Navigation Brewing Opens in Lowell

A champion homebrewer goes public with his passion for Old World beers.

navigation beer

Lowell’s Navigation Brewing opened its doors on March 26.

When it comes to craft beer, Bob Johnson’s biggest fan has always been his son-in-law P.J. Mercier. Since Mercier married his daughter Jill in 2005, he’s been hounding him to start his own brewery, and for good reason. The 59-year-old Johnson isn’t your average homebrewer. He’s won several local and national awards including a gold medal in the American Home Brewers Association’s prestigious National Homebrew Competition for his German rauchbier, “Smokehouse 1.”

“When people hear ‘homebrewer’ they think little kettles and some tiny setup, but Bob’s an intense homebrewer,” says Mercier. “He brews religiously from the end of September to the beginning of April, every weekend, supplying himself, his family, and his friends with more beer than they could possibly drink.”

On a family vacation to Disney World in 2012, Johnson finally relented. For almost two years, they fruitlessly hunted for investors and real estate, unwilling to compromise Johnson’s vision of brewing small-batch, largely forgotten European ales like his German kottbusser, brewed with oats, honey, and molasses. “We we wanted to be able to brew certain beers and to have the freedom to bring back a lot of old, traditional styles that aren’t brewed as much today,” says Mercier. “Investors were also turned off by how small our brewing system is (1.5 barrel-system). They want you to be Jim Koch on day two. That’s just not feasible.”

Eventually they received some much-needed assistance from another Lowell brewer, Enlightenment Ales’ Ben Howe. “Ben’s been with us from the beginning, guiding us through all the red tape,” says Mercier. “When he had the opportunity to join forces with Idle Hands [Craft Ales] as their head brewer, he called me up and said, ‘I know you’ve been looking for a place forever, here’s an opportunity, you can buy my equipment and take over my space.’”

For now, Navigation Brewing Company will remain a two-person operation, selling their products direct from their 1200-square-foot brewery under the stipulations of a farmer-brewer license. Each 22-ounce bottle is brewed, bottled, and even capped by hand. They’re hoping to introduce a growler system by July and they anticipate kegging for on-premise distribution by the end of 2014.

Navigation officially opened its doors on March 26, and immediately sold out of its debut offering, a pale ale brewed with Magnum and Citra hops. Up next is their Flagship IPA (6% ABV) brewed with Bravo, Willamette, and Citra hops. The other two core beers in their lineup are a milk stout and a double IPA (9% ABV), which will roll out in May.

The specialty, small-batch beers that Johnson has been passionate about since his early homebrewing days, will be released in much smaller quantities and on a rotating basis. These include Johnson’s award-winning rauchbier, as well as a gose, bock, marzen, baltic porter, barley wine, saison farmhouse ale, an altbier, and a French biere de garde.

As a self-financed brewery, Johnson and Mercier remain in their regular full-time jobs (a sales manager and land surveyor, respectively), brewing on weekends and evenings. Due to production and time constraints, Navigation will be releasing two beers a week, on Wednesdays and Saturdays, the specifics of which will be announced via, Twitter, Facebook, and their website.