Ed and Fred Maier are a father and son duo that represents the fifth and sixth generations of a Pennsylvania brewing family. The pair recently restarted the bottling business with their Susquehanna Brewing Company. Ed, 63, and Fred, 35, launched the Wilkes-Barre-based startup in June 2012, some 150-plus years after their German ancestor poured his first lager in America and founded Stegmaier, a brewing company that stayed in the family until the 1970s. Writer Erin McDermott recently spoke with the Maiers about the resurgence of U.S. brewing, learning from previous generations’ mistakes, and the secret of working with family.
EMcD: You got out of the distribution side of beer in September 2010. How did you decide to get back into the brewery business?
EM: It actually kind of started in 1998. I had a partner and we were coming to the end of our partnership, and we were ready for sale. Fred was still attending college. To return to brewing at that point, I thought maybe a brewpub was the way to go. Fred and I traveled around New England in the summer of 1998 and went to a dozen or so brewpubs. Our goal was to come back to Wilkes-Barre and use our history and open one of our own. About two weeks after we took that trip, my business partner passed away and that opened up more avenues, including buying up his shares and continuing to sell wholesale. That went on for another 10 years. Wholesaling ended up being extremely profitable. But then Miller and Coors formed a joint venture. The new company—MillerCoors—wanted one wholesaler in every market to sell all their products, and since we were only a Miller distributor that became an opportunity for us to sell. We brought in a few people to bid on us and the price went up and up. Eventually we said “Done.”
EMcD: The last time you were in the brewery business, you were in your early twenties. Is there anything that hasn’t changed since then?
EM: No, the industry has absolutely turned around 180 degrees since then. When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, a few national breweries stormed across the country and ate up local and regional breweries like Stegmaier and the rest of them. When we closed Stegmaier in 1974, there were 42 brewing companies left. Today, there are 2,300. Back in the 1970s, if beer came from Milwaukee or St. Louis, it had to be better than if it came from your hometown. As an industry, it seems we’re heading back to where we were in 1900—when there were 2,000 breweries. The American public has just drastically changed. They want flavor, variety, they want local and small, and they don’t want to be advertised to. It’s astonishing. From sitting at the dinner table with my father in the 1960s to now, the business has just completely turned around, and it’s a real opportunity for us small guys to say ‘Hey, I’ve got something to offer.’
EM: You know, every craft beer has a story and we’re no different. We have roots going back 160 years. Charles Stegmaier came here from Germany in 1857 to brew the first lager in the area. But sometimes we sit here and debate about what good that story has done us. You can go out and do a sampling and people have never heard of you.
FM: For us, it’s dinner-table knowledge. I talk to my dad; he talked to his dad. And when your history is that long, you get to see the mistakes that were made, too. You learn what not to do.
EM: That’s really true. The reason that Stegmaier fell apart goes back to the 1940s, with bad beer. So we are focused here on quality and never taking a chance on anything that isn’t good enough.
EMcD: You launched this business in the heart of the recession. Was there any benefit to launching at that time?
EM: We just hoped that we weren’t crazy to do it in the middle of a recession. We didn’t have the luxury to pick the time.
EMcD: What’s the secret to working successfully with family?
EM: There has to be a common passion. And there is in this case. If Fred didn’t have the passion for it, I certainly wouldn’t have dragged him into it. I probably would have taken the cash from the sale and just retired. I don’t think I would have enjoyed that, but if I didn’t have a son who wanted to do it, I don’t think I would have said ‘Let’s start this.’
FM: It’s funny, though. In those 10 years when we were wholesalers, I said I worked for him. Now I say I work with him.
EMcD: Fred, for you this is a huge step into running a small business. What’s surprised you so far?
FM: How fast time flies. Before this, I walked into a business that was going for 20 years, and you don’t get to see all of the pains and trials that go into getting it going. It may feel slow at the time, but it just goes by really fast.
EMcD: What are each of you telling the seventh generation? How are they reacting?
FM: My joke with my 7-year-old, Eddie, is that if he studies really hard and goes to school, maybe he can work on the bottling line. And he thinks that’s just great!
EM: I don’t think I ever pushed Fred into the business—probably the opposite. If his kids or his sister’s kids wanted to become doctors or lawyers, I certainly wouldn’t talk them out of it. If Fred ever showed a desire to be something else, I never would have talked him out of it. Small business is really tentative—you never really know, it could be here one year and gone the next. I thought Stegmaier would have been around forever, but it wasn’t.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.