Clown Shoes Beer of Ipswich, Massachusetts, symbolizes much of what’s currently defining craft beer.
Known for big, bold recipes and eye-catching artwork, the brand is available in 27 states. It grew from a retailer’s dream into a popular brand purchased last October by Mass Bay Brewing Company (MBBC), the parent of Harpoon and UFO.
I recently caught up with Sean Geary, Clown Shoes Beer brand manager, to talk about the brewery’s past, present and future.
Kyle Swartz: What’s the origin story of Clown Shoes?
Sean Geary: In 2009 Gregg Berman entered a Beer Advocate contest to name a Dogfish Head beer ‘Clown Shoes.’ This was a nickname an employee had at Gregg’s family’s store, Berman’s Wine and Spirits. The name did not win; however, the dream to have beer brewed under that name stuck with him. He connected with Dan Lipke, then head brewer of Mercury Brewing Co., and they concocted a Black IPA as the first Clown Shoes beer (Hoppy Feet). Sales in Massachusetts took very well to the initial beer and concept, and a brand was born.
KS: You used to contract brew. How did that work, and why the change to a standard brewery?
SG: It was out of necessity. Funds were not available for a brewery early on. Our partnership with Mercury Brewing Co. was outstanding and gave us the ability to do whatever we needed to make the best beer possible. Dan Lipke was eventually hired onto the Clown Shoes side full-time: this made it possible to continue to meet demand, both domestic and international. It was becoming more obvious over the last couple years that we needed our own space, and building a facility large enough to accommodate our current and future size would have been a massive project. We landed on MBBC as a partner because of the capacity they have, the name recognition they carry, and that it is an employee-owned company.
KS: What’s the thinking behind Clown Shoes’ state-specific releases?
SG: This rose out of another necessity. One of our best stouts, Blaecorn Unidragon, wasn’t allowed in the state of Ohio because its ABV was too high. We were getting hammered with requests for the beer from our Ohio customers, but couldn’t change the laws. Instead, we built a Russian Imperial Stout brewed especially for Ohio with the ABV .01 under the legal limit. Everyone loved the idea, and we realized that we could do more special projects like this in other markets, where we could tell a story that might be known locally or regionally and put a great beer forward. It is so much fun to do these, we’re looking forward to many more in 2018.
KS: Clown Shoes recently released canned 4-packs. Is that where the industry is heading?
SG: We originally built our brand off 22-oz. bombers, but over the years we’ve had to adapt to a changing market and different consumer preferences. The 16-oz. can is an amazing creation, and we’ve had the plan to package in this format for a long time. We got a canning line earlier this year and have designed a core beer for the line (Galactica) as well as monthly special releases that will be 7-9% ABV. For higher ABV/barrel-aged beers, we’re going to stick with bombers, but more-and-more we’re looking to the canned format to experiment.
KS: Clown Shoes bottles have eye-catching artwork. What’s the story there?
SG: Michael Axt is our full-time artist. While many breweries focus full-time positions on sales and administration, early on we decided that art would be an important position. We don’t really have a marketing budget, so we rely on labels to be eye-catching enough to catch a customer’s attention.
Kyle Swartz is managing editor of Beverage Dynamics magazine. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @kswartzz. Read his recent piece Meet the Retailers Who Sell Wine By Weight and Mouthfeel, Rather Than Flavor.