Liquid Diet: Behind the Brew with Pretty Things’ Dann and Martha Paquette
With their spring seasonal Fluffy White Rabbits newly released, here’s a behind-the-scenes look at Boston’s darling indie brewers.
Dann (left) and Martha Paquette of Pretty Things. (All photos by Jeff Soyk for Boston magazine)
The hand-drawn labels on every bottle of Pretty Things depict a rogue cast of characters and a black sense of humor. Pink infants are swaddled in the branches of trees, a decapitated nun holds her smiling head, and a despondent Balaton cherry plays a flute high in the air. These are just one facet, typically outsourced, that the husband and wife duo of Dann and Martha Paquette have undertaken themselves on a shoestring budget–and they’re not only striking, they’re surprisingly effective at alluding to what’s actually in the bottle. The term “craft beer” has become a large umbrella for everything produced outside of the three biggest corporate conglomerates, but Cambridge-based Pretty Things is truly an intimate endeavor, almost entirely overseen by a team of two, with a success story that contradicts every business convention. In advance of the release of their limited-edition spring seasonal, Fluffy White Rabbits, I spent the day observing the Paquettes’ unique brewing process and learning of their idiosyncratic path to becoming the new face of the modern Massachusetts beer scene.
Dann’s dogged work ethic can actually be traced back to his first career as a production assistant on the television shows Preview and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Besides dodging the mercurial presence of Robin Leach, his main, weekly responsibility was to rush across New York in a black town car, take two sets of elevators to the top floor of the Empire State Building, race into a room with blown-out windows, and deliver a VHS tape to a chain-smoking technician so he could broadcast the newest episodes from its rooftop satellites. It was grueling work and a distant reality from his ambition of working on PBS’s Frontline.
But that all changed one evening as he exited his office in Dag Hammarskjold Plaza. Before he jumped into the black town car, he was doused by something from an upstairs window. The driver turned around, a disgusted look on his face, and asked what he was soaked in. The smell of ammonia tipped them off. Someone had dumped a loaded bedpan out the window and he was forced to finish his day shrouded in the aroma of stale urine.
Belgian and German-style beers had been a growing passion of Dann’s, and despite not having any experience, not even on a small-batch home brewing kit, he decided right then to test fate and put his future in the precarious hands of the emerging microbrewery scene.
Dann Paquette of Pretty Things with Harry Smith of Buzzards Bay Brewing. Dann starts brewing as early as 5 a.m. so that Buzzards Bay can resume making their own products later in the afternoon.
Fast-forward 22 years of brewing later, and Dann’s age and the stress of some bad business deals are beginning to show in his salt-and-pepper hair, coiffed like Morrissey circa Vauxhall and I. He’s had stints at John Harvard’s, North East Brewing Co., and even several abroad in England. The main target in Dann’s jokes is usually himself, and he laughs when he tells me that most of his previous employers have since gone out of business. But there is one relic from his past that makes him taciturn and visibly upset—Concord-based Rapscallion Brewery.
“I normally never talk about Rapscallion,” says Dann. “I dwell on it too much. Just last night I was laying awake and I was wondering when I’d stop thinking about Rapscallion.”
In 2000, Dann was hired as head brewer at Concord Brewing Co., but he found his creative release in a new line of beers—called Rapscallion—that would focus on the emerging trend of strong ales inspired by the Belgian Trappist tradition. The devil, the label designs, the original recipes; Dann says they were all his ideas. Rapscallion was the original Pretty Things, and for a year and a half he didn’t take a paycheck. He went as far as to live in the brewery to help it get off the ground. So when the majority owners sold the business, he was not only unemployed, he was homeless.
“Rapscallion was awful,” says Dann. “Instead of renting someone else’s brewery, I settled in there. The people who owned it just screwed everything up. They took down the brand. They took it out of my hands and they sold it and I never got any money for it.”
“That was his baby,” says his wife, Martha Holley-Paquette, who is also his business partner at Pretty Things. “It was his idea, but he didn’t have any money. He had business partners whom he had to walk away from. I think he needed that to get on to Pretty Things, though. You have to have a solid failure before you can succeed.”
That now familiar image of a white tree embossed on a red crest was hanging in Martha’s home when the couple first started dating. It was a vintage pattern embroidered by Martha’s grandmother as a child in 1910. Dann loved it and swore he would use it for his next brewery logo.
For Dann, the one silver lining in this epoch was meeting Martha, who was then a postdoctoral student at Harvard. On their second date, he picked her up at her house and saw a picture hanging in the hall of a white tree encompassed by a red crest. He was enamored with it, especially when Martha explained that her grandmother embroidered it in Yorkshire around 1910. Dann boldly claimed, “That will be our logo for our new brewery.”
They immediately fell for each other, and Martha, more than willing to abandon her research on venereal diseases, took Dann back to her home in England. There he found work at Daleside Brewery in Harrogate, Yorkshire. “There’s nothing else that I can do,” says Dann. “If I weren’t brewing I’d probably be doing odd jobs like data entry or something. I’ve spent my whole life doing this.”
At Pretty Things, Dann and Martha handle everything from brewing, to marketing, to distributor management. Even the labels are designed by the couple.
They returned to Boston in 2008 and spent what little money they had left to brew a 50-gallon batch of beer. It was an American Saison, later named Jack D’Or, inspired by Saison Dupont and Taras Boulba from Brasserie de la Senne. The lingering question was how to get something off the ground while retaining creative control. It had to be a profitable operation with room for growth and not just some garage project, or what Dann refers to as a “tin-pan brewery.” Beneath his cynical veneer, Dann’s a bit of a sentimentalist who has always dreamed of buying one of the old 19th-century brew houses that line Washington Ave. and Roxbury. There’s even one he’s kept his eye on for years: the old Frank Jones Brewery in South Boston.
But without the capital to invest in a piece of architectural history, let alone the necessary stainless steel tanks and equipment, the Paquettes turned to an old friend, Bill Russell, owner of Buzzards Bay Brewing.
Buzzards Bay Brewing is located in the rural community of Westport, Mass. It’s also the home of “gypsy” brewers Dann and Martha Paquette of Pretty Things.
Buzzards Bay is nestled in the small farming community of Westport, where it was once a thriving commercial brewery. At its height, they were pumping out three times as much beer as Pretty Things is today. But Bill became exhausted by the crippling production demands and sold the brand to spend more time at his sparkling wine facility. Even now, after he’s bought back the name, he tends to spend more time among the rows of Chardonnay and Riesling grapes just a mile up the road. Martha and Dann were welcomed in to offset some of the costs of Buzzards Bay’s sporadic brewing schedule, Pretty Things took root, and the itinerant, or “gypsy brewer,” movement began.
Martha Paquette milling American pale malt and some different Weyerman malts for the mash of their spring seasonal, Fluffy White Rabbits Hoppy Triple.
Besides Jack D’Or, Pretty Things is now responsible for a number of eclectic brews that have become as ubiquitous as any from the staid old Boston guard. There’s Baby Tree, a stout Quadruple with plenty of dark-fruit character derived from the addition of dried California plums, a bock-like brown lager named Lovely Saint Winefride, and their just-released spring seasonal, Fluffy White Rabbits, a citrusy Tripel brewed with three types of hops. Perhaps the greatest testament to Dann’s skills as a brewer though, is obvious in his Once Upon A Time series. Along with Dutch beer historian Ron Pattinson, he recreates historical recipes like the 1855 East India Porter, which dates back to a brew sheet snagged from London’s Barclay Perkins Brewery. Dann has brewed seven different ales from the Victorian period and they’ve all been met with predictable fanfare from bars and beer nerds. They suggest a confidence and a freedom of experimentation that only comes with some established success, something that has proved elusive in Dann’s transient career.
Pretty Things is currently responsible for 80-90 percent of the brewing coming out of Buzzards Bay, and they’re still growing. But the Paquettes know there will be a day, maybe even within the next couple years, when their friend Bill Russell decides he wants to reinvest himself in the beer business. And that’s when things become dicey. Or as Martha so succinctly puts it, “We’ll be screwed.”
“The novelty of it is cool, but the reality is that there’s no longevity to it,” says Dann. “We kind of just blow with the wind. If we were still here in five years, I’d be shocked. As soon as this brewery decides they want to make their own beer again, it could make three or four times what we’re able to pay as renters.”
Inside the joint brewing space of Pretty Things and Buzzards Bay Brewing. The future of their arrangement is uncertain. “If we were still here in five years, I’d be shocked,” Dann says.
Investors constantly approach Dann about raising the capital for a permanent home for Pretty Things, but the memory of what happened at Concord Brewing will always be a needling admonition. He predicts that it would take three million dollars just to replicate their current model, which isn’t profitable without necessary investments in labor and a bottling line. As estimates climb, the future of Pretty Things becomes hazier.
“What we do generates enough money to do what we do and pay ourselves, but we don’t have this cache of savings that we can dip into. We could potentially be 2% owners. I’m used to being given 2% ownership when I come onto a brewery, just to get some equity in the business. So I know exactly what that means. It’s a joke. So we can’t do it. It’s a win-the-lottery situation for us,” he says.
Dann also acknowledges he can be quite the curmudgeon. He likes the loner aspect of his profession and he can’t imagine handing over the reigns of Head Brewer. He clearly enjoys the process and he has definitive opinions about how his beer should taste. Most brewers don’t mess with their flagship product, but he’s changed the recipe for Jack D’Or a number of times. There’s a dryness that has eluded him and it nagged him to the point where last month, he completely overhauled the beer. “To be fair,” Dann tells me, “The first thing that would happen if we built a brewery is that I would have to be a supervisor and I wouldn’t be doing what I love. That’s the key.”
Dann is an admitted perfectionist who has even overhauled his flagship beer, Jack D’Or. One of the reasons he hasn’t accepted any outside investment is because he doesn’t want to relinquish control of the brewing process.
The name Pretty Things comes from one of Dann’s favorite bands, a ’60s-era Brit group very much in the vein of The Kinks or The Zombies. Unfortunately, they were doomed to obscurity when their manager insisted they tour Australia instead of the U.S. at the height of the British Invasion. Pretty Things essentially became a cult phenomenon enjoyed mostly in their native land, and only for a short window of time. It’s hard not to see that as a strange harbinger for Dann’s gypsy brewery.
When asked about its fate, he says, “It’s alright! This has been really good. If nothing else it’s been an amazing four years. Maybe we’ll do it eight years or ten years. Everyone’s saying, ‘You’re going to be big some day.’ No, we’re not going to be big. We’re as big as we’re going to get. Enjoy it now.”