Recent comments underline Weyerbacher's ongoing success and a Philadelphia Belgian scene which is getting even better (assuming that's even possible)

by Jack Curtin
Atlantic Ale Trail
June - July 2007

"You know who's making some really great beers right now? Weyerbacher."

After my pal the Absent-Minded Brewer blurted that out for the third time in a month, I finally recognized it as a ham-handed nudge from the beer gods to once again cast my eyes northward toward Easton, Pa., home to Weyerbacher Brewing Company. When your competitors start raving about you (other brewers have been saying nice things as well, albeit not with such numbing regularity), you're clearly doing something right. Besides, online reviews and comments of Weyerbacher's beers have been overwhelmingly positive for months now and the brewery's performance in 2006 and for the first third of this year should serve nicely as an exemplar for the across-the-board growth being reported by breweries all across the Mid-Atlantic region.

A lot of early microbreweries were created in less than ideal physical structures, but I'm pretty sure that Weyerbacher was the only one which started out in a former livery stable. That was where founder Dan Weirback cobbled together a 10bbl Rube Goldbergian brewhouse on uneven and far-from-level floors and in weird configurations. The result, which might have suited a small brewpub but was a definite stretch for a production brewery, was more an adventure than a smooth running machine. Still, the first beers went out the door in September 1995 and have continued steadily ever since, albeit from a different and considerably more suitable locale since late 2001. Weyerbacher is today the oldest surviving microbrewery in the five-county Philadelphia region, behind only Yards Brewing, whose first beers were introduced in the spring of 2005.

Dan Weirback's most endearing characteristic is that he never met a beer he didn't want to brew. Weyerbacher has had about 20 styles in production annually almost from the start, a huge number for a small brewery which packages everything (draft is only about 20-25% of sales). Given all those beers and the unwieldy brewing conditions, there were more hit-and-miss releases than there should have been in the first few years, but a hardcore and loyal Weyerbacher fan base also developed over that period. Things got better when the brewery moved to a new, larger location in an industrial center on the other side of town in December 2001 (sacrificing its very cool and appealing brewpub, created in January 1998, in the process) and a lot better with the acquisition of the original Victory Brewing 25bbl brewhouse in December 2004.

"The new brewhouse marked a significant change for us in terms of quality control and consistency," says Weirback. "It allowed us the freedom to confront issues that needed attention. There are all these amazing little things that brewers learn by experience which really affect the quality of the beer, but you need the time and the ability to use that knowledge. About six months after the new brewery was up and running, we formed a management team of me, our filtration and packaging guy, Chris Lampe, and head brewer Chris Wilson (who came on board from California's Bayhawk Ales in 2003) to do just that, to tweak our recipes, to polish up our bottle conditioning processes, to improve our techniques overall."

Most famously and publicly, Weyerbacher reinvented its flagship Hops Infusion IPA in early 2006, recognizing that it had lost its way in the market. The new version was an immediate sensation and fostered a single-hop Double Simcoe IPA a few months later, a beer whose equally impressive public acclaim jumped it from a seasonal to a year-round release this March. Less fanfare accompanied a recent upgrade of Merry Monks Abbey Triple ("it was a little too sweet, need drying out"), but reviews of the beer reflect that the change has been noted. Those three, plus Blithering Idiot Barleywine and Old Heathen Imperial Stout, are the core beers, reflecting Weyerbacher's reputation as a "big beer" brewery. A series of bourbon barrel-aged products (the star of which, for me, is Insanity, a barrel-aged version of the barleywine), the U.S.'s first bottled Quad, and Raspberry Beret, a forthcoming 9.5% abv sour brew which Weirback describes as "a strong amber ale before the raspberries and Brettanomyces are added, medium tart in the Rodenbach and Duchess range," lead a pack of monthly seasonals which strengthen that identity. The Brett beer will be released at year's end, limited to somewhere between 50-80 cases.

As always, the numbers tell the tale. Weyerbacher recorded 23% growth in sales for 2006 and they're up 60% for first four months of 2007. "About 20% of this year's growth can be attributed to new or expanded markets," says Weirback, "but 40% is in our existing markets. Plus all of our year-round beers are showing a significant uptick, which is a very solid indicator. We don't figure to maintain 60% growth for the year, but we do expect to finish up around 30%. Our plant is growing with the demand. We put two more 40bbl fermenters on line in March and have brand new boiling kettle with an internal calandria on order, which will allow us to boil double batches and takes us from a three vessel brewhouse to a four vessel one. We can produce 7,000bbl a year with the 12 fermenters we have and we will add more fermenters early next year."

Brussels on the Schuylkill…
"Most people don't realize it, but Philadelphia is the biggest market in the U.S. for Belgian beer, and it has been for many years."

Brooklyn Brewing's Garrett Oliver posted that on an online beer board recently, in a discussion about why West Coast breweries such as Russian River their beers into this market. It's a pertinent point because there's big news on the Philly Belgian front.

First, some history, for those who came in late. Philadelphia's Belgian scene began building in the early '90s when a bar manager named Tom Peters was pushing the envelope at Copa Too! in center city and another bar manager, a Belgian ex-pat named Michael Notredame, had turned Brigid's, in the Spring Garden area, into the first Belgian-focused bar in the city. Notredame was dismissed by Brigid's in 1995, the same year that Peters brought the first Belgian draught beer into the U.S. The former moved on to create Cuvée Notredame several blocks east of Brigid's; the latter, with partner Fergus Carey, opened Monk's Café in 1997 (the headline on this piece is in fact recycled from a story I wrote about all that in 1999 for a no longer published brewspaper. Notredame and his café are gone now too, but Brigid's remains--one of the city's great and underrated treasures--and Monk's has become, well, Monk's, among the world's best known and most respected Belgian bars. Today, you'd be hard-pressed to find any decent bar or restaurant in the city or environs which doesn't have at least one Belgian tap, probably more.

Now, the rich are about to get richer.

Just about the time this sees print, Monk's on Green will open at 21 & Green Streets, the site of the former Tavern on Green, roughly midway between Brigid's and the former Cuvée Notredame site (which is apparently about to be reborn as an Irish-themed spot). Meanwhile, Michael Naessens, founder and owner of Eulogy Belgian Tavern, Monk's best known competition in the Belgian wars, is seeing that move and raising the ante. On or before July 4, Naessens says, he will open Beneluxx @ Broad Axe Tavern in the northern suburbs, located in 1681 building which is the oldest tavern in Montgomery county. He also has Beneluxx Tasting Room scheduled to open on Third St. in Olde City for later this summer. It will feature tables with built-in glass rinsers for use while sampling beers and wines. "The three Beneluxx locations will have a total capacity of 650 guests," Naessens notes. "And there is a Beneluxx Beer line being brewed for us in Belgium." Monk's, of course, already has beers of its own being made in Belgium.

…and on the Main Line.
Belgian-wise, things are about to pick up on Philadelphia's fabled Main Line as well, where a long-rumored and highly anticipated new venue should finally open its doors in June. As yet unnamed, it will be an addition to Theresa's, a very good Italian BYO on North Wayne Avenue in the town of the same name which was forever immortalized in David Brooks' Bobos in Paradise. One suspects the place will be designated the "Something at Theresa's" once ownership gets its act together. With two other high-end restaurants on the block, Christopher's and The Wooden Iron, and the additional presence of the Great American Pub's Wayne entry right around the corner, the opening should make the street the hippest locale in the western suburbs, the predominance of classic blue blazers, lime green trousers and sensible pink dresses not withstanding.

The new place will have 75 seats, 24 taps and two handpumps. Half of those taps will be Belgian, as will be an equal portion or more of the 120 bottles planned for opening day. The rest of the taps will be micros, mostly local, and these will dedicated by style--a Pils tap, an IPA tap, etc.--rather than by brewery. There's been a real attention to detail here, including digging out a basement so that the kegs can be right under the bar, as close as possible to the taps. Matt Guyer, owner of the nearby Beer Yard, arguable the area's most respected and well-stocked retail beer purveyor, is acting as the beer advisor for the owners, which is certainly a plus in my eyes, although I guess I needs must confess in that regard that I am the content provider for the Beer Yard website. Given that, to paraphrase the lovable Geico gecko, what would you expect me to say?

Copyright (c) 2007 Jack Curtin

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