with the downturn in the economy.”
And while it will be bittersweet for Buford and Cotter to say farewell to their old building on the river’s edge, a brewer’s task has always been to blend the bitter with the sweet, and Blue Point has been doing that for a while.
Sean Lewis is a freelance writer and homebrewer. He is currently working on his first book.