By Jonathan Phelps
---- — The bottling machine at the new Ipswich Ale Brewery is up and running — and it’s fast.
Maybe too fast, said company president Rob Martin.
The bottles quickly run down the line where they are filled, capped and labeled before being shipped.
“We were running up to 200 bottles per minute, but the beer pump couldn’t keep up,” Martin said. “We are running about 160 right now. We need a new pump.”
In comparison, they were running about 130 bottles per minute at the old brewery, he said.
Nearly two months since Ipswich Ale moved into its new 30,000-square-foot space, there are still a few kinks to work out and a few additional tanks to install in the fermentation cellar, Martin said. But overall, production has been smooth.
A much-anticipated brew pub is expected to open in November, he said.
The new brewery has been a long time coming. The company bought the former Soffron Brothers clam-processing plant in 2009. The building, which had been vacant for more than a decade, needed extensive renovations and an expansion. It’s located between Washington and Central streets in downtown Ipswich, off Brown Square.
The brewery operation was previously crammed into a rented space with just 8,000 square feet on Hayward Street. Besides accommodating the new bottling equipment, the new facility allows for more than double the production.
The company officially cleared out of the old location on Dec. 31 at 8:35 p.m. without much fanfare.
“I slipped a thank-you note with the key under the door,” Martin said.
From the offices on the second floor of the new brewery, there are views of almost every aspect of the production, including packaging and tanks.
“Everything is running, but we are refining the process for it to run the way we want,” Martin said.
In addition to brewing beer, the company makes Mercury soda pop, an operation that involves three tanks tucked into a corner of the packaging area. On a recent morning, the smell of spices filled the room as a worker prepared a batch of the company’s popular root beer.
The beer fermentation cellar is still under construction, but it’s an impressive sight with neatly stacked tanks — about eight more than the old place.
“I did the math, and if every tank is full, there are a million bottles of beer in here,” Martin said.
The brew house in the next room over — where the beer is actually brewed — can produce twice as much as the old facility, some 60 barrels as opposed to 30 barrels at a time. Martin still plans to install another 30-barrel brewer, for a total of 90 barrels. Each barrel is 31 gallons. The company also produces beer for several smaller craft brewers.
To describe the production volume, Martin pulled out his cellphone calculator and started talking to himself. He estimates that at the old facility, the volume of 24,000 barrels last year would line beer bottles side-by-side standing up from Ipswich to Philly. Now it can make its way back to Ipswich, he said.
After 23 years at the old location, Martin said it was time to move. He called the old brewery a “disaster,” with tanks stacked on top of each other and the bottle line weaving in strange places. There was no room for workers to move around easily, he said.
“What we ran into was we really couldn’t brew any more beer,” Martin said. “There weren’t enough hours in the day.”
Martin said there was no easy time to move, as crews juggled producing beer at both facilities for a while, with scheduling being the biggest challenge. The 12-ounce bottle run was the trickiest, he said.
“We stocked up on beer, and it took us about six weeks to get that line,” he said. “As space became available, if a tank was empty and available, we could move it.”
Ipswich Ale’s signature beer was introduced in 1991. A Topsfield native, Martin joined the company in 1995 as an employee of the original owners and bought the business at the end of 1999.
The move is seen as a strong economic boost for the downtown.
“It is going to be a great addition to downtown,” said Steve Argersinger, president of the Ipswich Chamber of Commerce. “Once they open the brew pub, they will be offering a particular atmosphere that we don’t have right now.”
At one point, Martin said, he considered moving out of town, but he’s glad he found a prominent spot in Ipswich.
“It means two things: It gives us the opportunity right away to brew twice as much beer, and in the long run, maybe up to four times as much,” he said. “The other thing is it affords us a real home. At the old place we really didn’t invite people over because it was so crammed.”