Orion Howard ’88 and Eric Kerns, co-founders of Bright Ideas Brewing, believe in the power of beer. Last Friday, I visited them at their new office, a 3000 square-foot taproom and microbrewery located on the campus of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA). Howard, a graduate from the College and oncologist in Bennington, and Kerns, formerly with the Williamstown Theater Festival and MASS MoCA, opened Bright Ideas to the public with limited hours in March and have a grand opening planned for June 19.
Bright Ideas represents an unusual model for a microbrewery. Neither Howard nor Kearns have extensive experience as brewers themselves, other than the occasional homebrewing experience, and instead call themselves the “beer influencers” of the operation. “Typically there is somebody who is passionate about making a specific beer, and they build a place and brand around that beer,” Kerns said. At Bright Ideas, however, Howard and Kerns have teamed up with brewmaster Chris Post of Wandering Star Brewing in Pittsfield to create a different model. Bright Ideas was conceived of and founded on the steadfast dedication to the community of North Adams and the identification of an untapped market. Working with Post, Howard and Kerns hope to “build the experience of what Bright Ideas is, simultaneous to the beer.”
The experience is very much centered on the taproom itself, as Bright Ideas has a unique license that allows it to both brew and sell commercial pints on its premises. (Bright Ideas has also partnered with the restaurant, food truck and caterer Bon Tricycle to provide food.) The design of the space is industrial, modern and meticulously thought out. Howard and Kerns specifically chose almost every element of the space in a lengthy and costly design-build. For example, the long, handsome blonde bar was crafted from wood beams salvaged from a different building on the MASS MoCA campus, while the beer-making equipment was custom built in western Canada. Despite being curated with immense attention to detail, almost like a museum, the space manages to shed most of its pretension. Consciously or unconsciously, Bright Ideas situates itself as an intermediary between MASS MoCA and North Adams.
Howard and Kerns are proud of their relationship with the town and its residents. “There is a historic sense that people who live in North Adams do not step foot on the MASS MoCA campus,” Howard said. “Though it’s not the norm, we have actually had people come into the brewery and tell us it’s their first time.” Their current customer base is around 90 percent local North Adams and Wiliamstown residents and 10 percent visitors to MASS MoCA and notice a brewery next door.
Drawing tourists from across the region, however, is also part of the pair’s dream for its new venture. Beer tourism is on the rise and they eventually hope to become a beer destination similar to many craft breweries around New England. Even if that does not happen, Howard and Kerns see Bright Ideas as a potential tipping point for people to make the trip to North Adams. That said, “We aren’t about scarcity marketing like Heady Topper,” Kerns said, referring to the immensely popular and elusive Vermont beer, brewed by The Alchemist. “I want shitloads of beer all the time.” This is part of their plan to focus on appealing to North Adams and the surrounding communities.
“We want Bright Ideas to become the hometown beer of North Adams,” Kerns said. Howard and Kerns hope to give residents of neighboring towns and cities any beer that they want. “We believe that everybody wants to drink beer that was made across the street,” Howard said. Under this assumption, Bright Ideas hopes to price its beer so that any local bar can afford to carry it and every type of consumer can afford to drink it. “We want to get Budweiser out of people’s hands,” Kerns said. Currently, Bright Ideas only distributes beer to the Log in Williamstown, but plans for additional distribution are coming “very, very soon,” according to Howard.
Bright Ideas hopes to change people’s perceptions of beer by offering craft beer that has broad, drinkable appeal. There are currently eight beers on tap with plans for adding two more, as well as a non-alcoholic ginger beer and root beer. On tap right now are the Bright Ale, Brown, Extra Special Bitter (ESB), Gose, India Pale Ale (IPA), Red, Stout and Wheat. Howard and Kern will also change their offerings based on demand and season. “We are currently in the process of developing a double IPA because many people have come in here looking for it,” Howard said.
Howard and Kerns have also decided to buck the trend in the craft beer industry of giving beers a clever name, in order to do away with one layer of opacity and exclusivity found in craft beer. Instead, each beer is labeled by its brewing style. Another reason for this is that, due to the nature of microbrewing, the IPA brewed today will be different from the IPA in October. Howard recounted a story in which a customer proclaimed he liked the last batch better than the one he was currently drinking, to which Howard replied, “Me too!” Howard and Kerns want to show people that beers have artistic and scientific qualities and should not all taste the same.
During my visit, I tried five of the eight beers currently offered, and while each was very good, some seemed more polished than others. The Wheat and Stout particularly stood out to me, which, as an IPA fan, I found surprising. The Wheat, brewed with pureed lemongrass and blood orange pulp, was complex and flavorful, and the Stout, with coffee and chocolate flavors, was surprisingly light and refreshing for such a dark beer. In addition, I was able to sample ESB from the cask, which was a unique opportunity to drink a “classic British pub ale the way it was meant to be drank,” as Kerns told me.
Bright Ideas is gearing up production for a busy summer. Howard and Kerns have designed a custom beer for the National’s concert at MASS MoCA that will be simultaneously served at the concert and in the taproom. Demand has been high so far, and the taproom has been operating at almost full capacity during its limited hours Thursday through Sunday. Bright Ideas plans to expand to a more robust seven-day schedule after its grand opening and have high expectations for the future. “The summer will explode,” Kerns predicted. I certainly hope he’s right.