Dear Lucent Readers
I’ve been writing articles about AIC alumni and AIC happenings for going on four years now, but this story is the one I’ve been waiting for.
You see, I began this article as I would any other: staring at a blank screen for far too long, waiting for inspiration to strike. I need a hook. I need a lead. Then it strikes me—I need research. And this time, “research” brings me to the bar of the Student Prince in downtown Springfield. I text a friend and ask if he’d be willing to meet up; there’s a pint in it for him. And in that gesture, I have entirely fulfilled Ray Berry’s mission.
“If a stranger next to you orders a White Lion beer, it might spark a conversation. If you pop open a White Lion at a barbeque with friends, you’re sharing something together,” says Berry ’92, founder of Springfield’s White Lion Brewing Company. “It’s about having a common experience.” This message of unity is one that has run throughout Berry’s career in nonprofits, and now as a member of the regional craft beer movement.
MALT WITH A MISSION
Ray Berry uses the same language to describe the craft brew company he launched in 2014 as he does in talking about his lifelong work with nonprofits; the words “community,” “conversation,” and “change” come up often. But for him, the worlds of brewing and civic engagement are not that disparate. In fact, according to Berry, community is fundamental to the White Lion story.
Berry first discovered his interest in giving back when he was an undergraduate at American International College. As a member of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity, he volunteered with neighborhood organizations such as the Dunbar Community Center and the MLK Community Center, making lifelong connections in the neighborhoods around the college. “Through AIC and my fraternal organization, I took the first step to becoming a part of the community. And I learned that I enjoy making a difference,” he says.
Shortly after his graduation from AIC, Berry joined the Mason Square Development Corporation, a group dedicated to building up a neighborhood at the heart of the city. “That experience allowed me to cut my teeth and understand the moving parts in Springfield,” he says. “There was definitely value in meeting folks who were emerging leaders and stakeholders in the community.”
Berry focused his efforts on local business development, helping Springfield residents turn their aspirations into workable plans. But several years later, when he was asked to serve on Springfield’s Liquor License Commission, Berry employed the same skills to launch his own dream. “I did a lot of inspections at local stores and restaurants for the liquor commission, and I started hearing a common theme. Folks were coming from outside the city and asking, ‘What’s the local beer?’ And there really wasn’t one for people to rally around.” In this need, Berry saw an opportunity to both fulfill his entrepreneurial aspirations and contribute to a more economically prosperous city.
Equipped with decades worth of connections, Berry started taking stock of what he would need to bring his dream of a Springfield-based brewing company to fruition. “I knew I could frame out the business model,” he recalls, “but I’m not a home brewer. I needed someone who knew the ins and outs of craft brewing.” Through a mutual friend, Berry met Mike Yates, a celebrity in Western Massachusetts brewing circles. Together, Berry and Yates assembled an initial portfolio and began brewing test batches. Solid, but nothing fancy to start: a cream ale, IPA (India pale ale), pale ale, and red amber ale.
Before launching his new line, Berry invited a group of friends and stakeholders to tastings in Springfield. Years of planning were about to be put to the test. “Nervous!” he recalls of that day. “To me, our test batches were good. But everyone has a different palate, so you just don’t know.” The tastings were a resounding success, yielding minor suggestions and subsequent tweaks to the recipe. And just over a year later, White Lion has a seat at the Western Mass brewer’s table, steadily expanding the list of bars and stores where their beer is served. Berry’s dream of contributing to a vibrant local economy has decidedly taken shape.
PITCHING A BIG (BEER) TENT
This past summer, White Lion launched Valley Beer Fest, a large-scale beer festival in downtown Springfield, bringing together more than fifty local, regional, and national brewers. Why would Berry invite his competitors just as he was working to get his own brand on sure footing? The answer to that question lies at the heart of his corporate vision, one that is best illustrated by the company name.
In South African culture, a white lion is a symbol of goodwill and prosperity to anyone fortunate to spot the rare beast. For Berry, this lore captures what he hopes his company will achieve locally, beyond just becoming a viable brand. “I relate the white lion to the city of Springfield,” says Berry. “As a gateway city, we’re part of an economic, ethnic, and cultural region in the commonwealth. And White Lion Brewing is about bringing people together to be part of something greater than self.” To that end, Berry’s strategy for his first beer festival became clear: he intends for White Lion to grow, not as a competitor to his peers, but as a partner in creating economic prosperity within the region. If the recent explosion of brewers in Western Mass is any indicator, Berry is on to something.
But has he succeeded in turning White Lion into a beer icon that Springfield can be proud of? I pull my stool closer to the Student Prince’s marble bar and decide to run a quick test. “What’s the local beer?” I ask the bartender. He taps his fingers for a moment, and then gestures to a white bar tap behind him in the shape of a lion’s maned head. I ask for a pint; my friend orders the same. Ray’s gonna like this, I think to myself.
-By Scott Whitney