The Pride of Belchertown: How The Shelton Brothers Changed the Face of Beer and Brewing
Covered in cobwebs, traditional almost to the point of antiquity, the brewery was like none other Joel Shelton had ever seen. And he’d been to a lot of breweries. This one was different. He and his two brothers had a friendly competition going in the late 1980s, where they tried to one up each other with great beers discovered during their travels. With his first taste of the beer, Joel instantly knew he had won. “On the first sip it was like a light bulb went off,” he recalls. “It was like the gods were singing and the violins were playing.” The brewery, with a hard-to-pronounce name, would change the lives of the Shelton brothers forever.
By 1989, Joel Shelton was a professional trombonist frequently working in Europe as part of an orchestra for traveling Broadway shows. When he wasn’t playing he visited breweries using Michael Jackson’s books as a guide, bringing beers back into the orchestra pit for other musicians to try.
While in Brussels in the summer of 1993, supporting a production of 42nd Street, Joel was on a mission to try a weird beer that Jackson had celebrated. Joel was intrigued by the description of the beer and sought it out. His first taste of Lambic disappointed him. “The bar was nice but the beer wasn’t very good,” he says. Another guidebook suggested a place in the less traveled and industrial Molenbeek part of southern Brussels.
Joel loved the second Lambic so much he struck up a conversation with the now legendary Jean-Pierre Van Roy, brewer and owner at Cantillon. Joel wanted to know how he could buy the beer back in Manhattan. The timing of his inquiry was fortunate as Cantillon was having troubles with its first and only American importer. Joel didn’t know anything about importing beer, he just wanted to be able to buy this beer. He struck up a quick friendship with Van Roy and gave him tickets to 42nd Street. In response, Van Roy bought dancing shoes and practiced on the brewery’s old, creaky wooden floors.
Back in the states, Joel’s brothers Dan and Will were starting their own love affair with beer. Both had traveled widely during and after college, seeking out and enjoying local beers in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Dan bought Will a homebrewing kit and he fell in love with it. They studied classic beer styles, reading books by Jackson and Charlie Papazian. The brothers had even talked about how cool it would be to open a brewery of their own. And then Joel returned home with several 750-milliliter bottles of Cantillon, excited to share.
The first chapter of the Shelton Brothers’ story begins with Joel Shelton wandering into Cantillon, but the tale really crystallizes around Dan Shelton. Dan excelled in school, eventually enrolling at Amherst College where he graduated summa cum laude. Dan then traveled for six months, bouncing around India, Thailand, the base camp of Mount Everest, and eventually Europe, where he took a liking to the local beer, before returning to the states.
While working as a paralegal in New York, Dan decided on a whim to apply to law school, slipping his application to Yale under the admissions door on the deadline day. After graduating with his law degree, he worked for a judge in Micronesia and then clerked for a federal appellate court. Dan was cool on the idea of being a lawyer, interviewing with firms in search of the “loosest one.” After finishing the bar exam, he left on a trip to Africa. The Washington DC firm that hired him didn’t realize he would be gone for several months.
On his return, it was clear the situation wasn’t tenable. Dan eschewed suits in favor of jeans, and had a hard time keeping his unhappiness to himself, once telling the firm that he no longer wanted to be a part of it. So Dan found himself back in Micronesia on a senior Fulbright grant. From there, he went to Australia and China, buying whatever beers he could find and soaking off the labels to keep. Eventually he returned to New York City, worked at another law firm job he disliked, and tried to figure out what to do next. And then Joel came by with the life-changing bottle of beer.
“It wasn’t a competition exactly, but we all traveled a lot and went out and tried to find beers or styles no one else had tried,” Will recalls. “Of course it was Joel who trumped us all by bringing back Cantillon. I remember Joel giving it to both Dan and I at the same time and I was like, ‘That’s it, I’ve found my beer, finally.’”
The brothers grew up enjoying sourness, drinking vinegar straight up as children. So an affinity for the tart, sour, and exotic flavors of Cantillon came naturally to the three. Dan agreed that the Cantillon beer was world class and one of the best he’d ever had. He also liked that it was an acquired taste, one that mainstream beer drinkers wouldn’t immediately embrace.
In 1993, Dan and Joel were living in New York City. After finishing the few bottles of Cantillon, they wanted more for Thanksgiving dinner. Dan wandered down to his local bodega in Brooklyn to buy a bottle. The woman running the store told him it wasn’t available in the city, to his annoyance. She said he’d have to become an importer if he wanted to drink the beer. The idea intrigued Dan, who on another whim applied for a license and included his brothers’ names. Shelton Brothers beer importers was born.
Importing beer is a complex, expensive, and time consuming process, one best left to experts with experience and deep pockets. The Sheltons had none of those things. They had convinced Cantillon to sell them beer but they had no idea what to do next. “We weren’t businessmen and we didn’t look at it as a way to make money,” Dan admits. “We brought in Cantillon because we wanted to drink it.”
With their handshake agreement struck, Dan started trying to figure out how to get Cantillon’s beer to the United States. He reached out to other importers for advice on how to navigate the morass of label rules and local distribution regulations. At the time, only a handful of small importers were bringing in characterful beers from Europe. The Sheltons hoped to have another importer handle the logistics of bringing in Cantillon while they sold it. They reached out to several importers, starting with B.United, a Connecticut-based operation run by Matthias Neidhart representing companies like Schlenkerla, Schneider, and Reissdorf.
The meeting with Neidhart didn’t go well. It was Dan’s birthday and he and Will met with Neidhart at their favorite Manhattan haunt, the Waterfront Ale House. Dan had four or five pints over the course of the meeting. Neidhart sipped orange juice. That irked Dan, who decided Neidhart wasn’t really a beer guy. The Sheltons opted not to pursue an arrangement with B.United. The meeting would set the tone for a competition that continues more than two decades later.
While Dan worked his angles, Will Shelton reached out to Lanny Hoff of All Saints Brands, which imported La Trappe and Tripel Karmeliet. Hoff already represented a Lambic brand, De Troch, but harbored concerns about Cantillon’s viability in America. “It’s always been a relatively idiosyncratic kind of beer with a strong point of view,” he says. “I thought Cantillon was a little too intense for the US market.”
The Sheltons also contacted Don Feinberg, who ran Vanberg & Dewulf with his wife Wendy Littlefield. Vanberg & Dewulf exclusively focused on Belgian beers, representing Duvel, Rodenbach, and Kwak, among others. The meeting went well so the Sheltons initially expected to work with Feinberg, though he shared Hoff’s qualms about Cantillon. “Dan Shelton will never sit still for this, but when Cantillon was available, it was undrinkable,” Feinberg recalls. “Frank Boon literally helped Cantillon make the beer a Lambic instead of acetic acid and vinegar.” Feinberg didn’t see a US market for such a quirky beer. The Sheltons, on the other hand, sensed an opportunity.
Then they read in a magazine that B.United would be importing Cantillon. Dan was furious. After the meeting with the Sheltons went south, Neidhart had contacted Cantillon and persuaded them to allow him to import the beer while the brothers, who didn’t even have their importing license yet, got started. Dan immediately recognized that if Cantillon started working with B.United, they wouldn’t be likely to switch horses mid-race.
This was a key moment in the history of Shelton Brothers, one that Dan points to as pivotal in getting him personally invested in the business. It would also forecast how he would conduct business in future years. In the face of a challenge, Dan’s response is to double down, a practice he would hone and apply many times over the years since. With Cantillon he started a scorched earth campaign, badmouthing B.United and Neidhart to Van Roy in an effort to convince him to only work with the Sheltons.
Dan also pressured Feinberg to speed up label approval for Cantillon, a governmental process over which he had little control. Annoyed at how long it was taking, Dan dropped his plans to work with Feinberg, believing he was deliberately slowing the process. Feinberg still rankles at their early interactions, noting that he was poorly treated for trying to offer assistance. “That was my first taste of Dan Shelton.”
Having decided to strike out on his own, Dan made another bold move: he told Cantillon he would double the B.United order if they stayed with him. The gambit worked, but saddled Shelton Brothers with a major problem. They had committed to ordering an entire container of bottles, nearly 2,000 cases of sour, unpronounceable beer. “We brought in Cantillon because we wanted to drink it, but 19 pallets was more than we could drink,” Dan says. “My heart really did drop,” he says of his first reaction to seeing the shipment. “I thought, ‘Oh my god, what am I going to do?’” Concerned that he might “end up living under a bridge,” reality quickly set in for Dan. He had to sell this beer. All of it.
The first container sold well, as the Sheltons filled an empty pipeline. Emboldened, Dan ordered another container. But the beer didn’t sell through to consumers. Then Dan started getting calls. Unfamiliar with Cantillon’s quirky character, consumers understandably complained that the beer tasted weird, smelled rank. Bar and liquor store owners told Dan to come get his beer. Even the lady at the bodega who suggested he become an importer called to complain.
Dan was confident that despite the initial resistance they faced, success would come. Why? Because of the one, simple truth the brothers pursued with vigor from the beginning, however possibly misguided: bring in the best and success will follow.
Other importers, including Vanberg & Dewulf and Merchant du Vin, through longtime sales manager Joe Lipa, often worked together to promote appreciation for their foreign breweries and teamed up for presentations to distributors. The Sheltons rebuffed overtures to join promotional efforts in what Lipa describes as a short-sighted decision. In contrast, the Sheltons forged an independent and even hostile path, causing friction with other importers, brewers, and the brothers themselves. “Our reaction was: ‘Can someone live on their own island in this business?’” Lipa recalls.
In a trade built on collegiality, Dan developed a reputation for trashing his competitors. His favorite target was and remains Lindemans, the Belgian producer of a line of Lambic and fruited sour beers. While trying to sell Cantillon to people, he’d see glass after glass of Lindemans go over the bar. After a few beers, Dan would tear into the unsuspecting drinkers, scolding that they were drinking sugary crap made for kids. “They were all artificially sweetened and not Lambic at all yet that was being pitched as Lambic, especially Lindemans,” he says. “I’d get in fights with people and tell them, ‘You could taste it if you had any sense.’ People just thought, what an asshole. They thought people don’t like your stuff so you’re just badmouthing everyone else. That’s the way people thought of us for a long, long time.”
Shelton Brothers realized early on that in order to survive it needed more than just Cantillon. “I had to go out and find other brands that were easier to sell,” Dan recalls. So in 1997 he headed back to Europe in search of new beers to add to the company’s portfolio. Despite their wide travels, the brothers had no idea where to start. As it happened, another fateful meeting at Cantillon would again influence the future of the Shelton Brothers and the beer industry.
In Yvan De Baets, Dan Shelton found a kindred spirit, a Belgian mirror image of his own philosophical self. Drinking Lambics at Cantillon, where De Baets worked as an administrator and tour guide for the brewery’s museum, the two bonded over a mutual agreement about the values of great beer. “It was a very funny sensation,” De Baets remembers. “Everything he said about beer, I could’ve said myself.”
De Baets, who would later help found and run the famed De La Senne brewery in Brussels, knew exactly where Dan should start his search for new brands. He introduced Dan to the brewers at De Ranke and Blaugies in Belgium and Thiriez in France, after which the small brewers each agreed to export their beers through the Sheltons.
Dan’s commitment to smaller brewers impressed De Baets. “Dan always respected the brewers,” he says. “Even if the brewery was very small he never pushed to raise the production to send more beer to him. He was concerned as I was that if the breweries did this, there’d be an issue with the quality.” He also appreciated that Dan didn’t encourage the brewers to change their recipes or dumb down their beers, a promise De Baets elicited before making any introductions. “He showed them they could continue making good beers and they should never change the way they were making them.”
The Sheltons were slowly collecting a wide range of brewers that excited consumers. In return, the brewers benefited from a perceived quality by mere association. If the Sheltons prided themselves on only bringing in the best beer, it followed that a place in their portfolio signaled that you were deemed worthy of respect. Lipa points to their success with the beer geek audience. “There are people that think anything the Sheltons bring in is their cup of tea,” he says. “[Dan] has a constituency that follows him because of the quality.”
The company also developed a reputation for promoting a certain type of beer, the so-called Shelton Brothers’ palate. The beers the brothers preferred were often bone dry and low in alcohol. Complexity and harmony are qualities they often promote, crediting De Baets and Cantillon’s brewers for these preferences. “Jean Pierre from Cantillon says there has to be harmony not just balance, which is simpler,” recalls Will. “A good beer is one you can drink in volume and where the first glass asks for the second,” De Baets says. “Sophisticated is not a positive word in French,” he jokes.
A cadre of influential bar owners also would adopt this philosophy, including Max Toste of Deep Ellum in Boston. Toste points to the “Shelton palate” as helping shape a change in American tastes in beer, especially in New England, away from maltier, sweeter beers to drier, hoppier offerings. “It influenced a lot of brewers,” he says, citing Shaun Hill of Hill Farmstead and Dann Paquette of Pretty Things in particular. “They were very influenced by those guys and subsequently influenced a lot of people.” He also associates craft brewing’s biggest recent trend in dry, attenuated, hop-driven beers to the Shelton Brothers’ palate and portfolio. “The whole juicy IPA thing, you can trace the family tree to them,” he says.
Even with the addition of new brands, sales were a struggle for Shelton Brothers in the first few years. Joel contemplated joining the family business but ultimately decided to remain in music. “I stayed with the fanaticism but Dan went full into it,” he says. Joel would remain on the outskirts of the business for 17 years before coming aboard full-time in 2010. Will and Dan disagree about when the former joined the business, with Dan saying it was years after the founding and Will saying it was from the beginning. It would not be their only disagreement.
Almost from the start in 1996, the brothers clashed over the running and the direction of the business. Both Dan and Will initially kept their day jobs. Dan continued unhappily at the law firm. A single father of twins, Will worked as a marketing director for a cubic zirconia company and helped with the importing business in off hours. The importing business eventually swamped both of their day jobs, and Dan went full-time first. Will tried to keep his day job but had to assume a greater administrative and logistical role as Dan spent more time in Europe scouring for new brands.
The company wouldn’t turn a profit for eight years.
In 2002, Dan met his wife Tessa at the Great British Beer Festival in London. Born and raised in the Franconia region of Southern Germany, Tessa met Dan at the festival’s European bar where they shared some beers and arguments. The pair would marry six months later. Tessa also came to work at Shelton Brothers, performing administrative functions and engaging in “Dan-management.”
By 2003, the Sheltons hired Ron Extract, who was in the beer industry in Chicago, as a utility player for the company, working closely with Will on logistical issues while Dan handled “big picture” matters. Extract, who left the company in 2010 to help found Jester King Brewery in Texas, recalls that the brothers had routine disagreements about how to handle operations. Extract also had his run-ins with Dan over company issues.
Following their wedding, Dan and Tessa went on an extended vacation, leaving Will and Extract running the business. Will’s son Zach remembers his dad working a lot of hours during this time. “Shelton Brothers was their life for a very long time, they both worked very hard,” he says. Heavily influenced by his uncles and father, Zach entered the beer business himself, working at Churchkey and Birch and Barley in Washington DC before being tapped to run the Belgian-focused beer bar The Sovereign in Georgetown. “Dan and my dad were always working. It never stopped. He’d be waiting until eight at night to talk to someone across the world or waking up super early to do the same thing.”
Beyond its brash public persona and quixotic beer portfolio, Shelton Brothers has also long been associated with a perceived litigiousness. Ask beer industry sources to describe Dan Shelton and one of the inevitable first words is “lawyer.” It’s offered as compliment and criticism, sometimes at the same time. It’s a label that Dan acknowledges and accepts. “We’ve been involved in lawsuits of different kinds almost from the beginning,” he notes.
Hand selling was a slow, difficult process and Dan knew he couldn’t be in every market at the same time. So he quickly realized that he would have to sell it in a lot of states. If he couldn’t go deep with the beer, he’d go wide, in dozens of states, a distribution model that remains in place to this day. In preparing to send multiple beer brands to numerous states, Dan immediately hit stumbling blocks in the form of myriad, distinct label and registration laws.
One of Dan’s first cases on behalf of Shelton Brothers was in Maine where officials refused to permit use of Cantillon’s Rose de Gambrinus label, which includes a bare breasted woman. The state told the Sheltons to put her in a dress. Enlisting the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, Dan sued Maine on First Amendment grounds and won. He filed similar suits in other states over the Rose de Gambrinus label and others, including for the Santa’s Butt and Seriously Bad Elf beers. The suits garnered media attention, adding to the company’s reputation.
The Shelton Brothers also encountered problems with complex and disparate state rules and costs for registering their brands. In New York, the Shelton Brothers challenged a local regulation exempting in-state breweries from paying a $150 registration fee per beer label and excise taxes on the first 200,000 barrels of beer produced. Out-of-state brewers and importers were saddled with the fees and taxes, putting them at a substantial competitive disadvantage. With hundreds of individual beer brands, the Shelton Brothers were paying more than $20,000 in annual registration fees. So in 2006, Dan filed suit, challenging the regulation on Commerce Clause grounds. It dragged on for more than five years.
To settle the suit, the state nixed the exemptions, subjecting most New York breweries to a substantial increase in their fees and taxes. Brewers, the media, and the public pointed their pitchforks directly at the Sheltons. Headlines in local newspapers incorrectly screamed that the ruling would increase beer prices a buck a pint. Numerous beer blogs demanded a Shelton boycott. And several New York brewers called out the Sheltons directly. In one highly publicized exchange, Dan quoted an email Brooklyn Brewery brewmaster Garrett Oliver sent to him, calling Dan the “antichrist.” In response, Oliver complained that the email was meant to be private and that Dan’s emails to him had been “inflammatory.”
Dan still bristles over his treatment in the wake of the suit. He notes that New York brewers quickly lobbied for an exemption that covered all small brewers, including his brands. “I was so appalled at what he wrote,” Dan says, referring to Oliver’s email. “It’s against our philosophy to want tax breaks for ourselves at someone else’s expense. I need him to apologize to me, not me to him.”
While researching distribution requirements, Dan hit on a recurring problem that would become a lifetime obsession: the three-tier system. A remnant of post-Prohibition America, the state-based system generally requires that producers, distributors, and retailers remain separate and distinct entities. Nearly any manufacturer outside of the alcohol trade, whether its napkins or soda, can distribute its products directly to stores and sellers. In the alcohol business, with some exceptions, brewers must go through a distributor to have their products delivered to bars and liquor stores.
In its early days, Shelton Brothers entered into distribution relationships without significant understanding of franchise laws and their consequences. They were more concerned with finding a reliable way to get beers to the limited retailers they wanted to work with. They entered into handshake agreements with distributors across the country and trusted the relationships would work out. Often they didn’t, leaving the Sheltons in a tough position.
The landscape of beer distribution has substantially changed in the past 20 years, with hundreds of family owned businesses selling off to larger corporations, consolidation resulting in a small number of powerhouse distributors. Partners the Sheltons started with left the business over time as distributors changed hands.
As this consolidation continued, Dan says the Sheltons often found themselves with underperforming or disinterested distribution partners. With every new consolidation, the distributor would seek the Sheltons’ permission to transfer the brands as part of the sale. If the Sheltons withheld their permission, the distributors would file suit. In many such cases, undercapitalized brewers simply acquiesce to the sale instead of facing daunting legal costs.
Dan quickly grew tired of being forced into bed with new, ill-matched distribution partners. He began actively fighting back against distribution franchise laws in 2010, starting with a lawsuit in Missouri. After many years and tens of thousands of dollars in legal costs, the Sheltons prevailed, with the court finding that a franchisee-franchisor relationship did not exist with their distributor. The decision was upheld on appeal, resulting in a rare win for suppliers against distributors.
In recent years, Dan has spent a lot of time targeting litigation directly at the three-tier system and franchise laws. The Shelton Brothers have proactively filed cases against distributors in states around the country, seeking a legal declaration that it is not bound by franchise laws. According to Dan, it’s part of a strategy of reworking the importer’s distribution map to align Shelton Brothers with partners better suited to its interests.
While the lawsuits have progressed in the Sheltons’ favor and resulted in greater sales, they have taken a financial toll on the company. Dan says he spent more than $500,000 on litigation alone in 2016. It’s also impacted his stress level. “I have a litigation caseload that is way more than I ever did when I was a lawyer,” he explains. With hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages on the line in each case, Dan also worries that he will have to close Shelton Brothers if he loses one of them. “It’s an incredible stress, though I’m getting dangerously sublimated to it now.”
Dan remains disappointed that other brewers and importers haven’t offered more public support for his efforts, which he believes will benefit them. “People have benefited from some of these cases in our fights but no one has helped us; the Brewers Association won’t help us and we’re bearing all the expense when we could just say screw it, I’ll just let them win,” he says. Dan thinks the industry should pay closer attention to what he is trying to do. “As much as it’s a public good what we’re doing and I’d like to be credited for it, that’s not the reason we’re doing it,” he adds. “But people should look at us as heroes because, God, we’re taking on an incredible amount of flak, expense, and stress.”
Dan’s penchant for litigation strikes some as quixotic and even self-detrimental. “He’s a crusader for his own crusade,” declares Toste of Deep Ellum. Ron Jeffries of Michigan’s Jolly Pumpkin echoes this point, drawing comparisons to Don Quixote. “My wife Laurie thinks he’s a little too much like the Man of La Mancha, where he’s fighting these battles that he can’t win,” he says.
While Jeffries considers Dan’s campaign noble and even worth fighting in some respects, he also believes the lawsuits have distracted the company from more important matters, such as helping its existing brands grow. Jeffries says Jolly Pumpkin hasn’t seen the growth it expected with the Shelton Brothers in recent years, due in part to the distribution channel disruptions precipitated by various lawsuits. The situation has caused Jeffries and his partners at times to question whether they should remain with the Shelton Brothers, despite his deep, personal affinity and respect for Dan.
Will Shelton sees both sides. “[Dan’s] focused maybe to his own detriment,” he says. “It’s his mission to fix the three-tier system and what he’s doing is right about all of it. He’s getting vilified for it by [the] people who are most likely to benefit from it.”
While Shelton Brothers fights legal battles on numerous fronts, its portfolio has grown to include brands that seem to have little connection to the importer’s roots. Once priding itself on bringing in the best of the best, critics point to some level of mission creep in recent years, contending that competition with new importers stretched the company’s unwavering selection philosophy. If there is a unifying point of contention in the portfolio, it’s over the wunderkind gypsy brewery, Mikkeller. Run by Mikkel Borg Bjergsø, the beer geek-friendly brewery produces an eclectic array of beers. It was Will Shelton who made the initial contact with Bjergsø, at an early Copenhagen Beer Festival, and convinced him to go with Shelton Brothers instead of B.United. “He was kind of the king of coolness in the business,” recalls Will. The Shelton Brothers soon started bringing in dozens and dozens of Mikkeller’s beers.
Despite its popularity, the partnership seemed an odd fit for the Shelton Brothers. Famous for making some beers with gimmicky ingredients, including coffee beans harvested from the excrement of a weasel-like animal, Mikkeller was anything but traditional. The deal signaled a change in the company’s philosophy, one that Will would eventually regret. “I love Mikkeller and he’s just turned out to be a genius in this business,” he says. “But let’s face it. We were selling beer modeled after famous desserts. At some point we were selling stuff that, frankly, not only we wouldn’t drink, but stuff I never even tried.”
Things came to a head at the 2008 Zythos Bierfestival in Belgium, where the brothers had a public disagreement over the company’s direction. While trying one of the beers they were importing, Will turned to Dan, in front of other beer industry people, and said “this stuff is garbage.” He thought he had to be honest with his brother. “I was starting to feel more and more like we’re doing stuff that no longer fit,” he says. “I wouldn’t say I was a purist but I no longer believed in that company slogan. We were no longer doing the world’s best. We were doing the world’s really good and, in some cases, not so good.”
By 2006, Will Shelton was getting burned out at Shelton Brothers and his mind returned to thoughts of brewing. When he surveyed the American beer landscape, he didn’t like what he saw. Beer lovers were caught up in the passion of the extreme beer movement, celebrating envelope-pushing beers, often blasting with hops and alcohol. Will couldn’t connect with the trend. “Everything on the list was 9, 10, or 18 percent alcohol,” he recalls. “And people pounded it by the pint.” He preferred low alcohol beers, which he believed were more interesting and complex.
Will started brewing small batches at Paper City Brewing in Holyoke, Mass., modeling his beers on the hoppy, dry beers of Germany that he and his brothers had first fallen in love with. Will believes he was one of the first American brewers to focus on low alcohol beer, assuredly predating the more recent session beer trend. Although by his standards, his beers, in the 4.5 percent alcohol range, were too high to be considered session.
In naming the brand, Will employed some signature Shelton marketing fire, calling it High and Mighty. He credits Jason Alström of BeerAdvocate with coining the phrase. “We at Shelton Brothers had a friendly feud going on with the Alströms for many years going back to the extreme beer idea,” he says. In response to a forum discussion on BeerAdvocate.com, Will says Alström posted that he was “sick of all this high and mighty Shelton Brothers bullshit.” Will’s first beer, an amalgam of several German styles with a greater hop kick, also bore a provocative title: Beer of the Gods. Intended to be tongue-in-cheek, Will knew the name and concept would infuriate people, leading to free marketing. “People at beer festivals always wanted to try it,” he jokes.
Will continued to work with the importing business (except for a break from 2008 to 2010) while dedicating more energy to making High and Mighty a full-time gig. Without a brick-and-mortar facility of his own, Will brewed the beer at several breweries around New England. Shelton Brothers distributed the brand.
By 2012, Will was preparing to build a physical High and Mighty brewery in nearby Easthampton, in partnership with Shelton Brothers and the owner of the building, Michael Michon. Details of what happened next are the subject of several lawsuits. What is clear is that the deal fell through, but not before installation of a brewing system was partially completed. Will left the Shelton Brothers and Massachusetts shortly thereafter and moved to San Francisco to work on a session beer project with Pete Slosberg, founder of Pete’s Wicked Ales. Dan and Michon continued to move the project forward in Will’s absence, but it eventually failed.
Michon then sued Will and High and Mighty for defaulting on the building’s lease, later adding Shelton Brothers as a party to the breach of contract claim. In response, Shelton Brothers, led by Dan, filed claim against Will, High and Mighty, and several other officers of High and Mighty, including Michon himself, for indemnification against the lease breach claims. The countersuit included a flurry of factual allegations about the brewery’s history, in which Shelton Brothers claimed partial ownership of the High and Mighty brand. Shelton Brothers is also suing Michon for costs associated with the installation of the brewery.
With the litigation ongoing, both brothers remain hesitant to talk about the case. “It was a clusterfuck,” says Dan. He bristles at the idea that he sued his brother, though, noting that he only brought Will into the suit when he settled with Michon and signed an agreement to testify against Shelton Brothers.
“It gets a little tricky with the legal stuff going on,” says Will with hesitation in his voice. Moving to California gave him the opportunity for a clean start, although Mavericks Brewing, the project with Slosberg, ultimately fell through. The lawsuits and disputes over the High and Mighty brand, which is no longer brewed, signaled the end of Will’s involvement with Shelton Brothers. It also started a period of familial estrangement between the brothers.
Now based in Los Angeles, Will is working on yet another brewery project called Concrete Jungle, which he hopes will be open in L.A.’s Skid Row neighborhood by summer 2017. After years of touting a hard line beer philosophy, Will is adopting a different approach with this new project. “I will be making beers that I don’t necessarily want to drink myself but they’ll be good,” he says. “The unofficial slogan of my new project is ‘balance, harmony, and complexity,’ but I’ve added an additional component to that, which is ‘restraint.’”
Zach Shelton is proud of his dad and his new project and notes that the Shelton brothers have since reconciled. He says the “only opinion[s] my dad cares about are Yvan De Baets, his kids, Joel, and Dan.”
In late 2016, Tessa Shelton gave birth to a son, Victor, making Dan Shelton a father at 58 years old. He conducts business with the young baby alternately cooing and crying in his arms. The lawsuits continue to move forward and Dan is grooming a new generation of employees to take greater roles in the business as he spends time with his son and wife. The future of the Shelton Brothers remains hard to predict. But the family’s reputation, history, and influence remain firmly rooted.
In a little more than 20 years, the Sheltons have helped change the face of beer and brewing, both in the US and in Europe. Their influence can be seen in the resurrection and flourishing of otherwise moribund beer styles, including Gose and Lambic. “Without the courage of Jean Pierre, Michael Jackson, and Dan Shelton, the situation of Lambic would’ve been different today,” insists De Baets. Jean Van Roy of Cantillon agrees that the Sheltons helped sustain his family’s brewery. “Coming from a difficult time, only 20 years ago, it was difficult to sell a bottle and explain why it tastes sour,” he says. “Today it’s a real craziness around our product. We sometimes believe we are dreaming.”
The Shelton brothers have also undeniably helped Americans learn to celebrate a character once near universally regarded as repugnant in beer: sourness. Today sour beer madness has swept the country, with tart, musty, and acidic beers routinely on tap in beer bars and breweries from coast to coast. “They’ve played an influential role in the promulgation of sour beers and other styles that aren’t known,” says Hoff. These traditional and sour beers have also heavily influenced the palates and products of American brewers. “How can you say that Cantillon has not changed lives?” asks Jeffries.
Onetime competitors, including Feinberg, equate the Shelton brothers’ influence to that of seminal wine writer Robert Parker, who helped shift the American palate to more flavorful products with his writings and reviews. The brothers also encouraged a new generation of brewers to embrace small-batch brewing and a distribution model of sending beer far beyond their home markets. They helped create a new market for smaller brewers and encouraged beer enthusiasts to learn about traditional producers and new brewers alike. And they imported hundreds of eclectic beers, ranging from the traditional to the wildly bizarre. “The Shelton Brothers did a great deal to bring a lot of interesting beers to the public,” says Wendy Littlefield of Vanberg & Dewulf. “They’ve been very important in developing a passionate following in the beer geek community.”
Often on the receiving end of Dan Shelton’s vitriol, Merchant du Vin’s Joe Lipa has come to appreciate his longtime competitor. “We’ve had our run-ins,” he notes, adding that he respects Dan and his success. “He brought a lot of color and I’m glad he did.” ■