Brew News Spotlight on Kelsen Brewing: Pizza saves the day while working on lagers and saisons

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Before the pandemic closures, Kelsen Brewing in Derry made about 85 percent of its business from dine-in service, with a small portion of that being take-out. After pivoting entirely to take-out, the food side of the business, which specializes in pizza, has helped keep the company going.

“With the take out, with the food, I think that’s one of the things that’s saved us a little bit,” said taproom manager Michael Mahn.

It’s one of the reasons the company has been able to keep its six full-time employees busy and gainfully employed. 

The business is now slammed with more pizza orders than it can handle when they hit peak demand on Fridays. Mahn said they have to turn some customers away.

“We’re getting overloaded. It’s mostly Friday nights right now,” he said.

The remaining 15 percent of the business was from wholesale distribution, according to owner Paul Kelly. With restaurants closing, keg sales have disappeared, and about 100 kegs they sold just before the closures will likely have to be dumped as they pass their freshness dates. 

Kelly said overall sales are down by 50 percent, but costs haven’t changed.

The take-out has helped in regards to keeping us busy and staying open but this will only hold us for so long,” Kelly said.

100 barrels of beer on the wall… likely will be dumped once past their freshness date. Courtesy Photo

He said he has worked with his landlord to push out rent and is working with lenders to push off some outstanding loans.

“We have not had to furlough any employees but if this keeps up too much longer I will begin to need to make some tough decisions,” he said.

They were approved for the Small Business Administration payroll program, but that money hasn’t been disbursed yet. He expects that money will be a “big relief,” but short-lived even then.

The pivot to serve more take-out and pizza-to-go was made possible by a nimble team, according to Mahn.

We’re a pretty small team so we’re able to kind of pivot and shift kind of quickly. So, we’re very maneuverable,” Mahn said.

Growler demand has also been high, and demand across the board has resulted in a shortage of growler containers from suppliers, Mahn said. Kelsen’s supplier still doesn’t have any 64-oz. growlers to sell, and they have a new shipment of 32-oz. growlers coming in this week.

Also, a $4-off growler fill sale that Kelsen started with the shutdowns has helped push sales.

The brewery doesn’t have its own canning line so they usually contract other companies to can for them. They also contract 603 Brewery to supplement their inventory by making a 30-barrel batch of beer each month of flagship beers like Battle Axe IPA, which 603 cans in-house.

Given the shift in the market, Mahn said they decided to change-up some of the product offerings.

“Knowing there would be less of a demand for draft, we decided to do some longer-term projects,” Mahn said.

That meant they could spend some extra time to brew some lagers and saisons.

They brewed a Maibock, which is a higher-alcohol German-style lager, usually about 7 percent, Mahn said. And under Kelsen’s “The Cryptic Project” label, they created two mixed culture saisons; Vice (5.3 percent) is made with pineapples, strawberries, and toasted coconut, and Pulse (5.3 percent) is made with local peaches and raspberries and is aged in merlot barrels. 

Mahn said Vice is brewed but still fermenting, which takes longer with wild yeast, and Pulse is currently bottle conditioning and should be ready for release soon.

Also coming soon is a Berliner Weisse called Harimana (5.2 percent).

They also recently released a selection of fruited Battle Axe IPA (7.2 percent), with varieties including blood orange, guava and coconut. Mahn said the blood orange variety already sold out a new batch will be ready in another week or two.

Kelsen’s in-house pizza has been an unexpected boost to business during the shut down. Photo/Facebook

Mahn said their pizza was already well known as one of the best pizzas around.

“It’s more like that Boston-style or New York-style, which you don’t really find in Southern New Hampshire too much,” Mahn said. “I don’t eat any other pizza anymore.”

He said the company hired a guy from Groton, Mass., who used to own his own pizza place for 15 years, plus another pizza chef from Reading, Mass. Their craftmanship has put them on the map for pizza lovers, Mahn said.

Given the pressure on the brewery to make more, they are currently considering installing a second pizza oven to double their capacity. Currently, they can only cook four pizzas at a time.

Mahn said the pizza has proven so popular for take-out they expect demand to continue with greater intensity, even after the state opens up its dine-in services again.

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Ryan Lessard

Ryan Lessard is a freelance reporter.