Brewing a new life in the North Country
Rek-Lis Brewing takes an entrepreneurial leap in Bethlehem
Marlaina Renton, left, co-founder of Rek-Lis Brewing, along with Ian Dowling, says one of her arguments for starting the brewery was: ‘Why would you not do this?”
Photo by Chris Jensen
Ian Dowling’s path to opening the Rek-Lis Brewing Company in the North Country town of Bethlehem began around 1991 with his first home brew, although he never got a chance to taste it.
He was living in Vermont and bought one of the home-brew kits that were popular. It was like painting by the numbers, but involving alcohol, he says.
He bottled two cases and was looking forward to the first taste. Then he came home from work and discovered that his four roommates not only tasted it, they drank all 24 bottles.
“They were all kind of flat on their asses,” said Marlaina Renton, Dowling’s companion and partner in Rek-Lis.
Dowling, now 51, says the four men had very low standards when it came to beer. They would have happily guzzled down Miller Lite. But the fact that they drank everything he brewed could be seen as an endorsement. Of sorts.
Over the years, Dowling continued to brew, his increasingly sophisticated efforts enjoyed by friends.
A little more than a decade ago, he moved to Bethlehem. Then, a few years ago, Renton and Dowling found they were increasingly talking about not just mountain biking or other adventures but starting a brewery.
But they both had good jobs. He works as a nuclear medicine technologist. She’s a fitness trainer. And there is something to be said for the comfortable reassurance of a regular paycheck.
On the other hand Dowling says: “It’s really fun for me to brew beer. Taste the beer. And, if I can make money doing that, it’s not such a bad thing.”
There was some thought to what were the downsides.
“The cons were, specifically, failure,” he said.
With manufacturing long gone in the North Country, Renton and Dowling are not unlike many people who wonder about starting a business, but don’t know whether to make that daring, entrepreneurial leap.
Renton turned out to be the catalyst. She promised Dowling her partnership and relentless, high-energy enthusiasm. The final, persuasive element was Renton’s inescapable logic.
“I had to ask him that question: ‘Why would you not do this?’” she said.
The result was Rek-Lis Brewing Company. It’s from the phonetic spelling of “reckless.”
“The first of several definitions of that word is ‘without consequence,’ and that is pretty much how we live our life,” said Dowling. “We tend to just do things. But we have been putting more and more thought into this.”
The challenges have been fitting an embryonic business into lives that already involve two full-time jobs – jobs that they may give up as the Rek-Lis grows.
They bought the brewing equipment with savings. But the biggest challenge has been regulation, Dowling said. That brought Renton and Dowling closest to just flat calling it quits.
“The federal government. The state government. The town government. It’s just a lot of steps involved, and for somebody like us who do it basically all on our own, it is long and tedious,” he said.
These ranged from permission from the state to sell beer to getting an OK from the town to offer tastings at their home.
When the regulatory issues were worked out, the make-it-or-break-it question was, would people pay for the beer? Friends praised Dowling’s brew, but what about strangers unfettered by interpersonal diplomacy?
That was “nerve-rattling,” Dowling says. “Are people really going to come to my brewery and give me money for my beer?”
Dowling said he began to feel pretty good about the future when after the third or fourth weekend they were seeing the same people coming back to buy more.
Dowling and Renton brew in a 12-x-12 shed behind their house.
“You are going to see mostly American ales and the latest and greatest type of American ales,” he said. “I prefer the taste of ales over lagers.”
And they have fun with the names. There is an “Up In Smoke Series,” in which a portion of the malt is smoked. That’s a playful homage to Bethlehem’s history of grand hotels. As the town got deeper into the 20th century, the hotels went out of business and typically burned down. Beers are named after specific hotels, such as The Parkview.
Renton and Dowling produce about 180 gallons a month. It’s sold to parties and restaurants, and the town and state have given permission for them to sell it at Rek-Lis, 44 Pinewood Ave. on Fridays from 5 to 8 p.m. and Saturdays from 3 to 8 p.m.
But Dowling says sometimes they run out of beer before 8 p.m.
“It is not nearly enough,” Renton said. “We can only make so much beer. It gets gobbled up almost as soon as it is conditioned and ready to sell.”
Customers include tourists, people with second homes in the area and locals.
Renton and Dowling have largely worked through setting up the business themselves, although they recently sought some advice from the Northern Community Investment Corp.
As for the future, there are plans to expand Rek-Lis.
By September, they hope to open at a shuttered restaurant, originally known as Angelica’s on Bethlehem’s Main Street.
That will allow more brewing, and Renton and Dowling hope to work with others in Bethlehem to grow the town’s economy, feature local products and give tourists another reason to stop and spend some time.
The town has one new hotel, with another likely and a growing arts scene. Efforts are underway to attract more tourist-oriented businesses.
“We really want to support Bethlehem and the community,” said Renton. “To me, it is on the cusp, it wants to be bigger, it wants to grow.”
And they do have advice to those thinking about becoming entrepreneurs: “Face your fear. Don’t ever look back and say ‘I wish I’d done that.’”