One positive side effect of the pandemic has been the arrival of new people from outside the region who have chosen to relocate more permanently to the Berkshires. This has not only continued to slow our region’s population decline but has added to the ranks of Berkshire entrepreneurs. People with skills, business concepts, and know-how developed in other communities are putting them into practice here in our region, finding opportunities and support in the form of communities and agencies eager to help them get started. The result is a number of new businesses that add to the landscape of commerce here in the Berkshires, and new Berkshire residents enjoying quality of life, an abundance of outdoor recreation, and cultural engagement opportunities that the Berkshires offer. I spoke to a few of these entrepreneurs; each has a story and words of wisdom to share. Below, please find remarks from Kat Hand of Berkshire Cider Project, Mike Dell’Aquila of Hot Plate Brewing Company, and Charlotte Underwood of Rebelle.
1B: Before starting your business in the Berkshires, where were you living and what were you working on?
Kat: My husband and business partner Matt Brogan and I moved to Washington, D.C. in October,2017, and had been splitting our time between DC and the Berkshires until earlier this year. We are now full-time Berkshires residents! Matt and I were both engaged in other fields for many years before starting the cidery. Matt worked for more than 10 years as a theater planning and design consultant. His projects include the recently opened 600-seat, multi-tiered opera house for the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University, the Eccles Theater in Salt Lake City and The Anthem in Washington DC. I have a background in the non-profit and corporate sustainability space. Most recently I was head of global sustainability communications at HP Inc. as well as lead liaison between the corporate sustainability team and the company’s finance group. We both loved our previous careers and hope to return to them in some form or fashion in the future. But for now, we do not miss being stuck behind a computer all day!
Mike: My wife (Hot Plate’s Head Brewer Sarah Real]) and I had been living in Brooklyn for the last 14 years. Sarah has had a long career in media research and consumer insights, primarily for Kids & Family networks like Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon. I’ve been a little more of a chameleon. I also started out in cable television before working as a copywriter for a few retail companies and shifting into the sustainability world, working first as a creative director and more recently as a municipal sales director.
Charlotte: Early in my career I was a social justice advocate working on a variety of issues related to poverty and hunger relief – always with a focus on women and children, including building urban farms in San Francisco and training homeless women to farm organic produce. I also raised the money to help start a daycare program for homeless children whose mothers were victims of domestic violence. I went on to a career in finance, spending a decade at Goldman Sachs, and then subsequently spent another decade in the family real estate business before founding Community Growth Partners which blends my expertise in finance with my interest and passion for the cannabis industry. I have always believed in the healing powers of this plant and am very excited to expand into this category with Rebelle, our cannabis retail experience and the other products and services we’ll be launching this year.
1B: Starting a business is a big deal and a lot of work. What made you decide to take the plunge?
Kat: Cidermaking had been a hobby and passion for both of us for several years before we decided to conceive of the business. We started making cider in our small Brooklyn apartment – taking over our single closet to ferment and age gallon jugs of cider – we even made 50 gallons of cider for our wedding in 2017! Our passion grew as we learned more about the burgeoning world of craft fine cider, and when we moved to D.C. we began to toy with the idea of starting a small business – taking cider-making courses, cidery startup classes, and drinking as much cider as we could. The idea really clicked when we connected with the folks at Greylock WORKS in North Adams – their commitment to incubating small food-based businesses seemed a perfect fit. So, in early 2019 we signed a lease and got to planning.
Mike: Sarah first fell in love with craft beer during a cross-country road trip we took together back in 2005. We didn’t really know how to get into the industry – and there wasn’t as much of an “industry” back then as there is today – so it was something that was in the back of our minds for a long time. In 2017, Sarah started thinking more seriously about getting into craft beer. Both of us had been homebrewing for a few years at that point, but Sarah wanted to take it to the next level. During this same time period, there was a code violation in our condo building and we lost heat, hot water, and a functioning stove. We went out to get a hot plate so we could keep brewing, but we believed that this would be a dream placed on the back burner once again. Then COVID-19 hit, and we were stuck in this really awful apartment and kind of bottomed out. Like everyone else in NYC, we were initially freaked out by what was going on all around us, and we were also getting really sick of taking cold showers. With an influx of free time and literally nowhere else to go, we started thinking more seriously about what would be required to start a brewery. We definitely didn’t come up with all the answers then – and we’re still learning to this day – but we knew that we wouldn’t be able to go back to life as we knew it and started making an exit strategy in spring of 2020.
Charlotte: Well, there are a lot of reasons that starting a business is appealing, especially in cannabis – we’re helping shape a completely new industry here on the east coast and helping change peoples’ hearts and minds about this plant. We’ve used this plant as a weapon to hurt communities; I’ve seen it firsthand in my decades working on homeless and hunger issues. So the prospect of being able to bring a significant focus on social equity and social justice to this emerging industry was a big part of what drew me to cannabis. Conscientious capitalism is our way of doing business. It’s hard work but we’re all dedicated to our social purpose and I’m so fortunate to have a great team all committed to our corporate values.
1B: Tell us about your business. What are you proud of, and what makes it unique?
Kat: I am proud of a lot of aspects of our business. Because we came from very different careers, it’s been really rewarding to see how this business is allowing us to apply our skills in new ways. Matt designed our space (including building many of the furnishings) and applies his creativity to design all of our labels and marketing. I am finding it really rewarding to apply my communications and business background to this project, and to help instill values of sustainability and social impact into our business from the very beginning. We published our first sustainability report in April! I am also proud of the product that we make: fine, hard cider from local and imported apples. All our ciders are bone dry and sparkling, similar in profile to a white wine. We really aimed to create a sophisticated, modern product that celebrates the Berkshires. When we think about what we love here – the arts, the culture, the natural beauty, the strong sense of community and our rich agricultural sector – we want to express all of that through our product. In that vein, I want to thank our many local partners. From our local orchard partners (Hilltop Orchards, Windy Hill Farm); to the many restaurants and stores that stock our cider (see our website for more details); to the cultural institutions where we forage for apples (The Mount, The Clark), maintain orchards (Hancock Shaker Village) and have planted new orchards (Arrowhead). We love working together with all our partners to celebrate the Berkshires. Lastly, I am proud to be growing this business in the Berkshires, creating new jobs, and contributing to our local economy.
Mike: Besides our personal story of overcoming pretty terrible living conditions, one of the things we also discovered through this process is just how homogenous the craft beer industry has become. We knew that there was a lack of diversity, but we didn’t realize that male brewery owners outnumber female ones 3-to-1, or that only 2.2% of all breweries in the U.S. are owned by individuals of Latin descent. Even in the earliest incarnations of our business plan, we were making it our mission to make craft beer more inclusive, we just didn’t know how necessary that work really was. Beyond that mission, we’re also proud of the work we’ve put in to make sure our product is of the highest quality as well. In addition to winning a homebrewing award in 2021, Sarah has been continuing her education through Pink Boots Society scholarships and she also completed a mentorship program through the Brewers Association in Fall 2021. At that same time, I was also participating in the EForAll Fall 2021 Business Accelerator program.
Charlotte: I see all of us in the cannabis industry as change makers, and as a woman and a mother, I feel I have a special place in the public discourse about cannabis. Community Growth Partners, the holding company I founded as a sort of social experiment I call “just capitalism,” is all about finding new ways to do business and solve social problems at the same time. I believe that for-profit enterprises can also be engines for social and economic change – just like traditional institutions such as non-profit philanthropic organizations or government which we’ve always turned to in our society. Our social purpose – to be a part of repairing the harm that the war on drugs caused – is fully integrated into the day-to-day operations of our business.
Through our strategic alliance with our nonprofit partner ROCA, we are creating pathways into the cannabis industry and opportunities for building careers and wealth together, while employing adjudicated young men and women affected by cannabis prohibition. And finally, despite being a fairly young company, we offer an employee stock program for everyone at CGP to earn equity, one they can leverage for benefit during their entire employment at the company. All employees – even hourly and part time – earn stock every quarter.
1B: Why is the Berkshires the right place for your business?
Kat: I grew up in New York City and Toronto. But, since I was born, summers and weekends were spent in the Berkshires. It’s a special place for both Matt and me. We got married in October 2017 at MASS MoCA and had our rehearsal dinner at Cricket Creek Farm, so when we thought about starting this business, it made so much sense to start it here. After all, this is apple country. We are just about to release the second vintage of our Community Cider Project, made from wild foraged and donated apples from all over the county. We also saw an opportunity here – we have great local beer, local spirits, but not much in the way of local cider. With our focus on dry, fine cider we felt there was an open space in the market that we could fill. Our customers are both residents and visitors, but everyone shares a love of the Berkshires, and we want to help them celebrate that!
Mike: When we started thinking about where we would start the brewery, we ruled out Brooklyn almost immediately. The capital requirements alone would’ve been too big a hurdle to clear. We knew that we wanted to find a place that had a better mixture of access to the outdoors and cultural programs, and so the Berkshires jumped out to us as having a great combination of both. Then we started doing a quantitative analysis and discovered that the county was significantly underserved from a craft beer perspective.
Using some of Sarah’s day-job skills, we were able to put together a demographic analysis of what the average craft beer consumer looks like, and we also looked at how many breweries there were in Massachusetts (221, at the time) and how comparatively few there were in the Berkshires. We called up 1Berkshire to put our hypothesis to the test, and through several members of the team, we were able to look at a few different towns and properties and ultimately settled on Downtown Pittsfield. We wanted to have an urban taproom attached to the brewery, and we also found a real champion in the City of Pittsfield, which offered us a generous economic incentives package to bring our business here. In anticipation for the buildout and launch, we moved up to the area last summer and haven’t looked back.
Charlotte: I believe that the Berkshires could become a destination for people interested in cannabis, similar to other regional-specific industries. If we, as an industry, work together, we can do a lot to promote the area as the East Coast destination like Napa and Sonoma in California have done for wine. There is a lot of promise here, and we want to help make sure that remains true as we expand as a company.
1B: What advice would you give someone just moving to the Berkshires to start their own business?
Kat: We are so thankful for all the support and encouragement we have received from our community – from the North Adams city government, to the food and beverage sector, to organizations like Berkshire Grown and Berkshire Agricultural Ventures, and individuals who show up to donate apples and ask great questions about our cider. My advice is to tap into organizations in your sector, relevant government agencies, and other businesses and find out what resources exist. We have found that a lot of these resources come by word-of-mouth, so get out there and share your story, your vision, and your challenges. You may be surprised how many folks want to help or know where to point you.
Mike: Go for it. Honestly. The amount of support and excitement we have received from the community has completely blown us away. There’s such an appetite for new and novel things, and there’s also a real commitment from public institutions to make those dreams realities. Part of why we picked downtown Pittsfield is because we already see an iconic American Main Street today – and it doesn’t take much imagination to see how thriving this could be once more businesses start opening up. Beyond downtown Pittsfield, we feel like this whole county is going through a really exciting period. We understand that the pandemic slowed progress a bit, but as we start moving into a post-COVID world, there’s going to be so much opportunity to connect with a new generation of full-time residents and tourists alike.
Charlotte: Regarding cannabis specifically, the Berkshires offers more opportunity to break into this industry. For us, we aren’t as concerned about competition, but we’re more focused on collaboration. If you look at the Berkshires as a cannabis destination, have a broad vision of what is right for your company, your employees, and the community.
1B: What do you want people to know about you or your business?
Kat: Cider isn’t just for the fall season! With its light and refreshing profile, Berkshire Cider Project’s fine, hard ciders are the perfect accompaniment to an evening on the Tanglewood lawn, or a leisurely backyard barbecue with friends. All of Berkshire Cider Project’s ciders are dry and sparkling. They may remind you of white wine or even champagne. Also, come visit us! Our tasting room and bottle shop are open at Greylock Works in North Adams. We are right next door to The Break Room (fantastic spot for breakfast, lunch and dinner), and the Distillery (excellent hand crafted gins and rums). We offer cider by the glass, flights and bottles to go. Most days both Matt and I are there and we love to chat and answer questions! We are also partnering with Common Folk Artist Collective and Greylock Works to present free music and other performances on Monday nights. Check out our social media for regular updates.
Mike: For us, inclusivity is not just paying lip service to an of-the-moment conversation, nor do we want to practice tokenism and simply trot out Sarah because she is a Latina brewer and brewery owner. Our commitment to making Hot Plate a welcoming and inclusive place manifests itself in a few very specific ways. For one thing, we’re going to be pursuing a Pub Brewer’s License, which prevents us from self-distributing like a Farmer Brewery can, but it will allow us to serve wine and cider at our brewery, which we want to offer to individuals who either have a gluten intolerance, allergy, or are just not fans of craft beer for whatever reason. We are also experimenting with non-alcoholic beers. When it comes to the beers themselves, we have a strategy that tries to offer the greatest variety for the greatest number of beer drinkers. While some breweries might elect to specialize, we are dividing our tap list into thirds, which will allow us to offer more affordable, classic European styles, crowd pleasers and more experimental styles that will hopefully appeal to beer nerds and novices. For that experimental line, we have beers like Sarah’s signature chamomile blonde ale, and our jalapeño pale ale.
Lastly, we will be introducing a “Community Line” where one of our beers will also be in support of a mission-aligned non-profit organization, and the proceeds from these beers will go directly to the causes we support and believe in. We’ve already supported fundraisers for the Berkshire Immigrant Center and the Zion Lutheran Church of Pittsfield, and we’ll be looking to do much more of that in the months and years to come.
Charlotte: We’re completing the construction of a 25,000-square foot cannabis cultivation and manufacturing facility opening in Northampton. This summer we’ll be rolling out a white glove delivery service across all of Massachusetts. I’m most excited about new product development, and we’ll be releasing our line of THC microdose mists, HALØ, this summer. We’ll also be expanding Rebelle retail locations in other states nationwide where marijuana is legal, including New York, Boston and Illinois.
These business owners all found themselves in the Berkshires for different reasons, but what they found here was a community willing to embrace them and their businesses. New and persisting businesses in a variety of industries speak to the relative health of a regional economy, and these are just a few adding to the rich tapestry that is commerce in the Berkshires. This diversity makes our economy stronger and more resilient in the face of challenges that may come in the future, and it also helps make our community a more vibrant, interesting, and fun place to live.
If you’re thinking of starting a business or moving your business to the Berkshires, reach out to 1Berkshire for a free business consultation. We’d love to talk with you!
Editor’s note: Kevin Pink is Deputy Director of Economic Development for 1Berkshire.