A LEGACY OF HEDONISM
Beer. Pleasure. What's not to like?
by Jack Curtin
Atlantic Ale Trail
CELEBRATOR BEER NEWS
Scott Baver is laughing at me, not exactly the sort of reaction a beer writer looks for from a brewer. "I give 'em three weeks," he says for a second time, and laughs again. He's quoting back at me the snide (and joking) comment I made, obviously in front of too many people, when he and partner Dave Gemmell appeared-or, more accurately, reappeared-on the local beer scene in May 2003. After renting a fermenter and brewing time at the since-closed Ortlieb's Brewery & Grill in Pottstown, they formed Legacy Brewing Company and once again began making Steam Horse Lager and Duke of Ale, the best-selling beers from their former Pretzel City Brewing Company, which went under in 2000.
I've telephoned Baver to get the story behind the effort Legacy will launch this month to raise $1.9 Million from private and commercial investors to construct a 10,000 square foot brewery with a 25bbl brewhouse and large outdoor beer garden along the banks of the Schuylkill River and he has, with unseemly delight, taken the opportunity to give me a comeuppance. No problem. If you can't take the heat, stay out of the brewhouse, y'know?
Legacy moved out of Ortlieb's and into a vacant brewery in Reading in September 2004. Their new location had been home to two failed endeavors, Neversink and Fancy Pants, so they were staring a disturbing (dare I say it?) legacy right in the eye. Undaunted, they phased out the Pretzel City brews to create a distinctive Legacy portfolio which currently includes Reading Pilsner (soon to be renamed and relaunched), Hedonism Ale, Midnight Wit and Euphoria Golden Ale. They've rolled merrily along since, adding two part-time brewers (and LLC corporate partners) to help Baver with the brewing (Gemmell is the financial guy) and also a sales manager in the past year. When the 2006 first quarter sales came in just shy of 50 percent higher than the entire number for 2005, it was clearly time to take the next step.
"We had this planned from the day we came back," Baver contends. "All most people saw were two guys doing it part-time up in Reading, but we were deliberately staying under the radar. Now we have a team in place, the city of Reading is helping us find the right location and will give us incentives to build because they want to build up the concept that this is an 'entertainment city' and our beer garden will help do just that, and it's time."
The time seemed right back in October 1995 when Pretzel City opened as well, but for different reasons, and those reasons were a major factor in its demise. "Everybody was jumping into the business back then," Baver remembers. "We all thought the boom would continue. So, on the advice of our lawyer, we structuring things to take on a large debt and keep all ownership to ourselves. We could do that because the brewery was located in the basement of an old carriage house in which the owner constructed a restaurant upstairs. She was willing to buy beer from us at very high prices as part of our arrangement and that meant our business plan was designed as if we were operating at brewpub profit margins. When her business failed, those margins were cut by more than half and we were in a real bind. I still think we might have pulled through, but our loan officer left the bank and the new guy just wasn't willing to work with us."
Pulling through might indeed have been possible. Among other things, and amazingly, given its size and short life, Pretzel City had two contracts in hand to brew beers from European breweries for the U.S. market, Blanche de Charleroi for Brasserie Val de Sambre in Wallonia and Boltens Ur Alt for Privat-Brauerei Bolten in Korschenbroich, Germany, when the bank shut them down. Baver actually brewed the Blanche over there and it inspired Midnight Wit, which became the second Legacy brand to be contract brewed and bottled (12oz) at Appalachian Brewing Company in Harrisburg in May.
Speaking of bottled products, it should be noted that the release of the first one, Hedonism Ale, helped raise Legacy's profile more than a little bit earlier this year. The company has obviously built its success primarily on the quality of its beers. Sales representation on the street and a well-conceived program of opening distribution channels have also been a vital factor. But all the publicity surrounding the release of Hedonism in a controversial case that was banned as "pornographic" by some Lancaster distributors who later sold it a brown paper wrapper? Heck, that was just happenstance. Or maybe not. "Yeah, I figured there might be a little excitement," Baver admits, "but nothing like what actually happened."
It started when he was talking with Deric Hettinger, who owns an art gallery near the brewery, about how to liven up Legacy's image at local events. Hettinger offered to do "live art" at the upcoming 2005 Manayunk Brewfest. He set up his easel next to the Legacy table and did an oil painting of his suggestion for artwork on the soon-to-be-released Hedonism cases. Not only did he draw an appreciative crowd (one of whom tried to buy the painting on the spot for $500), but what he came up was a striking visual interpretation of hedonism, a laugh-out-loud-inducing depiction of naked cartoonish figures kissing and groping one another against an attention-getting, garish red backdrop. Not only was the artwork commissioned for the new cartons, it inspired what is now Legacy's corporate slogan, "We brew pure pleasure."
The beer was released in December to several markets, with no particular reaction. When it shipped to the conservative Lancaster area in January, however, cases were sent back by a few distributors and one outspoken distributor made an issue of it, calling the package art "pornographic." Then, when her customers kept asking for Hedonism, she brought cases back in and wrapped each in brown paper. And she called the press.
"That was a Wednesday," Baver recalls, "and the story led the local TV news that night. It was the top story on their website for several days after than and the AP picked it up that Saturday. We got 36,000 hits on our website the next day, and emails from all over the country, from Europe, even China. I was interviewed by everybody, including a British beer magazine. It was really wild."
Hettinger has finished a second, not nearly as controversial, oil painting which was used to create the Midnight Wit cases which hit the market last month. It too is an attention-grabber, a scene of outlandish bright blue figures dancing around a campfire against a black, midnight sky.
Watching all this unfold, I've become convinced that these guys get it, understand it and should make it big. Of course, when it comes to predicting the future of Legacy Brewing, the record indicates I'm the last person you should ask.
Speaking of Appalachian Brewing Company as we were, they just celebrated their ninth anniversary in May and will open their third location in Camp Hill, Pa., this summer. The main site opened in Harrisburg in 1997 and the second in Gettysburg in 2003. A fourth location is expected to open in Lancaster next February. The original Harrisburg pub is, at three stories and 50,000 square feet, one of the largest-maybe the largest-in the country. The second floor bar was revamped into the Belgian-themed Abbey Bar last year; brewmaster and director of operations Artie Tafoya says that's been a smashing success.
Twin Lakes Brewery, whose opening was originally scheduled for roughly a year ago, finally got the deed done in April, followed by a Grand Opening party in May. Located on an historic 252-acre farm along Rt. 52 in Greenville, Del., Twin Lakes debuted with Route 52 Pilsner, Greenville Pale Ale and Tweeds Tavern Stout (the latter named for Delaware's first tavern). Mark Fesche is the brewer and making his beers in a gravity-fed brewery with a 26bbl steam-fired brewhouse, using only fresh hop flowers and water from a deep rock well which has operated on the property for over 200 years. Sounds bucolic, don't it?
Copyright (c) 2006 Jack Curtin
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