OPINION: The Next Draft: State’s newest brewery prepares to open in Millbury
MILLBURY — Most breweries begin with a dedicated homebrewer who sets out to grasp that ever-elusive dream of transforming a passion into a profession.
I have heard and read so many of these tales that they’ve all blended together into one standard origin story. But what separates one brewer from another isn’t how they honed their craft, but why.
So last week when I met Jason Rondeau, the co-owner and head brewer at Penny Pinchers Brewing Co., a new brewery opening downtown this winter, I was not so much interested in hearing his wild adventures in homebrewing. No, I wanted to know what motivated him to invest his future in a hobby.
After 15 years of homebrewing, Rondeau said it was his father’s death in 2018 that finally spurred him to take a chance at opening his own brewery.
“It made me realize life is short, and I don’t want to have any regrets,” Rondeau said. “I look at my dad’s life: He lived the way he wanted to live. He didn’t have one regret. He did what he wanted to do and had a great time doing it. I looked back on that, and thought, ‘If I don’t try this, I’ll always wonder what if?’ Even if it fails, we can say we tried it.”
Penny Pinchers will open an 1,800-square-foot taproom at 75 Elm St. as early as November. Rondeau plans to work in a makeshift one-barrel brewhouse, brewing twice a week to start. His wife, Katrina, and his friend, Jody Barton, are his fellow co-founders. All three of will operate a brewery while keeping their day jobs as dutiful TJX Companies Inc. employees.
The name of their brewery is quite literal. Rondeau and Barton got into brewing after a Groupon for a homebrewing course. And they have taken the penny-pinching approach to nearly every aspect of the brewery, including reusing Rondeau’s weathered homebrewing pots rather than investing in new equipment and helping their contractor with the taproom’s construction to save on labor costs.
“Pinching pennies is kind of how we were able to get the taproom,” Rondeau said. “It’s not that it is cheap or looks cheap; we just put a lot of sweat equity into this place.”
The downtown storefront they chose was in shambles when they signed the lease last year. Through the years, 75 Elm St. has been the home of a consignment shop, bakery and pharmacy. And Rondeau believes Millbury is excited for the space’s next life as a brewery.
“The town clerk can’t wait to come in and have a beer to see what we’ve done with it,” Rondeau said. “We constantly have people looking in the windows and giving us the thumbs up.”
The Rondeaus initially looked for a site in Northbridge, their hometown, but could not find affordable real estate. Millbury was the next closest option. It allows Rondeau to brew at night while still just a short drive away from home.
Construction on the taproom wrapped up last month. Now Rondeau is ready to set up and test his brewhouse. He will debut with four core beers on tap: a creamy golden ale that drinks like a stout, an East Coast, though not hazy, IPA, a blueberry wheat beer brewed with graham crackers, and a pilsner with Australian hops.
Over the years, Rondeau has been slowly getting more feedback on his beers, giving him the confidence needed to jump from homebrewing to commercial brewing.
Not all of the experiences have been positive, though.
In 2018, Rondeau brought some his beer to the Spirit of Hudson festival and though he made clear Penny Pinchers was not an active, licensed brewery, he was reported to the state’s Alcohol Beverage Control Commission for potentially operating an illegal brewery. Two Northbridge cops came to his door after the event to check that he was not in fact brewing commercially from his basement.
That incident, while unsettling, was a good thing for Penny Pinchers, as it ended up being the final push Rondeau needed to start applying for licenses and searching for space for his brewery.
Preparations were going smoothly until COVID-19 delayed the brewery’s planned opening date several months. Rondeau is hoping to partner with local restaurants to fulfill the state’s food requirement for breweries. The brewery does not have any outdoor space, but Rondeau said the taproom is large enough to keep tables spread safely apart.
I didn’t get to try any of Penny Pinchers’ beer, so what struck me the most about the brewery was how refreshingly realistic its owners were in accepting that they likely can’t offer anything wildly different from the more than 200 other breweries in the state.
“There are yoga classes at some breweries. Some breweries have you pet cows. Some have cupcake decorating events,” Katrina Rondeau said. “I love the brewing industry just because it is so fun. I don’t know if we can actually differentiate ourselves much more from any of these other places. But I think for us, it’s about offering an inviting location with a great assortment of beers that people are intrigued to try.”
To follow Penny Pinchers’ progress as it nears its November opening, check the brewery out on Facebook at www.facebook.com/PennyPinchersBrewing, Twitter @PennyPinchBrew, or Instagram, @pennypinchersbrewing.