Morse Road

Tim Morse's long trek through the history of craft brewing led him to the founding brewer's role at John Harvard's, where he's survived through the good years and the bad and can't wait to see what happens next

by Jack Curtin
CELEBRATOR BEER NEWS
Aug/Sept 2006

The seeds for Tim Morse's three-decade journey through modern American beer history were planted on a ten-speed bike in college and took him to the West Coast just in time to be part of, and have a ringside seat for, the beginning of the craft brewing revolution, before going back East just as the revolution was taking hold there. All of that turned out to be a prelude to a long and ongoing career with the John Harvard's chain, where he is currently helping the company move in a new direction despite having "retired" a couple of years back.

"It's great to be still involved, to see the industry rebounding, to hear all the positive stories from various parts of the country these days," he says. "This is, what, the second, maybe the third generation… I can't even tell what generation we're in any more. I'm amazed at the resiliency people have, at the way this business keeps on going."

Morse's brewing career officially began at San Francisco's Anchor Brewing in 1977, inspired by the former college roommate with whom the New Jersey native roamed the highways and byways of Wisconsin in search of good beers from the likes of Steven's Point, Huber and Leinenkugel. "He'd just gotten a job and Anchor and called to say they were hiring," Morse recalls. "I was a grad student in education at Rutgers and decided that a career shift might be in order."

Morse stayed at Anchor for nine years, becoming head brewer in 1993. Over that period, he saw the rise and fall of New Albion and the opening of Sierra Nevada, Mendocino and Buffalo Bill's in California, plus the early harbingers of the West Coast epicenter moving northward: Bert Grant's, Redhook, Hair of the Dog and Bridgeport. "Fritz [Maytag] had this concept that everybody ought to learn how to do everything in the traditional European fashion," he recalls. "We were crossed-trained in every department. I started in the bottle shop and went to the cellar and the lab and eventually the brewhouse. It was hard work, but we were learning and we were making world-class beer. Eventually I also got to take Master Brewer courses in Wisconsin and later at Seibel. Anchor was a great place to learn."

An offer from Hope Brewing, an ambitious but short-lived Rhode Island contract brewer, brought Morse back East in 1986, right in the middle of another watershed period. New Amsterdam had introduced the concept of contract brewing into for the nascent East Coast mix in 1982 and Boston Brewing began perfecting that idea two years later, just as Manhattan Brewing opened the East's first brewpub. And, as Morse was moving his family across the country, D. L. Geary's, destined to become the oldest surviving microbrewery east of the Mississippi, was being born in Portland, Maine.

During a three year run at Hope, Morse experienced a bit of brewing's past while seeking his place in its emerging future. Hope beers were brewed at The Lion in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and he would drive down from Providence every couple of weeks to supervise brewing and bottling in the 80-plus year old plant. Days at The Lion were "interesting," he says with a laugh. "Most of the guys there knew that this sort of work was going to keep the place open and their jobs going, but I had to deal with one or two old school guys who were just cranky and didn't want to be told what to do. Asking them for a gravity reading at the start of boil, for example, was considered just a complete freakin' waste of time by them. They were used to running to volume and then doing their dilution later on and never having to worry about starting gravities and were annoyed when. I kinda wanted to know what my measly little 300bbl batch was going to come out like. Most of the really old timers, though, were fascinating and had great stories to tell."

Eventually, Morse was offered the head brewing position at The Lion. Twice. "Billy Smulowitz was trying to sell the place and had an interested buyer but his brewer had just quit, so he offered me the job. Then the deal fell through. Later he found another buyer and came to me again, but I figure it just wasn't the place for me. I will say, there was this young guy in the lab who really impressed me. If I'd gotten the head brewer job, I was going to make him my assistant first thing." Neatly enough, that was Leo Orlandini, who become head brewer at The Lion in 1995 and was named Mid-Size Brewery Brewmaster of the Year at GABF 1999, one year before Morse was chosen Large Brewpub Brewmaster of the Year in 2000.

With Hope Brewing winding down in 1989, Morse took on the position of head brewer at Commonwealth in Boston, the first brewpub in Massachusetts. It was there that he met Grenville Byford & Gary Gut, the co-founders of John Harvard's, in 1992. "They had developed a plan, starting with the creation of the John Harvard's brand at a site in Cambridge where they wanted to add a brewpub to an existing restaurant, and expanding it from there. They also approached Northeast brewpubs like Commonwealth about either a partnership or outright acquisition and eventually did end up buying Union Station in Rhode Island. At Commonwealth, deciding what to do about the proposal turned into an internal struggle between the owners, as most things did in those days. Harvard's made me an offer and I jumped ship. I knew they were going to do a bunch of interesting stuff."

Interesting stuff indeed. With Morse at the kettle, the first John Harvard's opened in Harvard Square in Cambridge in 1992 and took off. Over the next few years, the company acquired Union Station and opened a third location in nearly Framingham. An infusion of capital from a venture capital group in the mid-'90s led to a wave of expansion over a two year span: new pubs in Wayne, Springfield and Pittsburgh, Penna.; Atlanta and Roswell, Ga.; Cleveland, Ohio; Wilmington, Del., and Washington, DC. By 1999, there were 14 Harvard's locations. "It was incredibly exhausting," Morse recalls. "At one point , we were opening a pub every month. Worse, we went into some locations that we probably never should have considered." Byford & Gut sold the company in 2000 and new ownership reaped the financial disaster of too-much-too-soon, filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2004.

Several of those "should never have considered" locations were shuttered in the process, and the current owners, Boston Culinary Group, now have a leaner, meaner chain which includes the Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania locations as well as ones in Manchester, Conn. and Lake Grove, NY. And, depending on how strictly you define the term "brewpub," a ninth location at the Jiminy Creek ski resort in Hancock, Mass. That site, and others like it, are the key to the future for the company, says Morse, who's been there through it all, despite almost hanging up his boots last fall. "I'm the man who never left," he laughs, "I stepped back from brewing last fall to move into consulting, but when Harvard's started to crank up this new project, I came back on board. Now I'm sort of a utility brewer, going where I'm needed, keeping things running and working on the new stuff. It was easier to take me back on board than pay me a consulting fee."

The new project is a program to add the John Harvard's brand and beers to various recreation venues that Boston Culinary manages-ski resorts, stadiums, concert sites, even the ferryboat from Cape Cod to Martha's Vineyard-via ersatz brewpubs which have all the Harvard's ambiance and beers but no on-premises brewhouse. "It's not simple thing, because nobody wants to take valuable restaurant space from the locations," Morse explains, "and none of our existing sites are really set up to support off-premises production. For now, the beer at Jiminy Peak is being brewed in Framingham and contract brewed at New England Brewing. We might look at building a separate brewery if the concept takes off. Way back in the '90s, management came to me and asked about doing that, but when I started mentioning square footage and equipment and cooperage, the talk stopped pretty quickly. Right now, we'll se how Jiminy Creek goes. We're also looking at some other locations where we may do something without any 'official' change, just get the beer and the tap handles in there. It's challenging, I'll say that…and fun."

In fact, it's all been fun, Tim Morse says. Asked for his perspective on three decades in craft brewing, he tells a story from his days at The Lion. "I remember an old German brewer, a guy who was 64 years old, saying to me, 'holy shit, I'm still learning.' I have that same sense of amazement myself these days. And I'm just waiting for the next big thing to happen."

Copyright (c) 2006 Jack Curtin


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