In case you missed the big news that dropped on Friday afternoon, Mystic Brewery founder Bryan Greenhagen announced on Facebook and Instagram that he would be closing the brewery and taproom and ceasing production of the Mystic brand of beers. Greenhagen later jumped on a Beer Advocate message board and shared some of the reasons why the brewery was closing, while dispelling some of the misinformation and speculation that was making rounds on social media. Local beer fans, myself very much included, were shocked by the news. Mystic was always known for making high-quality products, regardless of the styles they were favoring, and it sucks to lose a brewery that makes consistently good beers. I have been processing a lot of thoughts since the announcement and thought it would be good to share some of them here.
Mystic had an interesting journey since their beers first hit the shelves in 2011. Despite the fact that they launched only eight years ago, the beer scene at the time was radically different. Large-format bottles were the favored packaging format, distribution was king, taprooms barely existed unless you were running a brewpub, and hazy IPAs were still just a crazy experiment from an innovative brewer in rural Vermont. Breweries setting up shop in this environment were forced to adapt many times during this decade if they wanted to stay with the times. Making different beer styles is one thing, but changing long-term business plans to meet the demands of a changing marketplace isn’t easy, and each brewery has done it in their own way.
Mystic launched with a focus on Belgian beer styles, with a special interest in a creative and diverse line-up of saisons. All of the beers were bottle conditioned and distributed in 750 mL bottles. Even in 2011 it was clear that IPAs were the dominant style of craft beer, but Mystic refused to brew any beers in the style for many years. Instead, they expanded their lineup with the Wigglesworth series, a sampling of traditional bottle-conditioned British ales. Mystic did open a taproom in Chelsea, and while the taproom itself was nice and relatively close to Boston I am sure that the lack of other draws in the area and a dearth of public transit options were constant issues for the brewery. I also know that the bartenders got sick of people walking in and asking to try their IPA. Eventually Mystic gave in and started brewing a range of hazy NEIPAs and lactose and fruit-infused milkshake IPAs. The beers were generally well-received, but long-time Mystic fans were disappointed that old favorites took a backseat (or completely disappeared) in favor of the hop-bombs and many of the haze-bros had already overlooked Mystic.
I am sure that a whole range of factors led to the decision to shut the brewery down, including some of the reasons that were outlined in the BA post linked above. A couple of years ago Mystic was trying to open an updated brewery and taproom in Malden but the plan fell through, and there were apparently issues with the lease at the current brewery in Chelsea. It sounds like the brewery was solvent, but making just enough money to get by and not enough to reinvest in expansion or other capital projects. The IPAs seemed to sell relatively well, but that space is incredibly competitive and it is hard to build any consistent following with the notoriously finicky haze fans. Many long-time Mystic fans have suggested in hindsight that the best path was probably for the brewery to just keep making saisons, it seems like these beers were the passion project for the brewery (and IPAs weren’t), but it doesn’t sound like that was a financially feasible route anymore. I hope that we get to a point were breweries that specialize in all different styles can be successful, but I don’t know if we are there yet.
There has been a lot of talk about market saturation or a possible craft beer bubble since the news about Mystic broke. I don’t believe that there is a craft beer bubble, I don’t think we will see a huge swell in brewery closures or a loss of overall marketshare for craft beer. That being said, the rate of growth (and lack of corresponding closures) over the last 5-10 years is unsustainable, and we are going to see a slowdown soon, where the number of openings are somewhat balanced by closings. In this competitive market it is important for a brewery to succeed in all parts of the business, making great beer is step one, but they also need to stay nimble, manage the various business and financial challenges, market and brand well, and plan for the short and long term. Any brewery that fails at any of these things, even a brewery that makes amazing beer, could be in trouble.
On a personal level Mystic was a very important brewery for me. I was a little late to the game with my appreciation of Belgian styles, but I quickly fell in love with their beers and spent a lot of time drinking them and writing about them on Hoppy Boston. I was blown away by the Vinland series, where Mystic cultured yeast growing on local fruit and used it to brew beer, it is amazing how much of the flavors from the fruit came through in the beer, even though no fruit was used in the brewing process. Six different Mystic beers have landed on the Hoppy Boston My Favorite Beers list. I also featured Mystic in my articles on the Massachusetts breweries you need to know and on the best producers on NEIPA in New England. Needless to say, Mystic has been one of my favorite local breweries, and it was a pretty big blow to hear that they are closing shop. Hopefully, Bryan takes a little time to recharge his batteries and finds another avenue to create his masterful Belgian beer styles, we can always use more high quality saisons. If he does I will be among the first customers in line. Until then I will try to find some stockpiled Day of Doom to keep in my cellar (anyone who knows where I can buy some please pass on the info).
I intentionally focused this article on general thoughts and not on specific beers because I am going to knock out part 2 later this week, with a ranking of my favorite Mystic beers, similar to the article I wrote when Pretty Things closed. Until that time please feel free to pass along any thoughts on the brewery or on the state of the current beer market, this news has certainly generated a ton of interesting conversation on social media.