It Takes a Village (But Beer Helps, Too)

By Sarah Kanabay | Photographs courtesy of Janet Egelston

Janet Egelston-Cichy, owner of the Northampton Brewery, lights up when she says, “I love that we’re able to be a part of people’s lives through different stages—we help them celebrate births, engagements, weddings—and even when people pass away, we are here to give them a place to gather, too.” 

In an era whose electronic interconnectedness further erodes physical borders while simultaneously reinforcing the need to hold on to regional identities, the Northampton Brewery’s desire to remain central to the ebb and flow of the daily lives of its city’s residents can seem anachronistic. But amidst the ever-escalating contest to cram more ABV into the next offering, and the fetishistic collecting and cellaring of a beverage whose essence was once more rooted in immediate conviviality, is a story that reveals Egelston-Cichy’s mission to be a link in a more hidden historical chain. A story that offers an alternative vision of a more collaborative way forward. A story of the long legacy of women and beer.

The brewing of ale was central to most peasant household economies in the late 13th and early 14th centuries, and was largely practiced by women—single, married, and widowed. Very few men brewed “professionally.” While large-scale political power was primarily in the hands of men, this meant that village-scale economic power was held by women across all socioeconomic groups and marital statuses. Women were central to medieval ale brewing, and to the functioning of the shared economy of the village ecosystem. Central, that is, until the advent of the transition from ale (malt, water, and yeast) to beer (malt, water, yeast, and hops), and with it, the rise in the role of guilds for “victualers” (bakers and brewers), and the subsequent rise in alehouses. 
In defiance of the staunch self-interested, growth-is-the-goal model of modern entrepreneurship, the tenets at the heart of this particular pub have far more in common with its village-based brewing predecessors. 

“No one can do everything alone—the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” Egelston-Cichy says when asked about the culture of the business. This is the spirit, she goes on to say, that drives the collaborative engine that has made the brewery a staunch supporter of public charitable work (including Monte’s March in support of the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts) and a desire to “build in” instead of out—sourcing locally, brewing locally, and providing a point of connection for the community. 

As more and more small-scale breweries are becoming subsidiaries of larger corporations, the desire to remain small, and to stay within certain geographic boundaries, becomes something of a revolutionary act, but, Egelston-Cichy feels, a necessary one.

“There’s … a tremendous need to recognize how fortunate some of us are, and how important it is to share our wealth with the rest of the community, with people who are in need,” she says.
The brewery’s existence is a direct counterpoint to a modern economic engine whose focus is on the global, rather than the hyper-local—right on down to the fact that Egelston-Cichy and Mark Metzger, her then-husband and former business partner, were not going to be able to get married due to a post-Prohibition-era Massachusetts statute making it illegal for close relatives to work in companies that were involved in both the making and serving of alcoholic beverages. Their work to get that statute overturned (and they did) is part of a greater effort to maintain personal, community-based character, and the idea of the “family business” in the face of an economic climate where outsourcing reigns. 

“We were so young, and had no idea what we were doing, really,” Egelston-Cichy says, smiling, “and had no idea that our petition would get that big. We even ended up in The National Enquirer over it! We just wanted to serve the beer we made in the restaurant we ran.” 
That same spirit now informs her menu, and led to the creation of J.O.E.’s Farm, a subsidiary of the brewery. The farm, located in Williamsburg, is designed to support the brewery’s environmental mission by growing a portion of the produce for the pub’s kitchen. In its fifth year of operation, the farm has been another opportunity for community involvement in the form of direct feedback from the kitchen crew, the staff, and the agricultural community. “We wouldn’t be here without the people who work with us … who work for us. We really welcome staff input. We want to be inclusive.” 

That inclusivity includes a commitment to other local farms and farmers, even as their own operation grows. “Your salad has some of our kale in it,” Egelston-Cichy points out, “but we’re glad that we can still support the same farms we’ve always worked with too.”
That support, as she sees it, is also an opportunity to change what “growth” means for a business: When she talks about growth, it has more to do with developing systems for sustainability and community involvement that other businesses of their size could copy, enabling that collective sensibility to spread further. 

“We’ve always recycled, our spent grain has always gone to pig farmers, we did the [green] retrofit on our building,” she says, “but we are always trying to do … to give more. And we are always saying, if we can do better, let’s figure it out … and then let’s do it together.” 
The bottom line is important—but, mostly, in the ways that it enables the business to remain deeply rooted in the ongoing life of the city and, Egelston-Cichy notes, to continue “to show up for one another, in ways that matter,” one pint, one plate, and one “village” at a time.