With a collection of restaurants as its base, Big Oyster Brewery found quick success in the ultra-competitive world of craft beer
It didn’t take long for Big Oyster Brewery to hit it big in the competitive world of craft beer brewing.
Big Oyster is the creation of Jeff Hamer, who also owns Fins Hospitality Group, which operates restaurants in Rehoboth Beach, Lewes and Bethany Beach in Sussex County and also in Berlin, Md. Hamer already had the food and he wanted to create beer that would go with that food. And as a pleasant surprise, what started out as small operation has become a big one — in 2018 Big Oyster was recognized as the second-fastest growing brewery operation in the U.S.
In 2005, in its first year of existence, Big Oyster Brewery shipped 500 barrels of beer. In 2020, it shipped 4,000 barrels and the company estimates it will ship 5,000 in 2021.
Big Oyster has done all of that while clinging to its Sussex County roots and never straying too far from home.
Hamer emphasizes a family atmosphere with his employees, including Andrew Harton, his director of brewery operations. Harton was a psychology and philosophy major at the University of Delaware who got into home brewing. He decided he wanted to make that his career and got a job waiting tables at Iron Hill Brewery and eventually worked his way up to assistant, then head brewer.
Harton then headed south to Sussex County when he was hired by Hamer to be head brew master, and now he wears many hats for the growing company.
Hamer and Harton sat down for an interview with Out & About Magazine to discuss their phenomenal growth and their hopes for the future. For more information on locations and variety of beers, go to www.FinsHospitality.com.
O&A: You already had successful restaurants that sold other people’s beers. What made you decide to start making your own?
Hamer: “I always liked pairing food with beer, and once the craft beer industry started you could really see the evolution of food to beer, as opposed to just food to wine. Once we got into seafood in 2005, I knew I wanted to brew beer that would be compatible with seafood.”
O&A: Craft brewing is a very competitive business. Did already owning those restaurants give you a leg up when you started to brew your beer?
Hamer: “It really did. I gave us an outlet to sell our beer. And it also gave us a distribution point to start getting our beer out into the marketplace. When you have 40,000-50,000 customers per business year to each restaurant, that’s a lot of people you can put your beer in front of and let them try your beer and see how they like it. So, that gave us a good foothold to start, and having a good reputation in the restaurant industry allowed us to start distributing, too.”
O&A: What is your process for developing new beers?
Harton: “For me, it’s kind of evolved over the years. When I first started, it was very mechanical. I was always into beer history and was big into replicating something by looking at what people did in the past and trying to match ingredients. I started getting away from that when I came to Big Oyster Brewery. Then it became a little more like, ‘This ingredient sounds good and let’s do that,’ and now we experiment a lot more. It’s like you’ve been doing something for a long time, and you’re not necessarily bored with it, but you want to expand your horizons and become more experimental and less methodical. A lot of brewers are like that — they want something to be theirs, they want to create something original.”
O&A: From the very beginning, your biggest seller has been Hammerhead IPA. What makes that beer special?
Harton: “That beer is near and dear to me, because it’s the first recipe we made when I started here. I knew I wanted to make a West Coast IPA, which is a little more dry and clear, and has a really pronounced aroma and just a little bit of bitterness. It’s just a great beer for so many occasions.”
O&A: You’ve grown steadily since you started and now have plans to expand more into Pennsylvania and Maryland. Is there any concern you might be growing too much, too quickly?
Hamer: “From the very beginning, we saw we couldn’t stretch out too far. In the craft beer industry, people want local, and even more so now — it’s become hyper local. And I always considered local for us to be 150-200 miles from here. My goal was, if we could get as many tap handles as we could along the coast and everybody tried it, then when they go back home they could get it at a local package store. So, about 200 miles is our sweet-spot radius, and that 200-mile drive has close to 20 million people in it and that’s a pretty good segment of the market. We don’t want to be any farther than that.”
Harton: “I think a mistake a lot of brewers make is that they go too far and their brand starts to lose its relevance. They go into territories 500 miles away, and that gives them a chance to sell more beer, but at a certain point it’s really difficult for someone in Ohio to relate to your brand in Rehoboth Beach, especially if they’ve never been there or even heard of it. But we’re not even close to running into that issue — we’re still very close to home when you consider the amount of beer we make.”
O&A: Many of your employees have been with you for many years, and several workers who started out as bus boys and waiters are now executives in the company. Why is that two-way loyalty so important to you?
Hamer: “It’s always been our goal to keep people in the company. Next month, we start a 401k for the company. We’ve always had paid vacations — if you get to 15 years with us, you get five weeks of paid vacation — and we have health insurance, we have bonuses. We try to make the place a family — the Fins family we call it. Our motto is a rising tide lifts all in our company, and we really believe that. And if we can grow our family, we can help grow a stronger community, and that’s always been a priority with us.”
O&A: The Covid-19 pandemic has affected everybody, and especially people in the hospitality business. How has it impacted your business and how have you coped with it?
Harton: “In terms of the restaurant side of things, it’s definitely been more difficult. But in terms of the actual beer-making, it really just changed our business model. We went from being draft-beer-heavy [selling to restaurants] and, of course, the pandemic has closed a lot of those restaurants or they have limited seating, so draft beer dropped off the cliff. At the same time, there was really a spike in demand for packaged beer. People were staying at home and picking up their food and buying beer at liquor stores. So, we really saw a shift in our business. It did limit our growth a little bit in 2020, but it didn’t really affect us much at all.”
O&A: Looking into your crystal ball, where do you see Big Oyster Brewing in the next 10 years?
Hamer: “I can see us having a much bigger beer selection. And I think we’ll be the strongest regional player within 200 miles from here in 10 years, probably right behind Dogfish Head in this market. If we can do a tenth of what they’re doing or even a twentieth of what they’re doing, then we’ll become very successful and be very good at what we’re doing.”
— Photos provided.