University of Rochester

Alumni Gazette

Brewing Success

Steve Slesar ’87 introduces himself as a brewer to visitors at the flagship of Boston Beer Works, a brewpub that stands a pop fly from Fenway Park.

Only after you closely read his business card do you realize he’s also an owner of Boston’s biggest microbrewery.

But it’s not long into a conversation before you understand why he’s one of the forces behind the success of the company, which operates two brewpubs in Boston and one in Salem.

“I’m not your normal entrepreneur,” Slesar says. “I don’t have an M.B.A., but I feel like I have an M.B.A: I feel like I’m living it.”

Brew Crew

Steve Slesar ’87 is not the only Rochester alumnus to turn what may have been a nonacademic pastime into a profitable career. Here are a few others.

For the past 14 years, Slesar and his brother, Joe—who together make up the Slesar Brothers Brewing Co.—have lived and worked at the forefront of an ongoing transformation in the streets around Fenway Park, where the Red Sox and nearby businesses have put their efforts into making the area a vibrant restaurant and retail hub.

And the Slesars have become veterans among the nation’s brewpubs, a category that barely existed when they opened the doors in April 1992.

Their idea to make beer—out in the open for all to see and to be sold in a restaurant-style setting to patrons—failed to excite interest from 52 banks before a loan from their parents and a “yes” from their 53rd pitch gave Boston Beer Works its start.

The “naked and true” interior design, which puts the beer-making process on display, set a standard that’s been followed by other brewery-slash-restaurants.

“Nobody knew what the hell a brewpub was at the time,” Slesar says. “We were out of our minds.”

Taking a risk was not a new idea to Slesar, who as a kid growing up in St. Catharines, Ontario, watched many of his best friends head to work at General Motors plants. He knew he would do the same if he didn’t try something different.

He applied to Rochester and started as a premed major but soon moved to English. While serving as social chair for Theta Delta Chi, he made a discovery. “It was like a little business,” he says. “I learned I liked business—I had a budget, I ran parties with a budget, and I got into the marketing side of beer. I really enjoyed the fact that I was learning about wholesalers.”

After graduating in 1987, he joined his law school–bound brother in Beantown, and took a position at Commonwealth Brewery. There, he went from barback to busboy to head brewer in three years.

But he knew he was missing some key brewing knowledge. “I had the basics, but I really didn’t know why yeast works—what happens,” says Slesar. “Brewing is really the concert of being a scientist and being an artist.”

He attended the acclaimed Siebel brewing school in Chicago, and in 1989, after graduating from the 12-week program, “it all came together,” he says. “This kind of validated me to have the confidence to pull it off.”

The “it” was opening a brewery back in Boston: Steve would bring the beer brawn, Joe would bring the business brains and together (hopefully) they’d make lots of money.

Slesar predicted that Boston Beer Works would make and sell 1,500 barrels in the first year. In the first nine months, the tally was up to 2,300.

“The day we opened I called my mom and told her we were seven-deep at the bar,” remembers Slesar. Soon, seven-deep became a nightly sight.

The company now creates more than 50 types of ales, lagers, stouts, and pilsners and has 15 microbrews on tap at all locations at all times.

Slesar says success has come from thinking carefully about what goes into every single beer and every single burger.

“Put yourself last all the time and put your company first,” he says of his approach to business success.

His other strategy: “My philosophy is to work hard, to select good people, let them know that you expect them to make good decisions and hope [they’re not] fatal to the company,” he says.

Kidding aside, Slesar credits his team for giving him the peace of mind to spend time with his wife, Jennifer, and 2-year-old daughter, Sophia, in spite of the 50-plus hours he spends at the restaurant.

“The real mission is to try to help your individuals [working with you],” says Slesar. “Try to keep true to yourself, and you can live with yourself, because your success and failures can only be put [on] yourself.”

—Jennifer Chase Esposito

Brew Crew

Steve Slesar ’87 is not the only Rochester alumnus to turn what may have been a nonacademic pastime into a profitable career. Here are a few others.

‘Gritty’ Successful
“Don’t get into this thinking you’re going to set the world on fire and be a gazillionare overnight,” says Richard Pfeffer ’85, president of Gritty McDuff’s Brewing Co., a Portland, Maine, brewery that specializes in English ales. “My partner, Ed Stebbins, and I have put a lot of ourselves into this.”

A former Wall Street investment broker who left the big city for Portland, Pfeffer says that even before he enrolled at Rochester, he knew his dream job didn’t involve high finance. In 1987, he acted on an idea he first had while walking on Alexander Street near the River Campus.

Gritty’s now has locations in Freeport and Portland, with a third location that opened last August in Auburn.

‘And the Gold Goes to . . .’
Judging the best beer is a lot more complicated than “tastes great” versus “less filling.” Ask Chris Swersey ’86, a former brewer who now judges some of the industry’s leading competitions.

“I have a saying: ‘Bad beer is easy, and good beer is really hard,’” says Swersey. “Beer is far more complex than wine. Wine has 200 different flavor compositions; beer has twice as many.”

A chemistry major at Rochester, Swersey first went to work as a commercial brewer in Chicago. Today, he runs the annual Great American Beer Festival in Denver and the World Beer Cup, the largest international beer competition in the world, held bi-yearly in Europe.

In his “free time,” Swersey and his wife, Mary Wright, own and run Silvercloud Expeditions, a whitewater rafting company in Salmon, Idaho.

Dr. Brewer’s Red Ale
How he finds time to brew beer and be a dad and a psychiatrist at the same time is a question David Holmes ’92M (Res) leaves to God’s good graces.

“If God instills you with a dream, have the courage to follow it,” says Holmes, who completed a residency at Strong Memorial Hospital. “I see patients from 9 to 5. Outside of that I’m brewing, canning, promoting, flying, and being a father of a 3- and 5-year-old.”

Holmes created what his wife, Kristine, named “Warbird T-6 Red Ale,” a homebrew that delighted so many within Holmes’s inner circle that he went public in 2004 by opening Warbird Brewery in Fort Wayne, Indiana. (For nonflyers, a Warbird T-6 is a retired military plane from WW II now flown by civilians.)

“My wife loved it and told me I could sell it. I believed her, and she was right,” Holmes says.

—Jennifer Chase Esposito

Esposito is a Boston-based freelance writer.