By Ed Brennen
The idea began to ferment in Steffen Johnson’s mind during the long, quiet hours standing guard at his U.S. Army base in Herat, Afghanistan.
What would the tap room look like? What kind of beers would I offer? How would I even go about learning how to run my own brewery?
As an infantry team leader based out of Fort Riley, Kan., Johnson began home-brewing beer a year before he was deployed to Afghanistan in 2011 as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.
“You’ve got a lot of time on your hands when you’re pulling guard, so I started thinking it would be cool to open up a brewery,” recalls Johnson, a native of Rehoboth.
When Johnson returned home from combat in 2012, he set out to make his daydream a reality. Seven years later, he is preparing to graduate from the Manning School of Business this spring with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. In the fall, he and fellow Rehoboth native Daniel DiRienzo plan to open their hometown’s first brewery, Anawan Brewing Company.
“I feel my degree here has really set me up for everything.”
“I’m excited, but I don’t think it’s real at this point until it actually happens,” says Johnson, who signed a three-year lease on a 2,000-square-foot space in a new shopping plaza that’s scheduled to break ground in March.
Johnson’s already gone before the town and received unanimous approval to open his startup brewery. The final hurdles are a state license and federal approval from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which is currently on hold because of the government shutdown.
“It’s definitely been a learning experience,” says Johnson, whose concentration is in marketing and who is minoring in entrepreneurship. “I’ve been working on my business plan for two years, and every time I took a class, it seemed to relate to what I was working on. It’s really cool how it all came together.”
Johnson, whose father and several other family members were also in the military, enlisted in the Army following high school and served from 2010 to 2014.
“I felt drawn to help in any way I could after 9/11, and I wanted to find something that I loved,” Johnson says.
In Afghanistan, his unit encountered frequent firefights.
“It was hard, but it taught me a lot about life,” says Johnson, who appreciated the humanitarian aspect of the mission. “We got to know the people in town, we ate the food, we built schools, we trained the police to defend themselves. It really opened my eyes.”
While stationed in Kansas, Johnson met his girlfriend, Anna, a fellow Massachusetts native who works as a veterinarian. When Johnson returned from Afghanistan, he used the GI Bill® to begin working on his business degree at Kansas State University and landed a sales and marketing internship at Tallgrass Brewing Company.
As Anna’s work began to take her around the country, Johnson followed. In South Carolina, he took classes at the College of Charleston and worked full-time in brewery production operations at Southern Barrel Brewing Company. He also earned a Business of Craft Beer certificate online from the University of Vermont and became a Cicerone-certified beer server, which he says “is like a sommelier for beer.”
When the couple returned to Massachusetts, Johnson chose to complete his business degree at UMass Lowell for two reasons: the value and the support he received from Veterans Services.
“They’ve helped me out a ton,” says Johnson, who praises the support of Veterans Benefit Coordinator Bill McDevitt in particular. “Anytime I pick up the phone and call him with something, he’s on top of it and gets things fixed. He’s been amazing.”
At the Manning School, Johnson says his entrepreneurship courses with Assoc. Teaching Prof. Ashwin Mehta and his business ethics course with visiting instructor Elissa Magnant have been particularly helpful in learning how to start his own business. He’s also applied what he’s learned about social media marketing to attract close to 3,000 followers to Anawan’s Facebook page.
“Out of all the schools I’ve attended, I like UMass Lowell the best,” says Johnson, who commutes from Merrimack, N.H. “I feel my degree here has really set me up for everything.”
Johnson currently brews beer every other weekend in his garage with DiRienzo, an award-winning homebrewer who will be Anawan’s head brewer. They’re tinkering with close to 50 recipes, including Johnson’s current favorite – a bourbon barrel coffee stout – and a cucumber basil ale that Anna suggested for the summertime.
Anawan, which is named for a Pocasset war chief who was captured in present-day Rehoboth in 1676 during King Philip’s War, will start as a one-barrel “nano brewery,” allowing them to constantly rotate offerings.
“Millennials and the craft beer scene want constant change, so with small batches we can tap into that market,” says Johnson, pun seemingly unintended. They plan to expand to a three-and-a-half barrel system after six months, with the long-term goal of producing 250 barrels (or 7,875 gallons) of beer a year.
The brewery plans call for a 1,000-square-foot tap room outfitted with six to eight taps, two dedicated to crowd favorites and the rest rotating through the recipe file. Johnson also bought a canning machine and will sell “crowlers” (32-ounce cans) with the Anawan label. While they won’t sell food, guests are invited to bring in take-out from nearby restaurants and food trucks.
“We want to focus on the community and help the local economy,” says Johnson, whose dream of starting his own brewery has come a long way from Afghanistan.
“All the places I’ve been, all the classes I’ve taken and internships I’ve had, are building blocks that have brought me to this spot,” Johnson says. “I feel confident that it will pan out in the end.”