Kent Beer Company

Partners in the Kent Beer Company, shown in the brewery taproom, are (from left) Ben Zombek, Betsy Kent, Ed Kent and Karol Marciano.

ANDOVER — Kent Beer Company recently marked its one-year anniversary. And while the celebration that owner Ed Kent and his business partners had hoped to use to mark the occasion won’t be happening anytime soon — ongoing COVID-19 restrictions put a damper on those plans — Kent is confident that the second year will go much smoother.

“It certainly hasn’t happened the way we envisioned it,” Kent said of the brewery’s first year in operation, and of his plans to commemorate the first year in business. “We were hoping for a big crowd, a celebration. But that’s going to have to wait. Hopefully, we can do something this summer.”

For now, Kent can look back and be happy his business survived during the pandemic. The struggles of bars and restaurants amid COVID-19 are well documented. Countless eating and drinking establishments have lost significant revenue — if they were fortunate enough to remain in business.

The same can be said for small privately owned breweries, which have felt the pain caused by COVID-induced restrictions on social gathering.

Kent knows this all too well. Following a months-long wait for approval from the state, Kent, with his partners — wife Betsy, aunt Karol Marciano and friend Ben Zombek — opened the doors to Kent Beer Company on Jan. 31, 2020.

It was the culmination of a decades-long pursuit of a dream for Kent, who began making beer in 1997 with hopes of someday opening his own brewery. Patrons crowded into the warm, intimate taproom located on Kent family farm property off Jones Road, enjoying a variety of brews that he had been working years to perfect.

A planned grand opening celebration never happened. On March 14, six weeks after welcoming his first customers, state regulations enacted over concerns of COVID spread forced Kent to close the taproom’s doors. Then, with several kegs of recently made beer waiting to be tapped, came the realization that the expected revenue stream from beer sales was now gone.

“It was about a week (after the closure of the taproom) and we were wondering what we could do to create sales,” Kent recalls. “We couldn’t have people in the taproom, but we got word (from the state) that we could do curbside sales.”

Kent put his phone number on the brewery website so people could call with orders. It wasn’t an ideal arrangement, as Kent was taking beer orders by phone during the day, when he typically works on the family farm. He eventually set up the website so people could place orders online.

Customers would drive into the brewery parking lot during regular business hours and pick up their filled growlers of beer.

The financial hit on Kent Beer Company wasn’t as great as it may have been on some similar businesses. Kent already owned the building where the taproom, brewing operation, and offices are located — in a renovated grain building behind his home.

“In some respects, we had it easier than some other breweries,” he said. “We had no rent to pay, no employees.”

Still, relying solely on curbside sales was stressful. “There were quite a few sleepless nights, but we said, ‘We’ll find a way to make it work.’”

As winter gave way to spring, business began to pick back up. Ed’s brother, Joe, runs Tall Pines ATV Park on the family farm property. When Tall Pines is open, riders — many of whom stay in campers and cabins on the park — represent a significant share of the brewery’s customer base. When business started to pick back in late spring/early summer, “we started brewing again like crazy. Throughout the summer it really picked up.”

Kent was eventually permitted to have outdoor seating, where patrons could enjoy beverages under a large tent or around a fire pit. Business, Kent notes, continues to rise and fall, and with the ride park closed for the winter months, sales have subsided to below pre-COVID levels.

“It’s been like a roller coaster. COVID slowed things down last spring, but it really picked up in the summer,” he said. “In October, when business at the ride park slowed down, it started tapering off again.”

Fortunately, state regulations now allow the taproom to remain open for customers. Kent, meanwhile, is doing what he enjoys most: brewing up a big variety of beers. Among the beers he has brewed over the last year: a pumpkin ale, a raspberry blond ale, and an IPA brewed with spruce tips.

“Blackberry Wheat has been a huge hit,” he says of the beer brewed with wild blackberries picked from a patch in an old Christmas tree field on the farm. All told, Kent Beer Company has brewed 14 different beers, which represent quite a variety, from ales, pale ales and IPAs, to stouts, a lager, a kolsch and a bock.

Kent has tapped some newer beers: Sledge-O-Matic (an imperial stout) and Tasty Brown Ale. The former won him a silver medal in a home brewing competition he entered in 2016.

“I had dreamed of opening a brewery,” he said. “Winning that medal gave me the confidence to know I could succeed. That’s when I knew it was more than a far-fetched dream.”

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