Beer taps get a second life, thanks to local craftsman Ben Lewis
Upon first glance, Ben Lewis’s apartment doesn’t seem like a mad craftsman’s lair.
His cat, Leona, lopes around the brightly lit Somerville space to a looping playlist of Bowie and Modern Lovers songs. A selection of Lewis’s pet projects threaten to overflow the corner of his living room—a wooden spaceship, a keyboard, scattered beer taps. The crown jewel is a rack of “RainTaps,” which put a subtle but unique spin on standard umbrellas by subbing out pedestrian handles for customers’ favorite beer taps.
Lewis has always had an intuitive sense for crafting homemade gifts. He took a jewelry class for fun in high school, chasing a desire to learn how to work with metals. Lewis moved on to wire creations, website design, and, in an early preview of his entrepreneurial efforts, a run of homemade “Zombie Survival Kits” after gifting one to his “The Walking Dead”-obsessed sister on her wedding day.
His focus turned to beer taps when he first saw a Pretty Things tap handle—an elegantly subtle, powder blue tap with a glowing tree at its center in the style of a family crest—about 10 years ago.
“It was like a work of art,” Lewis recalls. “I started paying a little more attention to tap handles after that, as more of these craft breweries started doing really cool things with taps.”
The interest in beer taps remained in the back of Lewis’s mind until he began searching for any remaining taps from the now-defunct Pretty Things brewery earlier this year. “I looked it up on eBay and they were $80. I get it, but I also couldn’t justify spending $80 on something that would just stay in my basement,” he says.
A couple weeks later, Lewis was gripping one of his “normal” umbrellas, reflecting on how cumbersome it is to carry around a useless, aesthetically unpleasing umbrella once the rain stops. “Just like that,” Lewis says, gesturing excitedly, “my previous thoughts about Pretty Things collided with the umbrellas.”
“It took me about a month,” Lewis says in his tightly packed basement workshop, hunched over the table where the final model for RainTaps took shape. “It’s one of those things where it seems incredibly fast, but I was also in between gigs at the time and I just got laser-frickin’-focused on this thing.”
Lewis splits his time as a freelance web designer and photographer, but RainTaps has quickly become a part-time effort in its own right. The project officially began in earnest at Artisan’s Asylum this past summer, when he was making his own taps from a woodturning class and conducting brutal tests in pursuit of the perfect handle modification.
“I bought a ton of different umbrellas off of Amazon and just proceeded to demolish a bunch of them,” Lewis says. “I’d be using one of the tooling pieces and the umbrella would just split down the center.”
After casting out the more “floppy” umbrellas and moving past some of his earlier, more unwieldy designs, Lewis eventually landed on his “secret sauce”—a slick, patent-pending copper connector he designed that keeps the umbrella locked to the tap while looking seamless.
At first, Lewis took his umbrellas on test drives for the sake of quality testing, intentionally roughing them up along his path, but the sheer personality of the tap handles quickly took over RainTaps’ first public outings. Passerby questions have become such a normal part of Lewis’s walks that he now has a personal favorite umbrella to take out on the town: the payphone-shaped 312 Urban Wheat Ale tap from Goose Island.
“People would be like, ‘why does that person have a phone [on a walking stick]?,’” Lewis says. “And then they’d be like, ‘Wait, is that a beer tap … on an umbrella?’”
Even with the excessive number of times Lewis admits to opening his umbrellas inside (“I do it all the time! How can you not?”), RainTaps’ luck has only continued to grow. Other than a few harder-to-find taps, Lewis finds most of his taps fairly easily through eBay, sellers’ websites, or the distributors themselves, shipping out the final products for about $100 each. Local businesses like Davis Squared and Arlington Centered have quickly added RainTaps to their inventories. Custom orders are already coming from far outside of Lewis’s Somerville circle, with requests from Chicago and Seattle.
Amid the positive reception, Lewis does worry about a brewery taking poorly to his modifications or, at worst, slapping him with a cease-and-desist order.
“I was doing Central Flea when I had a rep from Harpoon come up,” Lewis recalls of his hesitant first meeting with the major brewery. “They said they had seen my stuff before and I was like, ‘…Oh yeah?’ They’re like, ‘Yeah, it’s all over Instagram! It’s super cool!’ I was just, like … phew. You never know if they’re actually aware of what’s going on, even if you tag them in a photo.”
The night before our meeting, Lewis had a business-related outing of sorts at Downeast Cider House, where he tried a limited edition Lime Gose with the brewers themselves. Lewis has built budding friendships with Berkshire Brewing Company in South Deerfield, Cisco in Nantucket, and even NOLA in New Orleans. Lewis sees these relationships as the natural evolution of his basement project.
“I’ve gotten tap handles from people where it’s their own brewery,” Lewis says. “A big reason why I wanted to do this was so that people could promote their favorite breweries and be an advocate for them. You just have so much going on in the craft beer and brewing scene that you kind of want more ways to be involved in it and keep up with what’s going on.”
Lewis plans to keep RainTaps’ home base in Somerville, but hopes the business will branch out across the country with “outposts” of similarly minded, pre-approved craftsmen following Lewis’s assembly model and shipping out umbrellas in their respective regions.
“Because of the fact that I’m dealing with so many people that put their heart and soul into their crafts, I would much rather have it remain a craft item,” Lewis says. “In Somerville, not only can you learn how to make things on your own, but you also have other people around that want to promote your ideas.”
Lewis’s fondest memories with RainTaps often boil down to personal stories and the reasons behind customers’ orders.
“The first custom umbrella I did for a friend was this vintage ceramic tap handle from [former brewing company] Olympia,” Lewis recalls. “A few years ago, my friend and her boyfriend at the time were moving, and he had this gigantic Olympia [bar] mirror. She was like, ‘Look, you never have that up, and it doesn’t work with other stuff. We should just get rid of it.’ A few years later, he was looking up the same mirror online, and they were going for $125.”
Feeling a little guilty, the friend found an opportunity for redemption when she heard about Lewis’s umbrellas. Lewis helped find the tap handle, his friend gifted the Olympia umbrella, and the wrong was clearly righted—the couple has since gotten married.
“That’s one of the things I love when creating a product,” Lewis concludes. “You’re not expecting to [be gifting] an entire story between two people.”
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