It’s a scary time to be the operator of a young craft brewery. Even when operating on a very small scale, we have entered an era when success and growth are no longer the general rule in the beer industry, regardless of the quality of a brewery’s product. As growth of the segment comes screeching to a halt, but new brewery openings continue unabated, the math just doesn’t add up. It makes one thing clear: Unless something changes real quick, there are going to be casualties. Numerous casualties.
This week, we’ve been given a rather unusual example in the form of a new Illinois brewery that was in operation for a scant 84 days from the time it opened its doors to the time it announced its closure. Much has been made of the difficulties faced by the beer industry’s veterans—the Sierra Nevadas and New Belgiums of the world, as they face a cooling market and ever more competition—but the fate of Addison, IL’s Seery Athlone Brewing Co. shows just how quickly things can turn south for a brand new business as well. Kudos to the great Illinois beer website Guys Drinking Beer for the heads up on this one.
It was only Dec. 7, 2018 when Seery Athlone, named for the Irish heritage of its owners, announced its grand opening.
A few days ago, the closure announcement came, although the wording makes it sound as if the brewery may actually have been closed since February, which would make the total time the brewery was in operation even shorter. All in all, Seery Athlone was likely only around long enough to brew a handful of batches of commercial beer.
We can’t speak to the quality of product, in a case like this. Unsurprisingly, we’d never heard of the brewery until just now, but the fact that a new brewery can come and go so quickly in 2019 is enough to give one pause. If you’re currently in the process of trying to get a new craft brewery open, this certainly isn’t the kind of news you’re going to be thrilled to read.
With that said, there are some unusual aspects to the Seery Athlone story that more likely than not factored into the closure. Back in September of 2018, company owner James Stephen was sent a publicly available warning letter from the FDA in reference to his other business, Pharmaceutical Laboratories and Consultants—where Stephen is listed as President. That warning letter states something rather revealing—that Stephen was operating his brewery in the same building as his pharmaceutical testing facility, within feet of one another. Suffice to say, that’s not the sort of thing the FDA approves of. According to the full text of the letter:
In addition, our inspection revealed that you were operating a microbrewery in space shared with your contract testing laboratory where you test OTC drug products and components. You prepared and stored microbiology laboratory media in the same area you use to conduct brewery operations.
For example, our investigators observed a full fermenter located approximately 10 feet from the space where media is prepared, warmed, and stored. A brewery employee was also preparing beer kegs in this area. In addition, laboratory test media, open beer bottles, and brewing materials were co-mingled within the same refrigerator.
These facility conditions pose unacceptable risks, including contamination of media during its preparation and compromised sample analyses. Conducting your testing operations in a space shared with a microbrewery is inappropriate and does not comply with CGMP. Your testing must be performed using facilities that are designed and controlled for drug laboratory testing.
We’re not exactly experts in biochemistry over here, but we’re pretty sure that placing a beer fermenter 10 feet away from where you’re doing pharmaceutical testing is probably a bad idea both for the drugs and the beer, with an obvious risk of cross-contamination.
So yes—perhaps Seery Athlone’s closure was more a matter of questionable organization than it is a referendum on the viability of young breweries in a slowing beer scene. Or perhaps it’s a little bit of both. Regardless, we’re sorry for the brewery’s local fans, who may have lost a watering hole with a potential to become a local staple.
As for all the other young breweries out there, we can only say “good luck” in weathering the coming storm. Also: If you’re doing pharmaceutical testing next to your fermenters, you’re probably going to want to rethink a couple aspects of your business.