Tom Rupp's new Union Barrel Works brightens
the Central Pennsylvania landscape

by Jack Curtin
Atlantic Ale Trail
April - May 2007

There's a Lager guy back in business hereabouts and I for one couldn't be happier. It's not just the beers, understand; it's the fact that I can finally retire the tired joke that had become my stock reply over the past half decade when somebody asked "whatever happened to Tom Rupp?" I might have started it myself; I'm reasonably positive that I'm responsible for the part about the truck. Lord knows, I employed it every chance I got. "He's out there somewhere," I would reply when asked, "driving a pickup truck with the Pretzel City brewhouse in the bed, looking for a location." Among those telling a similar tale was fellow beer scribe Lew Bryson, who came up with a rather more clever way of playing off that explanation recently when he posted some Rupp news online, terming him the Flying Pennsylvania Dutchman. Damn, I wish I'd thought of that.

In any case, the news, confirming swirling rumors of nearly a year, was that he's back. While we were all out pimping the latest Imperial-Extreme-Let's-See-You-Top-This-Beer, Rupp quietly pulled that mythical truck up to the former Reamstown Garment building in the Lancaster county town of the same name, just a spit and holler down the road from Adamstown, home to Stoudt's Brewing where he got his start. Indeed, he actually acquired his Reamstown site five years ago. That man sure do know how to keep a low profile. Rupp opened Union Barrel Works in March. It's a brewpub, it's lager-focused and it's all Rupp, from Tom as brewmaster and general manager to wife Amy as president and CEO and son Daniel, a graduate of the Culinary Institute in Pittsburgh and a veteran of that city's Penn Brewing kitchen, as the chef. "I'll be making the beers I like to make," he told me in his distinctive rasp during a telephone interview in late February. "I have four in the tanks-Lager, Kölsch, Maibock and a Doppelbock. My Honey Nut Oatmeal Stout, which people seem to remember very fondly, will be on tap, along with a Pale Ale for the hopheads, although what I'd really like to do is make a real hoppy lager and see if I can't convince them to just drink that." He added that he was considering a Belgian Ale he'd done at Neversink Brewing in Reading and the well-remembered Adamstown Amber, which he brewed originally at Stoudt's. Trust me, though, this is a Lager man at heart…and there's definitely nothing wrong with that.

Rupp left Stoudt's in the mid-'90s (not a happy parting, with too many "he said, she said" stories attached to sort out what really happened), and was out of brewing for two years. He then became the founding brewer at Neversink and was there for another two years. "Then they decided to make only ales because ales are cheaper," he says, then after a pause, "and they lasted about six months after that." He scooped up the brewhouse of Pretzel City, another Reading brewery that went under a year later, and found the current site shortly thereafter.

Union Barrel Works is three floors with a full basement and a flat roof that may one day be turned into a deck area. It was home to a hardware store prior to the sewing factory and had been empty for years. The first floor (the only one so far receiving zoning approval) is the brewpub, supported by a 15bbl brewhouse with four 15bbl fermenters and two 30bbl fermenters. It has seating for 111 in the pub area and a side dining room that seats 100. That's a lot of capacity for a town of less than 3500 residents, but Rupp isn't fazed; hell, if the city fathers go along, he has plans for a pool hall and cigar bar on the second floor, a rathskeller in the basement and that rooftop deck (Daniel will have an apartment on the third floor). "This area has a lot of ongoing growth," he says. "People are moving here from Philadelphia and Baltimore because of the better land values and commuting to work."

The pub is striking, with approximately 6,000 square feet of original tin ceilings, refurbished maple floors and a classic bar from the old Showboat Hotel in Reading that Rupp believes dates to the 1800s. "We ripped off this god-awful ugly front paneling and found all sorts of ornate carvings and arches," he says. "The carpenter who works for me totally refurbished it." A lot of people will be admiring that bar in coming months because there will be no off-premises opportunities to try Rupp's beers, aside from four taps which have been committed to them by Canal Street Pub in Reading. A bottling line which was in the original plans has been put on hold, at least for now, by higher than expected construction costs.

"We wouldn't be looking for any other accounts yet anyway," Rupp rasped again as our conversation drew to a close. "With 80 percent of our beers being lagers, that 15bbl capacity isn't as large as it seems at first glance, so we have to be cautious. Our plan is to fill a lot of growlers, really take care of our customers and see where it all leads."

So far, it's led him right back where he belongs.

The circle unbroken.
As I was writing the original draft of the above, I found myself tossing in a raft of parenthetical remarks and explanations to try and give the full flavor of the intriguing story of the Reading beer scene over the last dozen years. Call it the curse of knowing too much and wanting to share it, call me its victim. To soothe that beast who haunts my soul, here's the good stuff I cut out…

In 1995, that golden year for American craft brewing, both Pretzel City Brewing Company and Neversink Brewing Company opened in Reading, the latter at 545 Canal Street, underneath the aforementioned Canal Street Pub, which is important. Both closed within a couple of years, which is both important and sad. Still, that's when the fun began.

What became of Tom Rupp, Neversink's founding brewer, you've just read. He's back. But, interestingly enough, so are Scott Baver and Dave Gemmell, the guys who founded Pretzel City. And not only is Rupp now brewing on the other two guys' former brewing system as noted above, they are now brewing on his former system.

When Neversink went under, the brewhouse was sold to an investor who never got anything going, which is how Rupp was able to pick it up. Neversink's owner Bill McShane eventually worked a deal with a new group, including the owner of the city's best known beer bar, Northeast Tavern, and they created Fancy Pants Brewing. It went under (there is a pattern here). Baver and Gemmell, the Pretzel City guys who'd had a falling out (something else that seems part of the Reading pattern), got back together in 2003 and created Legacy Brewing. After a short stint contract brewing at Henry Ortlieb's Sunnybrook Brewery & Grille (which eventually went-wait for it now-under), they leased the Canal Street location for their new operation which, happily, shows no signs of going under.

Reading was also briefly home to Camelot Brewing, which got started in 1997, but came and went so fast hardly anybody remembers except really serious beer geeks, not us regular folk. And there's Joe Beddia, who came from Fancy Pants, went to Philadelphia's Yards Brewing and is now in the process of establishing his own farmhouse ale brewpub in that city called Brasserie de Mars. But that one's another column.

The Markowski crew, together again.
In a nice gesture which was also a smart business move, Brian O'Reilly, head brewer for rapidly growing Sly Fox Brewing in Philadelphia's western suburbs, signed on Scott "The Dude" Morrison, the recently deposed brewer for nearby McKenzie Brew House, to come to Sly Fox's Phoenixville brewpub to brew Morrison's popular Biere de Garde with him on March 9. The beer was then poured at "The Dude in Exile" night at the pub on March 30. "Scott got to make a few bucks and we got to pour a great beer, it was a no-brainer," said O'Reilly. O'Reilly and Morrison are long-time pals, each having gotten into brewing as an assistant to Southampton Publick House legend Phil Markowski when Markowski was starting out in New England. In one of those bits of synchronicity that makes life so much fun, Markowski was just a few miles away on March 9, at Sly Fox's production brewery in nearly Royersford, brewing one of the four high-end, corked and caged Southampton beers which are made and packaged there under contract.

Fleet ruminants and Bock delights.
Finally, to bring us back where we started-lagers-I note (with the caveat emptor that part of my meager lifestyle is supported by doing some website and promotional writing for them) that Sly Fox conducts one of the preeminent lager events in the country on the first Sunday of May each year, a Bock Festival/Goat Race which draws huge crowds to Phoenixville. The fun element for the masses is the race, a series of short heats to determine which animal will have the annual Maibock tapped and named in its honor when the dust has settled down, plus the German food and music. For lager fanciers, however, the day is a hint of Nirvana. In addition to the new Maibock, Slacker Bock, Helles Bock and Instigator Doppelbock are flowing, plus Eis versions of the Helles and Doppel. Other German-style brews are on tap as well, the very good Rauchbier in particular having become a crowd favorite.

Copyright (c) 2007 Jack Curtin

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