Navigation Brewing Company hops to attention, earning people’s choice award for best craft beer
By Rita Savard
No local startup has made a bigger splash this year than Navigation Brewing Company, which whips up small-batch beers big on flavor thanks to scrappy, hyperlocal brew master, Bob Johnson (he hails from Tewksbury and uses local grains).
Navigation Brewing arrived on the scene with a bang in February when, after pouring its home brews for the first time to hundreds of thirsty revelers during the City of Lowell’s WinterFest celebration, they scooped up the first and second place people’s choice awards for best beer while standing alongside nearly two dozen New England brewers, including heavy hitters like Sam Adams, Harpoon, Ipswich Ale Brewery, Baxter and Slum Brew — just to name a few.
Remember the first time you heard Jimmy Page’s thrill-a-second guitar solo in “Stairway to Heaven?” For brew master and brew drinkers alike, the reception of the made-in-Lowell craft beer was that epic.
“It was exciting and humbling,” says Johnson. “It was also great validation. When you hear from family and friends that they like your beer, you never know if they’re just being polite.”
Johnson, whose day job has been a railroad purchasing and sales manager for nearly 20 years, got a home brewing kit as a gift “for either Father’s Day or Christmas” in the mid ‘90s. His first brew, concocted with love in his basement, was a pale ale.
The science and art of beer making hooked him, and instead of sticking with powders and syrups like some novices, he made the leap to using all grain pretty quickly. Delving into the art of the mash, he says, is the best part.
“It’s a lot of watching and waiting, trial and error,” explains Johnson, wearing wading boots, maneuvering around a steel drum and looking a bit like Walter White in the early days of Breaking Bad — minus the meth, of course.
“But I fell in love with it and got addicted to what I could mix together, and adding this to that, to compliment a recipe and come up with the best flavor imaginable.”
After nearly 20 years of perfecting his home brews for family and friends, Johnson opened Navigation Brewing Company in November 2013, which he operates out of an industrial garage bay on Meadowcroft Road.
Distinguishing itself with bold, flavorful ales, this “Farmer’s Brewery” is beer making in its most compact form, producing fewer than 2,000 barrels a year.
A Farm Brewery is also designed to incentivize the use of local grains and hops in the production of beer. Navigation Brewing Company gets its malts from Valley Malt in Hadley, Massachusetts.
“We’re local, they’re local — there’s something to be said for sipping a good beer and knowing the ingredients are sourced close to home,” Johnson says.
Of course, one man can’t brew bigger quantities of quality beer for the masses alone.
P.J. Mercier, self-described as Johnson’s “Brew Bitch,” follows the brew master through the painstaking process and also serves as the company’s public relations arm.
Mercier, who is married to Johnson’s daughter, Jill, has been sampling Navigation’s home brew for years before the company name — which steps from their passion for boating and fishing — was even an afterthought.
“Bob is humble, but let me tell you, he’s a perfectionist,” Mercier says. “The man hours and labor he pours into each batch is intense. But taste the results and there’s no doubt, his heart is in the work.”
Half way through the Lowell mircobrew competition, the guys heard their brown ale seemed to be ranking in second place. So, when they heard they won first place, they automatically assumed it was for the smooth and delicious nut brown brew.
“Then we found out the brown ale came in second, and our IPA won first,” Mercier says. “We were not expecting that. It just blew us away.”
Somerville’s Slum Brew, which took home first place in 2013, came in third this year, following Navigation.
Johnson’s crisp and citrusy Navigator IPA, along with three additional easy-drinking flagship brews and special seasonal blends throughout the year, will soon be available at local taprooms and select liquor stores. In the meantime, follow Navigation on Facebook for updates and to learn when new brews become available.
Refillable growlers and bottles can also be purchased at their brew house on 45 Meadowcroft Road.