This article first appeared in The Alt on March 14, 2017.
If you were waiting for another reason to spend some quality time in North Adams, your wait is over. The little city at the northern edge of the Berkshires is in the midst of a major resurgence. It’s home to the largest contemporary arts center in the country, serves as a gateway to the highest peak in the Commonwealth, and was recently highlighted as a finalist for a national competition by the Small Business Revolution. If the contemporary art found at MASS MoCA is not your bag, that’s OK. The city boasts baseball, trains, the Mohawk Trail, and since last spring, a cool new spot for hop lovers – Bright Ideas Brewing.
The microbrewery and taproom sits at the outer edge of the MASS MoCA campus, facing Marshall Street and looking onward toward the city’s downtown. Nearly one year in, Bright Ideas has become a hub for local beer lovers, beer tourists, and the MASS MoCA visitors seeking refreshment.
The Brewery is the brainchild of co-founders Orion Howard and Eric Kerns. At the start, the duo envisioned a gathering space with accessible craft brews that would appeal to the North Adams resident and the museum visitor. In speaking about the original concept, Kerns recommends a book, The Great Good Place by Ray Oldenburg, which was published in the late 1980s by Da Capo Press. Oldenburg, a sociologist, describes the importance of the “third place,” beyond home and work, that neighborhoods need to thrive. Bookstores, barbershops, bars, and cafes have all served as informal public gathering spaces for conversation, decompression, and civic engagement. And so too does Bright Ideas’ taproom.
Howard notes that there are more than 50 local regulars who stop into Bright Ideas once or twice a week. “It’s great to watch them giving advice, directing tourists and museum visitors to hidden spots like Natural Bridge.” (Natural Bridge State Park, which is on the eastern edge of the city, is home to a stunning marble quarry with a naturally-formed arch of white marble.) The beer is popular, of course, but the communal, beer-bonding, local watering hole experience is just as important, if not more so.
The taproom itself is fun, bright, welcoming. The industrial look and feel of the place will be familiar to MASS MoCA regulars, but Bright Ideas has its own charm. As for what’s popular, Howard mentions the Red, Wheat, ESB, and the 3x IPA. No cute, clever names. No frills. Just straight-shooting. According to their marketing material, they’re about “accessible, affable, quaffable brews that inspire conversation, creativity, and community.” Chris Post, founder of Wandering Star Brewing in Pittsfield, serves as brewmaster, and the quality of beer stands on its own.
By all accounts, the first year exceeded their expectations. “The community has wrapped their arms around a local product,” says Kerns, who serves as manager of Bright Ideas. “And it’s the first place where locals and MASS MoCA visitors are truly sitting next to each other and talking.”
The benefit of being part of the MASS MoCA universe cannot be overstated. Bright Ideas pulls from the influx of museum visitors in the afternoon, concert and event patrons in the evening, and the hundreds of employees who work at the museum or in the 30-plus businesses located within the complex during weekdays. “It’s not uncommon for the last meetings of the day [to] take place in the taproom,” Kerns says. Weekends are brisk as well because of the museum’s ability to draw an audience. “We open at noon on Saturdays. By 1 o’clock, the taproom is full and it remains full until around 6:00,” Howard explains. “Then it empties out before filling back up at 7:00 in advance of a concert or performance at MASS MoCA.” Combined with the local regulars, this gives Bright Ideas a solid foundation of customers and keeps the taps flowing. Recently, they’ve begun to see people drive to North Adams specifically for the brewery. “When we said that people would eventually come for the taproom and stay for MASS MoCA, we were laughed at,” Howard notes, “but it’s happened. We have customers who travel from Albany or Turner Falls for the beer and then decide to stay for the art.”
As far as marketing, Bright Ideas relies mainly on word of mouth and Facebook. The colorful, eye-catching logo and branding was created by ID29 in Troy. When they were discussing the brand with ID29, two things were essential – North Adams had to be represented, and the brand and space had to be female-friendly. The future of craft beer is female: Kerns notes that women are the fastest growing segment of beer enthusiasts. “The idea that they’re just following their boyfriends and husbands is bullshit,” he says.
The beer is carried at nearly a dozen restaurants in the Berkshires, and Bright Ideas often plays a part in concert series or downtown events. They’re careful to note that the distribution is for marketing purposes. For now and the immediate future, they remain focused on the taproom experience. “If we doubled the volume of taproom sales, we’d have a sustainable model forever,” Howard adds.
Bright Ideas will celebrate their anniversary on Father’s Day, which just so happens to coincide with MASS Beer Week. Then it’s on to summer, which will bring the opening of MASS MoCA’s Building 6 project and Solid Sound, the Wilco festival at MASS MoCA that draws nearly 10,000 to the campus. Together with the revival of the Redwood Motel (a project that Kerns is also involved in) and the opening of the Extreme Model Railroad Museum, the summer will be busiest that North Adams has seen in decades. Kerns and Howard are hunkering down, preparing for a bustling taproom and kegs upon kegs. Kerns’ credo for the summer sums it up: “Be open, be ready, and see what happens.”
Update: More photos added after snow ended.