Jack Hendler’s life was all planned out. Then his phone rang. “My dad called me up and told me that he’d just sold the family business,” says Hendler, whose family had run the Saxony Ice Company out of Mamaroneck, New York for decades. “We hung up and I sat there and said to myself, ‘Oh crap, what am I going to do now?’” Searching for an answer, he went to talk to the men he’d always assumed would be his coworkers. He and his younger brothers settled on an idea: They’d make beer.
“I liked beer, so I figured, ‘Hey, I’m going to start brewing beer for a living,'” Hendler remembers.
Thing is, Jack hadn’t actually done much beer-making. “But I had a passion for the process,” he says. While his brothers pursued degrees and climbed the ladder in various corporations, Jack infiltrated the beer industry through internships then attended a series of training programs. Years passed and he was named Head Brewer at Boston Beer Works, a chain of pubs known for house ales. He finally had the resume. All he needed was his brothers.
Jack’s Abby Brewing celebrates its third anniversary this month and, yes, the Framingham, Massachusetts-based company now employs multiple Hendlers. Eric handles marketing and Sam handles sales. “Sam is the only one of us who isn’t totally socially awkward—he’s a bullshitter, I suppose,” says Hendler. “So we send him to convince people to buy our beer.” The youngest Hendler’s job is complicated by the fact that his older sibling founded an unusual brewery.
Jack’s Abby is the only craft beer producer in the country to brew only lagers, that long-fermenting, famously-crisp style of beer made famous by macro brewers like Budweiser and Coors and too-often disparaged by beer snobs. Essentially, the brother’s have decided to remind the world that mass-market light beers taste more like each other than like traditional lagers.
“Lager definitely doesn’t have to mean bland,” says Hendler. “The difference between ales and lagers is simply the yeast used.”
Lager yeast ferments at a colder temperature—about 50-degrees—and it takes about twice as long to ferment. The yeast imparts cleaner, crisper flavors. “We've used that to our advantage,” says Hendler. “We use that light flavor of the lager yeast to highlight the other ingredients in our beers: locally grown hops and malts.”
Abby’s flagship beer, Hoponius Union, is an India Pale Lager (IPL) that delivers a big, fruity hop bite with the crisp cleanliness of a lager. It’s an award-winning brew, and its taste has informed the brothers’ business plan. “We saw that not many places are being creative with lagers, so we made Hoponius early and the lager thing just sort of stuck,” says Hendler. “We knew we had to stand out, separate ourselves.”
If you’re wondering why more craft breweries aren't focusing on something as popular as lagers, it’s because the style is a hassle to produce. If Hendler switched to ales, he estimates he could immediately double his production. He won’t do it because he likes his niche and because he’s convinced he can change beer drinkers’ minds.
Jack’s stubbornness is beginning to pay off. He shipped 16,500 cases last year and is watching demand grow. He’s also inspiring other brewers. In Pennsylvania, Victory Brewing Company and Stoudt’s have released excellent traditional craft lagers. Further afield, Orange County’s Bruery and Denver’s Great Divide are experimenting with new varieties of the gold stuff.
With Jack's Abby's profile rising, Hendler says he and his brothers intend to keep pushing the boundaries on what a lager can taste like. “I’m glad that my dad sold the business,” he adds. “We’re just three brothers trying to beer it out. And selling beer is a lot more exciting than selling packaged ice.”
Photos by Bill Greene/The Boston Globe/Getty Images