Hill Climbing

The highly successful Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant chain is spreading good beer and cheer in Delaware and Pennsylvania

by Jack Curtin
Atlantic Ale Trail
Oct/Nov 2004

Mark Edelson, the first brewer and one of the founding partners of Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant, the Delaware based brewpub chain, set some personal goals right from the beginning.

"I knew we'd be entering our beers at GABF, because we all liked competition and saw it as a good way to get feedback," recalls Edelson, who until opening day of the first Iron Hill pub, in Newark, Del. on November 14, 1996, had never brewed professionally. "I told myself I wanted to win a medal within the first five years and maybe one day even get a gold medal."

Yeah, right.

Lodestone Lager, the initial Iron Hill GABF entry, won gold in the Munchener Helles category in 1997. And the brewery has since garnered GABF medals every year of its existence, a total of 13, capped off with two gold and two bronze last September. They've also claimed four World Cup medals, including two gold and a bronze at San Diego last April, and a pair of silver Real Ale Festival medals.

GABF triumphs are all part of an Iron Hill pattern: solid beers and steady growth resulting in accolades, awards and, more importantly, ongoing prosperity. There may be a craft brewing success story of similar dimensions out there somewhere, but it's hard to imagine that there is a better one.

It all started in the early 1990s, with two guys homebrewing on Sunday afternoons while watching football games. Edelson, now Iron Hill's head of brewing operations, and Kevin Finn, now administrative and marketing manager, met while playing soccer and later brewed together on a simple Sabco system that now resides in the basement of Iron Hill's West Chester, Pa. pub. "We started thinking about brewing professionally around 1991," remembers Finn, "and we became really serious in 1994, the year we both got married. My father also sold his billboard business that year and I got some money out of that."

Around the same time, they connected with Kevin Davies, now restaurant operations manager, who'd been in the restaurant business in one form or another for 20 years and was also thinking brewpub. Forming a partnership, with Finn's father as the fourth, and silent, founder, they created the company, taking "Iron Hill" from an historic Revolutionary War landmark in Delaware.

Unable to find an appropriate site in Wilmington, where they wanted to open, they settled on becoming the primary tenant at a new construction project which Davies found in Newark. "We were a little skeptical about a college town," says Edelson, "but it was gangbusters from the day we opened the door." He was the brewer and he and Finn also did managerial shifts, while Davies was in the kitchen. Most of their attention was focused on the restaurant side. "We were pretty confident we could be a great brewery, but we knew we had to be a great restaurant too," recalls Edelson. "The brewery would give us an edge, but it was the restaurant that would make us successful."

The original pub was followed by the second in West Chester two years later. Then came Media, Pa. in June 2000, Wilmington, Del. in September 2003 and North Wales, Pa. this past March. The company currently employs 500 people and projects that it will sell 5,000 barrels of beer this year. Overall sales of beer, liquor and food are expected to hit $20 million. Iron Hill was 71st on Inc. Magazine's list of America's 500 fastest growing privately held companies in 2001 and its pubs routinely win "best of" awards from various local publications.

The Newark brewery is a 10-hectoliter system similar to those used today at all five sites, although it has a direct fire boil while the others are steam-based. Edelson started with five basic beers: Lodestone Lager ("we definitely wanted to do a lager"), Pig Iron Porter ("everybody else was doing stouts"), Anvil Ale, Ironbound Ale(a pub ale and pale ale respectively) and a wheat beer. When he added raspberries to the latter that first summer, "just to get sixth beer without having to do any additional brewing," the plan was that new beer would be a seasonal. "I almost got lynched when I took it off in the fall," laughs Edelson. Raspberry Wheat became the sixth standard brew. Iron Hill Light Lager was added to the lineup at all the pubs beginning last September. At least two seasonals are usually on tap as well.

The most impressive of the Iron Hill pubs is the one in Wilmington, a magnificent two-story building on the Christiana riverfront, with a huge deck overlooking the city skyline. Brian Finn, younger brother of Kevin, is head brewer there, having gotten his start in Newark. He was working construction on the original site as the pub was being readied to open and offered to give Edelson a hand in the brewery, thus becoming Iron Hill's first assistant brewer. As it turned out, his first GABF beer also did right well.

"I was a 'bucket of Rocks' guy when I started," says Finn. "Everything I know about brewing I learned from Mark. When he announced he was going off to be the brewer for the new place in West Chester and I was now the Newark brewer, I was really nervous. He had to convince me I was ready to handle it. The first beer I formulated on my own was a Dortmunder Lager. Then I wanted to do a dark bock for GABF. Mark said I ought to do a Maibock instead because it would be easier to sell at the pub. So I came up with a recipe and that beer won a gold medal in 1999."

Finn eventually went to West Chester before moving on to Wilmington. He was succeeded in Newark by Justin Sproul, who'd started out on opening day as a dishwasher and eventually moved up to become Finn's assistant. Shifting employees, often with no brewing experience at all but an interest in learning, into assistant brewer slots and teaching them how to brew the Iron Hill way has worked well for the brewery. Sproul's current assistant, Mike Girardi, followed that path. "I kinda like it as a way to learn," says Sproul. "You have no preconceived notions about how things should be done. Then, once you have the basics down, you can spread your wings." When assistants are promoted to the top position, they are sent off to the Seibel Institute for the two-week Concise Course in Brewing Technology.

Thanks to its fortuitous location smack in the center of a lively town which is home to both a college and the county seat, West Chester is the busiest of the Iron Hill pubs. Opening day in 1998 was a harbinger. "When you open your second location, it's the only time you'll ever double the size of your company," says Edelson, "and it's always a shock. But we compounded things by opening the day of the town's annual restaurant festival. We ended up selling 25 barrels of beer that first day." Lodestone Lager, a hot item because of its GABF medal the year before, was gone by midway through day two. The company ordered more equipment immediately and began scrambling, serving beers from Victory, Stoudt's and Independence as its own brews steadily disappeared. "We were never totally out of our own beers, but we were down to our last two," Edelson recalls.

Chris LaPierre is head brewer at West Chester these days. He got his start at Dock Street Brewery & Restaurant in Philadelphia and came to Iron Hill after four years with Harpoon in New England. He's the envy of the other four head brewers because of his pub's large basement, which allows room for a cold room/stillage beneath the bar where he can keep up to ten kegs at a perfect 55 degrees. Only Newark among the others can also do cask regularly, but its stillage is a small and difficult-to-work-with space located in the ceiling directly above the brewery. "That's one of the things we're working on," says Edelson, "to be able to produce and serve cask beers correctly in every pub and become the biggest and best cask producer in the area."

Bob Barrar, who came to Iron Hill after a brief stint at Philadelphia's Red Bell Brewery and spent some time as an assistant in West Chester, is the head brewer in Media. That pub is producing the Lodestone Lager which is on draught at the Philadelphia Phillies new baseball park, marking the first time Iron Hill beers have been served off premises, and it will likely be the next to have a stillage created. Barrar already offers a bar-top firkin of cask ale on the first Friday of every month. He's become, for want of a better term, Iron Hill's "medal guy," racking up six GABF awards and, in April, a pair in the World Cup competition. He's also the adventuresome sort. As this story was being prepared, the Media pub was featuring his Hopalicious IPA, based upon a recipe obtained from Tom Nichols of Oggi's Pizza and Brewery during the AOB meeting in San Diego in April (Barrar traded Nichols his medal-winning Tripel recipe for it).

There's reason to suspect that Hopalicious, or other creative brews such as Finn's Bourbon Porter and LaPierre's hoppy golden version of a Barleywine, might not have seen the light of day a few years back. "I was always committed to very traditional styles of brewing," admits Edelson, who approves each new recipe, "but I think I've expanded my horizons a bit. I try to advise these guys, but sometimes I learn from them too." He cites Sproul's recipe for a Russian Imperial Stout, which called for 15 or so different malts. "This is insane, I told him. Why do this? And Justin said he was looking for 'complexity.' I finally said, this is your beer, go ahead and do it your way. And when I tasted it, it was fantastic." That beer, formulated by Sproul and brewed by Barrar, won a gold medal at the 2003 GABF (Iron Hill does a blind tasting of various brewers' versions of potential submissions to pick which ones will be sent to Denver).

The latest pub is off to a smashing start, with Larry Horwitz, formerly at Manayunk Brewery, as the head brewer. Throughout it all, the three partners have replicated their original pattern whenever a new site opens up, taking various shifts to keep in touch with the way the business runs at its basic levels. This means getting right down to the nitty-gritty of the business, and Horwitz, an Elton John look-alike in brewer's boots, recalls with clear amazement a booted Edelson standing beside him and shoveling mash during the early days at North Wales. "You know how you always hear people talk about `the real deal,' and then you find out there isn't any such thing? Well, this is it. This place is the real deal."

The three partners acknowledge that Iron Hill is at the point where they need to create a more extensive corporate structure: a facilities manager, human resources person, perhaps someone in marketing. A new region head chef was appointed in August to oversee all aspects of culinary operations throughout the company. These moves are necessary not only because of where they are, but where they want to go, even if not immediately.

"We're always looking at possibilities, but we can't do anything for at least another year," Davies says, "We'd like to be on Philadelphia's Main Line someday and maybe go further north into Bucks County. We know that South Jersey is aching for a brewery and restaurant like ours. While we're delighted we finally got into Wilmington, that only happened because a South Jersey project fell apart. Finding the right site over there would be like hitting a home run."

* * * * * *

Philadelphians Tom Peters of Monk's Café and Ed Friedland of Edward I. Friedland Distributors, together with Randy Thiel, brewmaster for Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown, NY, were inducted into the Knighthood of the Brewers' Mashstaffs (Chevalerie du Fourquet des Brasseurs) on Friday, September 3 as part of the opening ceremonies for the sixth annual Brussels Beer Festival. Michel Moortgat, director general of Duvel Moortgat (which owns Brewery Ommegang), awarded each member of the trio the title of Chevalier (Knight of Brewers) during ceremonies at the Magdalena Church, citing their contributions to Belgian ales in the United States.

By the time we gather here again, both the brand new 50-barrel brewery at Victory Brewing in Downingtown and the more modest 20-barrel system being installed by Sly Fox Brewing in Royersford should be turning out beer--excellent beer, based upon all previous evidence. Roughly 17 miles and half an hour apart, these new breweries will likely make the western Philadelphia suburbs even more of a destination point for beer lovers. Man, it's getting crowded out here.

Copyright (c) 2004 Jack Curtin

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