by Kristen M. Castrataro and Emily Enger
You won’t find Whaler’s Brewing Company by accident. Housed in a basement unit of an old mill building in Wakefield, RI, gaining admittance is reminiscent of entering a Prohibition speakeasy. A circuitous cement stairway descends to a steel door with simple black and white letters: Whalers Brewing Company. I arrive before opening, knock on the locked door, and look around, wondering if I have reached the service entrance. Suddenly the door opens, inviting me into another world.
The room is large and cavernous, with steam pipes hanging below the high ceiling. The room’s focal point, and the reason for a steady flow of customers, is the bar. Still tacky from a recent renovation, it is hard to believe it was constructed from old pallet slats.
If the location is memorable, it is due 100 percent to the three characters who are Whaler’s Brewing Company. Wes Staschke is a former mechanical engineer originally from Connecticut. Josh Dunlap is a former Marine and Rhode Island native. Andy Tran, Josh’s childhood friend, works as a mechanical engineer and also at Whaler’s as their marketing professional.
Whaler’s is a business founded on passion, preparation, and a smattering of providence. The passion began humbly enough as a youthful pastime. Staschke began brewing in 2009 as a college student at Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston, MA. His first batch came from a starter kit in his parents’ kitchen. Once or twice a week he’d brew a new batch, making modifications and testing the results on friends. His interest grew, and he began utilizing his engineering skills to construct his own equipment.
About the same time, Dunlap was serving in the Marines with some buddies who home-brewed. He picked up the habit. In 2011, he brought Tran to the Palisades Mill and said, “Maybe I should start a brewery.” Tran replied, “This could be pretty funny.”
The mill owner showed them to a leaking, dungeon-like space. Some people may have been dissuaded by the setting, but Dunlap notes, “We all have the same curse — we all see the potential in everything.”
Dunlap and Tran had the location, but they were not yet brewing. A couple hours away in Boston, Staschke was working as an engineer and saving up for his own brewery. While he saved, he prepared. Though he lived in Massachusetts and came from Connecticut, he selected Rhode Island as the site for his business due to the brewery to population ratio. At that point Rhode Island only had three or four breweries; he figured it would be easier to stand out there than in other New England states.
In September 2013, Staschke packed up his business plan and his recipes, quit his engineering job, and moved to Rhode Island to brew. He started with a friend helping on a part-time basis. It soon became evident that there was too much work for just the two of them. So in true 21st-century style, Staschke turned to craigslist.
Staschke’s online search for microbreweries turned up Dunlap and Tran. The trio scheduled a self-proclaimed “Casual Encounter” at a local tavern and, says Staschke, “It was love at first sight.” Between the three of them, they possessed all the skills and resources necessary to succeed in their chosen business.
Tran is the public relations specialist. He handles most of the email traffic, marketing, graphic design and artwork. He also helps keep things running by addressing many of the physical needs of the building. When it comes down to it, there isn’t much around the business that the trio doesn’t handle on their own. That includes building their own equipment. They designed and outfitted their current system themselves using dairy tanks and sugaring barrels. Staschke said, “It functions exactly the same, and it’s a fraction of the cost.” An added benefit is that when something breaks, they know how to fix it. “My mechanical engineering background has been a big help because it has allowed me to help design our brewing system, from piping and fluid transfer to our keg washer and heat exchangers,” said Staschke. “It makes it much easier to troubleshoot and fix issues when you designed them yourself!”
Staschke and Dunlap are the brewers, with part-time help from a friend or two. Even their brewing styles are complimentary. Staschke favors lighter, spiced wheat beers while Dunlap prefers heavy, big, complex beers. This confluence has allowed Whaler’s to provide a beer for all tastes.
Many companies market their beverages with “gimmicky” names that stick in the memory, but say little about the beer. That is not the case at Whaler’s. Their beers are all named for the beverage’s key properties and are preceded by the company name: Whaler’s Hazelnut Cream Stout, Whaler’s American Strong Ale, etc. Staschke noted, “We’d rather people know Whaler’s for Whaler’s.”
With such an emphasis on the name, one can’t help but wonder what’s behind “Whaler’s.” The team wanted a name that would associate their product with the nautical history of the area. Dunlap used to work on a commercial fishing boat, so the “whaler” concept was especially attractive. In designing the company logo, Tran incorporated an anchor as both a nautical symbol and a tribute to Rhode Island’s state flag and its motto of “Hope.”
As for the company motto, “Be Daring. Be a Whaler” is more than just a marketing technique. It embodies the spirit of the three men who stand behind it. The Whalers are daring, but they are most definitely not reckless. Their goal is to have a business that is self-sustaining, rapidly-growing, and the primary income stream for Tran, but they refuse to over-extend themselves in the process.
One principal they adhere to is running a cash-only business. Their customers can make purchases with credit cards, but the Whalers themselves won’t. When they identify something they’d like to buy, they save up until they can afford it outright. Their most recent acquisition is an example. Whaler’s can currently market all the heavy-style beers they can make through the three cooler seasons. They therefore determined to simultaneously increase output and reduce production time by investing in a larger boiler kettle. Their new boiler kettle has a 3-10 barrel capacity, a threefold increase over their old kettle with a significant reduction in overall production time.
Interwoven throughout all the Whalers’ activities is a desire to create and participate in community. Their community starts at the ownership level: three friends whose union is exciting and synergistic. It extends to their customers, a group of strangers bound together by a love of good beer and good company. It spreads beyond the walls of the Palisades Mill into the state as a whole as they participate in local brewfests and maintain membership in the Rhode Island Brewers Guild.
The ability to creatively transfer their skill sets has helped the three men make their business successful. Despite being new to the game, the guys at Whaler’s are already as savvy in business as they are at brewing, taking special advantage of newer, nontraditional methods of marketing. They run active social media pages that includes video to let their customers in behind-the-scenes — whether it’s to push a new product or just show themselves goofing around. They also paste their logo on tons of merchandise, including their taproom glassware.
Whaler’s currently uses glassware from Zenan USA. Stacee Elliot, account manager at Zenan, believes logo-etched glassware is an underappreciated marketing tool that can produce real income. “Market data has revealed that serving beer in branded glassware leads to increasing beer sales and profit margins,” she said. “Consumers are willing to pay more for a pint in a logoed glass.”
Based on what he’s seen at Whaler’s, Staschke agrees. “Logoed glasses are advertising,” he said. “We’ve gone through thousands of glasses that we give away, that are now in people’s cupboards. That repetition and recognition helps keep customers reminded of us.”
It may serve as a handy reminder, but a glass in the kitchen cupboard isn’t the only thing making people return to Whaler’s. Often, they come back for the camaraderie and hospitality — which for Staschke, is the best part about owning a brewery. “Coming in on the weekend and seeing the place packed with people just having a good time is a very rewarding process.” Visitors to Whaler’s may initially come for a tour and a tasting, but they linger for the people. Each customer is greeted like a long-lost friend. While some patrons leave as soon as their growler is filled, a significant number stay to socialize. Some try their hand at the dart board. Others peruse the newspaper clippings. Still others tell stories and sip.
For the founders of Whaler’s, these are some of the most satisfying moments.
“Be Daring. Be a Whaler.”
by Kristen M. Castrataro and Emily Enger