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BUSINESS MONDAY: Spotlight on Barrington Brewery—The secret ingredient is sunlight!

Whatever time of day or night you choose to drop in, you’re likely to find some great comfort food waiting—and a nice selection of brews to go with it.

“We have a wide range of customers, from families with young kids to 80-year-olds who’ve been coming in for years. People we served as kids are now bringing their kids here!”—Gary Happ, co-owner of Barrington Brewery

While many restaurants have a set image they’re chasing, Barrington Brewery wants to keep being what it has always been—a moderately priced, family-friendly restaurant where most of the food is made in house. “If you have a beer, it’ll be one we made on our premises. And when you taste our food, you’ll know it’s good home cooking. Our recipes stand the test of time,” co-owner Gary Happ says confidently.

Barrington Brewery was one of the first restaurants in the area to tell you where your sausages came from (Alpine Pork Store in Catskill, N.Y., and Nodine’s Smokehouse in Goshen, Conn.). And, in true pub style, it incorporated beer into every course on the menu—soup and chili, barbecue sauce and salad dressing, and a towering chocolate stout cake.

Barrington Brewery sits in a convenient location at 420 Stockbridge Road in Great Barrington. Photo by Robbi Hartt

Gary Happ and business partner Andrew Mankin opened Barrington Brewery in 1995 (where The Back Porch restaurant previously was on the site of Crissey Farm, a former working dairy farm). One of the first three “brewpubs” in Massachusetts, the restaurant quickly earned a reputation for using locally sourced ingredients, being environmentally responsible, and offering a smoke-free dining experience—criteria few took for granted at that time.

Now in its 28th year, Barrington Brewery is valued not for the ways it has changed since the beginning, but the ways it has stayed the same, offering the same comfortable atmosphere, pub food, and great beer as it has for nearly three decades.

The owners’ story pre-dates this enterprise. Happ opened his first restaurant at 20 Railroad Street in Great Barrington when he was 27, and Mankin started brewing beer in college (using a plastic beer-brewing kit his sister gave him for Christmas his senior year in high school). After interning at Vaux Brewery in Sunderland, England in 1988, Mankin returned to Great Barrington and eventually launched the craft brewery with Happ. He currently brews seven barrels three times a week, or nearly 1,200 barrels a year.

Gary Happ and Andrew Mankin are the Southern Berkshire Chamber of Commerce Business Persons of the Year 2019. Photo by Marcie L. Setlow

Named 2019 Great Barrington Chamber of Commerce Business Persons of the Year, Happ and Mankin enjoy a long friendship and a loyal following with their customers and community alike. Although they are not part of “downtown” Great Barrington, many find their location more appealing. For locals, there’s always going to be a parking space, and for out-of-towners, it’s a short drive from the string of hotels lining Route 7 between Great Barrington and Stockbridge.

Most of the brewery’s 46 employees have been there a while. “We’re fortunate to maintain a good, stable crew—people like working here,” Happ says. “Tina Jenssen has been here since the very beginning, and Carol Brunnschweiler and a handful of others have each worked here for 15 to 20 years” (including brewery, kitchen, and front of house staff). That’s saying something given how many restaurants are struggling to stay open due to the labor shortage.

What keeps them pulling into the same parking lot day after day? Brunnschweiler lists a number of things—the easy commute, friendly environment, positive working relationship with the owners, and genuine enjoyment of “slinging beers” and serving good food to loyal customers who appreciate it. Plus she cites the team spirit among staff, saying “We are all willing to fill in for each other whenever someone needs help.”

Mankin and Happ have always prioritized caring for the environment when making business decisions. From the very beginning, they recycled all paper, cardboard, cans, and glass. When they added Crissey Farm (their 6,000-square-foot banquet facility, located behind the restaurant) in 2007, they built it using reclaimed materials. “I was at the first Earth Day,” Happ explains, “and Andrew started his career working in water utility and served on the Great Barrington Conservation Commission. We recycled before it was ‘hip!’” What’s more, all spent grain from the brewery is used to feed cows at a local beef farm.

Solar-brewed beer sets Barrington Brewery apart, ranking in the top 40 solar-powered breweries in the world. Photo by Robbi Hartt

 

The 2015 purchase of wetlands adjacent to the restaurant is now home to 480 solar panels, producing 168,000 kilowatt hours annually. Photo by Robbi Hartt

Water may be the most important ingredient used in brewing (making up 90 percent of the content), but many would argue the sunlight that heats the water is what sets Barrington Brewery’s lagers and ales apart. In 2007, they installed a 30-panel, roof-mounted solar hot-water system that decreased their natural gas consumption by 50 percent and supplied all of the hot water for the brewery, restaurant, and banquet facilities. They later purchased the wetlands adjacent to the parking lot and added a 480-panel solar system, which provides 85 percent of the electricity needed to run the business.

“It’s really paid off for us,” Mankin states. According to one researcher in the Netherlands, in 2016 Barrington Brewery ranked among the top 20 solar-beer breweries in the world, and more recently 40th in the world (a testament to how others have followed their sustainability lead). “It’s about the environment, but it’s also a good business model,” Happ notes, adding that Massachusetts has been a leader in alternative energy, offering good incentives for becoming energy efficient. “Beyond the state credits, there are significant federal tax credits. If you’re a small business owner, you should take note,” he advises.

Many who frequent the restaurant now have no idea of the challenges the owners have faced over the years. The first was a fire in 1997 set by career criminal/serial killer Gary Evans, following a robbery he pulled off at Jenifer Commons’ Olde Antiques. The full story, which is the stuff movies are made from, is described in M. William Phelps’s book Every Move You Make.

“If the weather had been different that day (it was warm and sunny with no wind), the local fire departments never would have been able to save the brewery,” Happ notes.

The 1997 fire at the Barrington Brewery. Photo from February 22, 1997, courtesy of then Chief Mike Fitzpatrick, Great Barrington Fire Department.,

The second great challenge came in 2008. “We opened Crissey Farm, our banquet facility, almost to the day when the Great Recession started and corporations were freaking out,” Happ recalls. While they helped fill a community need for local clubs, weddings, and funerals/mercy meals, events were scaled way back or put on hold entirely.

A party in progress at Crissey Farm. Photo courtesy Barrington Brewery/Crissey Farm

The third challenge came just as unexpectedly, on March 16, 2019, when (following their most successful summer ever) Covid changed the whole industry. “The pandemic was obviously an incredibly difficult time for food and beverage businesses,” Happ acknowledges. With maximum business expected the next day for St. Patrick’s Day, they cooked up 500 pounds of corned beef and brewed extra beer. Then the governor closed all restaurants. So they got creative and offered a pound of corned beef with cabbage to go, complete with a four-pack of beer and a slice of chocolate stout cake for $15. Then they donated the remaining food to the Council on Aging.

“We closed for four months, and when we reopened, we cut the menu way back for survival,” Happ says. Without cash flow, it was a scary time. “We made it through because there was a good sense of cooperation within the community. We also got assistance through the Small Business Administration’s PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) funds,” he states. “There were also several other strategic closures and layoffs during 2020 and 2021 that allowed our staff to collect unemployment, which I think helped bring them back when we were ready to open in May 2021.”

There is always a good variety of seasonal and staple brews on offer at Barrington Brewery. Photo by Robbi Hartt

Scanning the pub on a weekday afternoon, you’ll find a group of locals who call themselves ‘The Lift, Lunch & Crunch Bunch’ (enjoying a post-workout meal), some young families, and singles and doubles scattered across booths or at the bar. You’ll hear familiar greetings being exchanged by customers enjoying an afternoon of soup and ale, studying the collection of beer coasters stapled to the posts and walls.

Don’t bother asking to join The Mug Club—the name given to select customers who bought special mugs way back when. According to Happ, they had commissioned 22-ounce mugs from a woman in Maine as a way to “gift” loyal local customers a few extra ounces of beer with each fill. However, because they were thrown by a sight-impaired man who created them by feel, they ended up holding 30 ounces. “We had to discontinue those,” Happ says, grinning. “There are still three or four local guys who have them and cherish them because they’re getting basically two pints for the price of one.”

Whatever time of day or night you choose to drop in, you’re likely to find some great comfort food waiting—and a nice selection of Mankin brews to go with it. You may even see Happ chatting with the customers. “I like the hospitality business—spending time behind the bar, seeing people come in and have fun. I’ll gladly go on working a few more years,” he smiles, adding “We’ll keep keeping it simple, wholesome, and affordable.”

Barrington Brewery welcomes people for lunch and dinner every day but Tuesday. Photo by Carol Brunnschweiler
And you’ll also find a congenial crowd at the bar. Photo courtesy Barrington Brewery

 

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