craft beer

WILMINGTON - With local farmers once cultivating one of the largest hops crops in the United States, many major brewers and beer makers long ago crowned the Town of Wilmington with the nickname of “Hop Town.”

Late this spring, the Town of Wilmington took the first step towards reclaiming that title after Town Meeting voters overwhelmingly approved a zoning change that will allow so-called brew-pubs to open for business within major commercial districts.

Now, with that zoning change in effect, Wilmington officials are anxiously awaiting word from a brewer who wants to take advantage of the community’s newfound hops-friendly attitude.

“At its annual Town Meeting held on May 1, the voters of the Town of Wilmington…approved a measure that will accommodate brew-pubs as a business type,” explained Wilmington’s Economic Development Committee Chairman Michael Champoux in a prepared statement on behalf of the advisory board last week.

“It is hoped, by making this simple change and getting the word out, that existing brew-pubs looking to expand with new locations or new ones will see that the people of Wilmington want them and that the local government is excited to work with them,” added Economic Development Committee, which works closely with the town’s Planning Board.

Presented to Town Meeting as Article 46, the new zoning regulations define “brew-pubs” as full-service restaurants that also produce their own craft beers, ales, and/or hard-ciders. Such enterprises are expected to generate the vast majority of revenues through their main restaurant operations, but as is the case with many microbreweries in the region, brew-pubs in the community will be able to sell its malt beverages wholesale.

Retail transactions will also be allowed, so long as the combination of off-premises consumption sales don’t exceed more than 25 percent of the brew-pub’s overall production capacity.

When pitching the zoning change to voters this spring, Valerie Gingrich, Wilmington’s director of planning and conservation, explained that she and other local officials began exploring the concept as a way to attract investment along the community’s Route 38 corridor.

Breweries and similar restaurant venues that offer unique social experiences were particularly cited as trending industries by a group of UMass experts hired in 2019 to examine ways to return economic vibrancy to the commercial district.

“In 2019, UMass did a study for us on Main Street and commented on how retail is generally declining nationwide. You’re seeing that here in town and in other places,” said Gingrich, referring to a growing number of vacant storefronts along Route 38.

“What folks are trying to do is fill these spaces and create a livelier downtown. [Brew-pubs] were one possibility mentioned in that study,” the planning director added. “The Economic Development Committee has also received a lot of feedback in surveys that residents want more restaurants.”

The latest push to modernize Wilmington’s zoning regulations also comes as the community has been surrounded by a trio of breweries that have set up shop in abutting towns.

Perhaps the most popular craft beer maker in the Middlesex East region, Lord Hobo Brewing Company led the pack by moving its 46,000 square foot headquarters to East Woburn by the Winchester line back in 2015.

At first offering just small tasting sessions to visitors during tours, Lord Hobo has since expanded its operations to include an indoor tap room, a banquet hall that can be rented for special events, and an outdoor beer garden with a full-service restaurant.

Not long afterwards, Andover’s Oak and Iron Brewing Company in 2017 opened its doors to the north of Wilmington along the shores of the Shawsheen River, where guests can enjoy the scenery from an outdoor patio area.

And in a development that came as town leaders were still considering the adjustment to community zoning regs, the owners of Wilmington-based Hopothecary Ales earlier this year announced it would be moving to Main Street in North Reading. Partnering with the owners of Dos Lobos restaurant, the new brewery will include a large tap room and an outdoor patio.

A small company where most craft beers were being brewed in the Wilmington home of founder Steven Gabardi, Hopothecary Ales is expected to open its doors to the general public for the first time in July.

With the loss of the hometown business to North Reading, town officials like Planning Board Chairman Frank Sorrentino during May’s Town Meeting assembly argued that Wilmington needs to adjust to the times if it wants to revive its local economy.

“It’s where the trends are going. If you go to other adjoining communities, the brew-pubs seem to be something that’s [very popular],” said Sorrentino. “And if you drive along Route 38, we do seem to have a lot of empty space. This is [our attempt] to try to fill some of that.”

Wilmington’s citizenry endorsed the proposed zoning change so wholeheartedly in May that the Town Meeting assembly actually expanded the scope of the zoning amendment to include retail sales.

Pitched by Washington Avenue resident Steven Turner, the revision to the zoning proposal allows new brew-pubs to sell craft beers to the general public.

Though some town officials like Town Manager Jeffery Hull questioned whether such an expansion would complicate the state licensing process, Turner and others pointed out that breweries in neighboring communities have been granted similar permissions.

“I know brew-pubs in general will do pretty substantial retail sales and I would worry about the viability of those businesses if we weren’t to approve this amendment,” said Arlene Avenue resident Jason Samaha.

“When I do go to other locations, including [Lord Hobo] in Woburn, most of them do allow purchases to be taken offsite. The logic is if we want to attract them, let’s give them the same flexibility they’d get in other towns,” Turner later reasoned. “If it’s more restrictive here, they’ll just move across the line and get what they need.”

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