What’s Brewing: Kickin’ It with Pretty Things

Photograph by Anne Vickman

Unless you’ve been in a self-imposed pain cave of teetotalitarianism for the past few years, chances are you’ve come across beer from Pretty Things at your local bar or package store. And lucky you: It’s only available ‘round these parts (Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, and eastern Pennsylvania, to be exact). But who are the crafters behind this line of oh-so-fabulous brewskies?

To find out, I visited the Somerville headquarters to chat with the masterminds, Dann and Martha Paquette. The office is located inside of a massive brick warehouse (next to Old Cemetery), which currently hosts a motley crew of bands, sculptors, painters, an MIT startup, and a clown called Boris. I enter to find patchy walls, the odd photo here and there, stacks of cardboard boxes; a bookshelf stocked with books by Paul Theroux, file folders, and glassware; desks scattered with papers; and a cozy nook with a couch, a red plastic table, and chairs. And of course, I find the tireless, down-to-earth Dann and Martha.

“Today was meant to be a Pretty Things holiday,” Dann says as I sit down. It’s clear that didn’t happen — even as we chat, Martha busies herself around the office. “We’re working all the time,” she says. “There’s no separation between work and life.” When they’re not brewing, the two spend nearly every spare moment participating in tastings, fundraisers, events, and beer launches in Boston and New York, often waking up in the wee hours of dawn in order to fit it all in — including a trip to this year’s Bonnaroo festival in Tennessee.

Okay, wait. Who?
Dann Paquette, originally from Connecticut, has been working at New England breweries for 20-plus years. A look at his résumé reveals gigs at Ipswich Ale Brewery, Pilgrim, Mill City Brewing, North East Brewing Company, Concord Brewery, the Tap Brewpup at Haverhill, Daleside Brewery, and John Harvard’s Brew House. “I was sort of known as the guy with the bad luck,” he says, pointing out that several of these breweries have since shuttered. Martha Holley-Paquette hails from Yorkshire, England, and spent 15 years as a research scientist studying viruses. The couple first met in 2004 at the New England Real Ale Exhibition (NERAX) in Davis Square; they then moved to England and returned Boston in the summer of 2008. While Martha nabbed a job straightaway, Dann didn’t. “We moved back and there were no brewing jobs,” says Dann. “So we said, ‘Let’s start Pretty Things.’”

The Brouhaha Begins
“I knew I wanted to make a dry, hoppy beer with Belgian yeast,” says Dann of the company’s flagship beer, Jack D’Or. “This was always my dream. I thought I’d have to win the lottery to make it happen.” …

Instead, the Paquettes sold their house in England and spent every cent on their first batch of Jack, which they brewed at Paper City in Holyoke and released in December of 2008. They drew their own labels (and still do) and acquired the licensing to brew and pour at festivals. “I used to be physically ill,” says Dann about the nerves he had on the success of the beer. “I took a lot of Tums. I thought it had no commercial potential.”

“I knew it would sell,” counters Martha. “But once we learned what cash flow actually meant, we realized we’re in the worst industry for it.” Currently, all the brewing takes place at Buzzard’s Bay in Westport, and the couple heads to the 12,000-square-foot brewery to bottle at least once a week, sometimes setting up camp in their car overnight. And the name? It’s inspired by English rock band The Pretty Things, who in turn took their name from Bo Diddley’s 1955 tune, “Pretty Thing.”

The Rest is History
While the initial influx of cash (or lack thereof) was a challenge, it eventually came through thanks to phase two: distribution. The Paquettes started off with a small distributor here in Massachusetts, and despite no real training in sales, set off to introduce their beer to bars and package stores in the area. Dann also went on distributor runs with sales reps to do tastings. “I said ‘You’re gonna go out and sell our beer,’” recalls Martha of his first outing. “He put on his tweed suit and came back hammered.” But the effort — and the tweed suit — paid off. Last year the Paquettes brewed 1,800 barrels of beer. This year their estimates are hovering around 3,600. Of these barrels, three are year-rounds: Jack D’Or, Baby Tree, and St. Botolph’s Town, while nine other seasonals and one-offs have been released (including this year’s batch of Field Mouse’s Farewell, which just debuted a few weeks ago). Recently they were even able to hire a full-time staffer — the equally inexhaustible Anya Kanevsky — to help with the workload.

Hoppy Endings
Despite their well-deserved success, the Paquettes aren’t sure if they’ll open their own brewing space any time soon. The system they have seems to be working just fine — though I was dismayed to hear that as long as they’re using someone else’s facilities, they won’t be making any sour beer — this is because Brettanomyces, the yeast used to brew it, can easily cross contaminate other batches. But not owning their own facility means they enjoy a certain amount of creative freedom. “No one is in our ear telling us what we should be doing,” says Dann. Martha points out that as soon as loans and credit lines get involved, those things change: “We don’t want to be working for the bank. We’re getting up at 3 a.m. for ourselves.”

Learn more about Pretty Things at prettythingsbeertoday.com.