Bad Martha’s Beer – Good Suds on the Vineyard

Jonathan David Blum’s CV is impressive. According to Bloomberg, he earned his undergraduate degree from George Washington University. Then he earned his JD (Juris Doctor or Doctor of Law degree) from Western New England College, School of Law. In March of this year he retired from YUM! Brands – which operates Taco Bell, KFC, Pizza Hut, and WingStreet around the globe – after serving as the Chief Public Affairs Officer and Senior Vice President for nearly nineteen years. He was also the Vice President of Public Affairs at Taco Bell for almost twenty-three years and the Global Nutrition Officer for four years. All he told me was that he brews damn good beer.

I’m of course being facetious.  Mr. Blum was as forthright with me had we been hoisting a couple of his Twin Sirens beer at the Bad Martha Farmer’s Brewery in Edgartown, Massachusetts on Martha’s Vineyard. The Founder and Owner of Bad Martha Beer told me about his time on the senior management team at YUM! Brands. He told me how when he was there he created what is now the world’s largest hunger relief effort in the private sector which has to date donated nearly $700 million USD to hunger relief agencies around the globe, primarily in the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP). He told me that distributing nutritious food to remote locations in the Third World, particularly to women and children, was part of his DNA. That’s why now, even in retirement – or rewirement, as he puts it – he’s still giving back. “‘Our motto,’” he told me, “‘is ‘Get Bad, Do Good.’” The first ten percent of all Bad Martha Beer profits goes to the WFP and local programmes. What he told me next was the answer to the big question that had sat burning on my tongue: What’s the story behind the name Bad Martha Beer?

Both Blum and his business partner Peter Rosbeck were born on Martha’s Vineyard. That part was clear: Martha’s Vineyard puts the Martha in Bad Martha Beer. They’re proud Dukes County boys who set-up shop on the island. But the adjective ‘Bad’ really plays with the imagination. Is she an unsung maritime accomplice of Thelma and Louise? Is she the beer-thieving, ne’er-do-well cousin of a certain hamburger-stealing restaurant chain mascot?  Not quite. “We wanted to be a little bit irreverent,” he explains. “Each of us has a little bit of bad inside of us and most of us don’t let it out very often. We thought it’d be fun to come up with a backstory dating to the founding of Martha’s Vineyard. It’s really taken off.” It’s not hard to see why. When people think Martha’s Vineyard, they think bonfire diversion on the beach:

In 1602, mischievous winds drove Bartholomew Gosnold’s ship to Martha’s Vineyard. As legend has it, he scoured the island for ingredients to brew ale for his crew. Alas, he found none and he fell asleep on the shore. Under the light of the moon, he awoke to a sensuous mermaid with jet black hair and a devilish grin. Sitting at the water’s edge, she beckoned to Gosnold. The closer he got, the further she swam away – tempting him to follow. So he did. Finally, he found himself in a field brimming with lush island grapes. “These would be perfect for wine,” he thought. But nay, he was a good Englishman, so these grapes became the secret ingredient for a robust, refreshing beer. Gosnold never saw the mermaid again. He went to his grave wondering if he ever saw her at all.

Today we brew every handcrafted beer as Gosnold did, with grape leaves harvested on the Vineyard and a splash of mermaid mischief. Naturally, we had choice but to name our beer after the elusive siren who started it all: Bad Martha.

What’s perhaps more interesting than the tale itself is the fact that it predates the beer. Blum started to create Bad Martha Beer and the story behind the brand three years ago when he was still with YUM! Brands.

“I’ve always loved beer and what’s more, I’ve always loved a good beer. Whenever I’ve travelled anywhere through YUM! – I’ve travelled all around the globe – I would always ask for the local beer, no matter where I was, even in the United States. I’ve always been interested in local flavors and taste pallets. I’m kind of self-taught that way. A few years back, I heard of a brew pub – a restaurant that makes its own beer – on Martha’s Vineyard that came up for sale. I thought this would be a great retirement opportunity for me. (I knew when I first planned to retire three years ago that I’d still need to be challenged and motivated every day, so for me it was more about rewiring than retiring. So, I basically combined my passion for beer and my years of marketing experience.)  I talked to my wife about it and she asked what about it appeals to me, and I said the brewing part, not the restaurant part. I’ve done that, so I took a pass on that opportunity, but I always knew in the back of my mind that I wanted to brew beer.”

With retirement in sight for Blum – or so he thought, as he deferred his rewirement twice – he was on a nationwide hunt for accomplished brewers.

“Then I met Jared Ruben from Chicago. Jared worked at Goose Island Brewery, which at the time had just been acquired by AB [Anheuser-Busch] and he didn’t want to stay part of a conglomerate. So I said, ‘why don’t you create our beers for us?’ and I hired him – knowing that he wasn’t going to move to Martha’s Vineyard. But he gave us the recipes for our flagship beers: An English special brew called Martha’s Vinyard Ale; a pale ale called Vineyard Summer Ale; and the Island IPA. All brews are made from grape leaves from Martha’s Vineyard and the packaging and story behind each one is designed and created by me.”

What Blum needed next was a reputable distributor, like one founded in 1898 that signed a distribution agreement with Anheuser-Busch in 1934.

“I then started doing research on distributors and came across a company called L. Knife & Son. They’re part of the Sheehan Family Companies and happen to be based in southeast Massachusetts. They deliver to 18 states and about 200 shops in Massachusetts alone. So I called Tim Sheehan, their General Manager, and I said, ‘You don’t know me, I don’t know you, but here’s my story, here’s my background. I don’t have a brewed beer yet, but I’ve created a brand, the story, the marketing plan, and I’ve hired a brewer. Would you take us on?’”

Mr. Sheehan was fascinated by the story and encouraged by Blum’s reputation. He was won over, but he had one stipulation: “You’ve got to make a great beer.” After signing a contract with Mercury Brewing Company in Ipswich, Massachusetts to brew the three Bad Martha Beer recipes at the Ipswich Ale Brewery, it quickly became clear that Blum had lived up to his side of the deal.

“We’d planned on being profitable in three years; but we were profitable in the first season. We’ve doubled our output every year since we began in June 2013 and this year it looks like we’re on track to double again. We expect to sell 40,000 cases in the 650 Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island locations Bad Martha Beer is available,” Blum explains.  The sales force of our distributor, L. Knife & Son, is incredible. Tim Sheehan and I have become great friends and he has become a mentor to me in this challenging business. Each year we sit down in late fall and finalize a business plan for the succeeding year.  My overall goal is to continue to double every year.”

The feedback Bad Martha’s Beer is getting is not confined to New England brewers, distributors, and beer lovers. Blum’s beers have been much celebrated at international festivals and markets. At the 2015 Great International Beer Festival, Bad Martha Beer took home a silver medal in the Light Ale-Golden category for their Vineyard Summer Ale and bronze medals in the Brown-Porter and Belgian-Saison categories for their Roscoe’s Brown Ale and Belgian Blonde respectively.  At the same festival in 2014, the efforts of then Brew Master Jim Carleton were recognized with three gold medals: One for Martha Vineyard’s Ale in the ESB (Extra Special Bitter) category, one for their Export Lager in the Dortmunder category, and one for their Pumpkin Pie Bock in the Fruit & Spice category.

If you’re finding even the names of these medalist beers tantalizing you’ll be packing a suitcase for the Vineyard after you read this: Jacobi Reid, Carleton’s former apprentice and now Master Brewer, brewed 28 different beers using the on-site seven-barrel system this summer at the Bad Martha’s Farmer’s Brewery in Edgartown, most of which are brewery only offerings. “The Jalapeño Cucumber Kolsch, which is 6% alcohol by volume, is really a hit,” Blum says. “Every beer is made with local ingredients and that means anything from beach plums to blueberries, wild cherries, island organic chocolate, camomile, rosemary, organic honey – there’s a honey farm on the island – and coffee that’s roasted on the island.”

There’s even a winter brew that uses fresh oysters right out of Katama Bay.

“The list just goes on. We use a lot of local ingredients – and that’s helping local businesses and farmers. Our grapes and grains are sourced from local farmers and I’m even in the midst of discussions to have barley planted and farmed here on Martha’s Vineyard for the first time since Colonial America.”

While you taste the beers at the Bad Martha’s Farmer’s Brewery you can even look out over your jar or mug and see growing samples of the very ingredients you’re drinking. And why not order an oven roasted pub sandwich to fuel for the duel that is Trivia Night at the BMFB? But make sure to go to goo.gl/VtBfb4 before you compete. Blum and his team are very proud of their home base. The brewery in Edgartown is an Amish post and beam structure shipped directly from Pennsylvania and I’d bet you jar of Twin Sirens that a question would come up on Trivia Night asking how long it took to raise the building. The answer, not to mention the video, is unforgettable.

According to badmarthabeer.com, Bad Martha’s Farmer’s Brewery offers an experience akin to winery tasting rooms in the Napa Valley where all of the beer on tap is available to sample free first.

By David MacDonald