Brew Ha Ha

by Tom Gresham

A man of many interests turned his attention to beer, with amazing results

Alan Newman considers himself un-employable. He insists on doing things his way and speaks his mind bluntly, regardless of the audience. For as long as he can remember, seniority and the line of command have meant little to him. It's not surprising that many past supervisors most at short-lived jobs have confronted him with the word "insubordinate."

Alan Newman, a self-confessed "unemployable insubordinate," helped found Gardener's Supply and Seventh Generation before launching Magic Hat Brewery in South Burlington.

"I've never been good with having a boss with those roles," Newman says. "I always have to say what I think. That's why I'd say people either really, really like me or they really, really don't. Not a lot of people out there would say, 'He's an OK guy.' "

Newman has largely solved the problem by clearing his own path. During an unpredictable professional career that has surprised even himself, Newman has been a key figure in the founding of three successful businesses. The latest is Magic Hat Brewery.

photoBeer isn't the only thing at Magic Hat that carries inventive titles; some employees do, too. From left are John Ravell, production manager; Steve Hood, general manager; Michele Noonan, "manager of mumbo jumbo"; Sue Dorey, "evil accounting woman"; and Todd Haire, master brewer.

Catamount, Otter Creek and Long Trail were already established brewers of beer in Vermont when Magic Hat opened a draft brewery on Flynn Avenue in Burlington in November 1994. Newman did not see room for another traditional brewer in such a small state, so he and his partner, Bob Johnson, did not start one.

photo On the back of this photo of Carri Uranga, the so-called "curator of tchotchkes," our photographer Jeff Clarke wrote, "She runs the place!"

"That direction was well-covered, which suited me just fine," Newman says. "If everybody else is going this way, I say, 'Let's go the other way.' I wanted us to beat to our own drummer and create our own identity."

Magic Hat, a 65-employee business in South Burlington, distributes a variety of year-round and seasonal beers in 12 eastern states. It is a decidedly non-traditional operation. The beers are bottled with vibrantly colored packages and carry off-beat names like Humble Patience, Fat Angel and Blind Faith. Employees are marked with inventive titles for example, public relations director Shelly Williams is the minister of fermentation elation relations and the unforgettably decorated retail store at the South Burlington warehouse, dubbed the "Artifactory," offers an unusual assortment of items.

Newman, with his full beard, open management style and casual dress, serves as a fitting CEO, whether holding court in his doorless, unassuming office or leading Burlington's annual Mardi Gras parade, a raucous Magic Hat invention that attracts between 20,000 and 25,000 people each year in the depths of winter.

"We're selling beer here not saving lives," Newman says. "We have to try to have fun."

Alex Crothers, one of the owners at Higher Ground in South Burlington, says Magic Hat takes creativity and fresh thinking seriously.

"I'm constantly amazed at the different ways Magic Hat finds to spend money on being creative," he says with a laugh.

Crothers is proud Magic Hat is Burlington's microbrewery, pointing to the business's keen community involvement. The Mardi Gras parade, which Magic Hat underwrites, he calls "a testament to their leadership in this area."

photo In the company's warehouse dubbed the Artifactory in South Burlington, Martin Kelly, "potentate, pilot and primary prestidigitator," warms his hands at a winter display called Cabin Fever.

As for Newman, Crothers says he hasn't met anyone who doesn't like him. "I fall in the category of someone who really, really likes him. He's a very smart, creative guy. A very big-picture thinker. He's also very ambitious, and I guess maybe sometimes that might rub people the wrong way. But he's got great ideas and runs a great company."

Magic Hat's genesis exemplifies the open-minded approach that has guided Newman in his business endeavors. In May 1993, Newman was walking on Church Street in downtown Burlington when he ran into Johnson, a friend and the former warehouse supervisor at Seventh Generation, the company Newman had founded and recently departed. Newman was trying to figure what his next step would be. He had examined buying various businesses, but found each situation wanting. He knew he would be miserable as an employee somewhere.

Johnson told Newman he was leaving town soon to open a microbrewery on Martha's Vineyard. Newman did not consider himself a beer drinker, being accustomed largely to what he called the "homogenized" mass-market beers he found watery and unappealing. However, he had attended some parties at Johnson's home, where faucets in the kitchen sink ran with cold water, hot water and home-brewed beer, and found Johnson's beers a revelation. He also admired Johnson's unmistakable passion for the process.

"Bob just made great beer," Newman says, "and I had always said it would be fun to build a brewery for him."

Newman asked, without taking more than a moment to think about it, if Johnson wouldn't prefer to build the brewery in Burlington. Two weeks later, when Johnson's backers on the Martha's Vineyard brewery waffled, the pair began to develop the vision that would become Magic Hat.

"As you move closer on these ideas, the business either crystallizes and gets real or it gets fuzzier and just dissipates," says Newman, who took a 10-day tour of 33 breweries in the Pacific Northwest with Johnson to familiarize himself with the brewery business. "When we moved on Magic Hat, it just never disappeared."

Newman took the plunge into Magic Hat with a mixture of reluctance and excitement, knowing both the unerring commitment the business would demand and the endless possibilities for invention it would offer. If he could do it all over again, he says, he would stay away from business completely. Instead, he'd be a movie producer.

"The process of creating a business is about having a canvas and painting something new on the canvas, just like making movies," Newman says. "The problem with business is the process just takes way too long. A movie probably has about a three-year gestation. You get the idea, write the script, make the movie, and then it either works or it doesn't, but you're on to the next one. You could have a business for six or seven years and still not have any idea if it's going to work."

It is only in the last year after forming a new management team that Newman has felt comfortable with Magic Hat's standing. He calls 2004 an exceptional year that came on the heels of a dreary one.

Newman is well aware of the ups and downs of running a business; he says that knowledge makes him feel justified for gloating when things go right. His first experience with a young business was helping Will Raap launch Gardener's Supply, an earth-friendly, catalog gardening supply company.

Newman and Raap were impassioned about developing a business that employees enjoyed and that benefited the world. Newman says he was inspired by Lyman Wood, the Vermont founder of Garden Way, and his creative management style, which included paying employees double while they were on vacation something he aspires to implement one day at Magic Hat.

Eventually, Newman spun out of Gardener's Supply and started Niche Marketing, which advertised and distributed products for a small base of clients. He hated the work, bristling at the need to bow to his clients' wishes.

Then, in 1988, the owners of a Niche Marketing client, Renew America, a struggling catalog company that sold environmentally conscious household products, offered Newman the business first in a sale, then for nothing. Newman says he meant to say "No," but "Sure," came out of his mouth what he calls "an out-of-body experience."

Newman revamped the catalog, changed the name to Seventh Generation and sent out a first issue "just as the environmental movement was picking up steam." Seventh Generation enjoyed some early, explosive growth. However, when the company hit a difficult spell in 1992, Newman was forced out by his business partner, Jeff Hollender, leaving him adrift and ultimately open to the idea of building Johnson his brewery.

Johnson left Magic Hat on good terms a few years ago, and he and Newman still keep in touch. Johnson now owns a small bakery in Maine that is "very Bob," says Newman, with high-quality, painstakingly prepared food indicative of the same care Johnson put into developing Magic Hat's brews. Johnson recently joined a product development group that meets at Magic Hat once a month, allowing him to stay involved in the business his love of beer inspired.

Newman, on the other hand, has simply remained with no expected departure in sight. For all his grumbling about the demands of running a business, he readily admits his love for the complex practice of developing and selling a product. He revels in tweaking Magic Hat, noting frequent change is critical to its survival. He notes proudly that Magic Hat's five current biggest sellers didn't even exist 10 years ago.

Newman also speaks with pride about his attention to such details as the prominent tapheads he created so Magic Hat would stand out behind bars. While such tapheads have become widespread today, Newman credits himself with sparking a "taphead revolution."

"I'm never bored at work," he says. "I could tinker with Magic Hat until I die maybe I will. I'm a good tinkerer. I love the little details, changing little things around. If I could just do point-of-purchase stuff, nothing would make me happier."

Although the 12-hour days of Magic Hat's infancy are no longer necessary, the business remains Newman's chief interest. "I'm a very simple guy," he says. When he's not working, he looks to spend time with his 16-year-old daughter, Zöe, or to indulge in his love of travel. Newman recently purchased a condominium in New Orleans with a friend and says he fantasizes about living in Europe for 18 months to build a market for Magic Hat brews. He also owns a motorcycle and is a frequent rider, often harboring plans of simply pointing his motorcycle somewhere and taking off.

A Long Island native, Newman arrived in Burlington with his then-wife in 1970. The couple had been living on a commune in Oregon and planned to settle in Eugene, before deciding, with little spurring them but a feeling, that Burlington was the place they wanted to be. Newman, who lives near downtown Burlington today, says the city has been a natural home for him.

"It's an odd place with lots of strange people and I fit into that. I love the lake, the mountains, the people. There's a vibe to Burlington: It's a very unique place, and it fits me perfectly. I also love the entrepreneurial spirit around Burlington. I think I fit into that, too."

Originally published in February 2005 Business People-Vermont