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Grey Sail Brewing Company Rides Ocean of Beer

By William Tuthill / Photography By Joshua Behan | June 01, 2015
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Grey Sail Brewing Company
Jen Brinton (owner), Michelle Kirms (brewer), Josh Letourneau (head brewer), Cara Lieffers (RI account manager), Daniel Rivera (operations manager).

Couple’s Mid-Life Tack Landed Them in an Ocean of Beer

Boldly standing at a bend on Canal Street in Westerly is the old Westerly Macaroni Manufacturing building. Constructed in 1929, the building has been everything from a post office to an auto parts store to a vacant structure. Today, it is the proud home of Grey Sail Brewing Company.

“We heard about the building on a Friday, toured it on Saturday, went back again Sunday and put in an offer on Monday,” says Jennifer Brinton, co-owner of Grey Sail.

Brinton and her husband, Alan, started the company in 2009, after years of dreaming about it. Besides being an avid home brewer, Alan is an Ivy League—educated chemical engineer. He had always dreamed of opening a brewery but career and family obligations stood in the way.

The couple moved to Rhode Island in 1999, at which time Jennifer gave up her career to become a full time mom. On the 10th anniversary of their wedding, Jennifer offered to throw her support behind the dream, and the rest is history.

After procuring the space, Alan and friends basically built the brewery. “There was lots of cleaning, moving, welding and sterilization,” says Jennifer. In her words, “One of the guiding principles from the start was the manufacturing and canning of beer.”

The organization does not seek to become a brewpub. Instead, the focus is on developing and producing locally made beer of exceptional quality.

“The energy required to run a restaurant would take away from the core mission,” says head brewer Josh Letourneau. Judging by the results, the folks at Grey Sail Brewing Company are getting it right. According to The Beer Advocate’s ratings online, Grey Sail products hold two of the top three spots for beer produced in Rhode Island.

Michelle Kirms of Grey Sail Brewing Company
Josh Letourneau of Grey Sail Brewing Company
Photo 1: Brewer Michelle Kirms employs a boat paddle to make another batch of beer.
Photo 2: Head brewer Josh Letourneau checks the cask conditioning.

CANS VS. BOTTLES

Beer is a living, fermented and perishable food. It must be protected from air and light. Bottles will do that but since glass is translucent, most beer is packaged in dark brown or green bottles. When dropped, glass shatters, making it a poor choice for boaters, hikers and pretty much any other outdoor activity.

With this in mind, Grey Sail Brewing Company started out by investing in their own in-house canning line. When running, the line is able to package 60 cases of beer an hour. Brewers often measure output in barrels. One barrel equals 31 gallons, or about 13.78 (24) can cases. Do the arithmetic, and it comes out about four barrels per hour. With the annual production capacity currently at 5,000 barrels a year, and half of that going into cans, the canning line is very important indeed.

The drawback to canned beer has always been perception. Until recently, canned beer was thought to be of lesser quality but the world of beer has undergone something of a sea change. In addition to widespread acceptance by drinkers, canned beer has been embraced by most craft brewers as well. Canned beer now accounts for over 50% of packaged beer sold, and the trend is continuing.

Grey Sail Brewing Company Menu
Photo 1: The Grey Sail mantra.
Photo 2: Visitors can sample the various beers on tap and purchase beer at Grey Sail HQ in Westerly.

FORGING PARTNERSHIPS

Another Grey Sail inspiration has been the forging of partnerships with individual restaurants.

“We love working with these guys,” says Jennifer when referring to Hank Whiten at Pour Judgment, in Newport, or the folks at Avenue N, in Rumford. “We collaborate to create new recipes for beer, and then that beer becomes the signature beer for the restaurant.” That strategy recently resulted in the successful rollout of “Pour Judgment IPA” in cans.

“The response has been great,” says Whiten of Pour Judgment. “A trial run of 44 cases was distributed to 10 locations in Newport and Jamestown, and the reorders are already rolling in.”

“The beer is flying off the shelves,” says Nick Rabar from Avenue N. “We are proud of the quality, and very pleased with our relationship with Grey Sail Brewing Company.”

But it isn’t just restaurants and a taproom for Grey Sail Brewing Company. Sales reps Earl Whitford and Cara Lieffers have worked to expand markets in Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts. The runaway success of Captain’s Daughter Imperial IPA, made with pilsner malt and flaked oats, has nearly outpaced the order of operations.

“If we have a mantra, it is ‘Rhode Island first for everything,’” says Jennifer. That plays into the formula now, as Captain’s Daughter has become so popular, “that it has practically taken over,” jokes Assistant Brewer Michelle Kirms. Add to that the huge success of the India-style Third Anniversary Imperial Pale Lager, and you have a very busy brewery indeed.

The future looks bright. Alan will continue working full time at Rhodes Technologies in Coventry. Jen and the crew will handle the day-to-day production, and in coming years the brewery and crew will expand to the property next door with the goal of doubling their current capacity.


Grey Sail can be purchased at bars, restaurants and liquor stores around Rhode Island. Visit them at GreySailBrewing.com.

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