A Tale of Three Brewers

Triumph and Stewart's brewers hope to shine again at GABF; Manayunk's Firey hopes to add some Synergy
to the Philadelphia scene

by Jack Curtin
Atlantic Ale Trail
Oct/Nov 2005

Triumph Brewing Company executive brewer Jay Misson will be getting married in his Jersey shore hometown on the afternoon of October 1 rather than standing in Denver's Colorado Convention Center Festival Hall to see the 2005 Great American Beer Festival medals awarded. "I left simple instructions with my guys," he laughs. "You can call me if we win a medal; otherwise, never mind."

I'm working blind here in late August on whether Misson got a call or not, but I do know that, if he'd taken the marital plunge a year ago, his phone would definitely have rung. In 2004, Triumph Kellerbier, brewed by Patrick Jones at Triumph's New Hope, PA, location, took a Gold in the "Beer with Yeast" category, and Triumph Rauchbier, brewer by Tom Stevenson at Triumph's original location in Princeton, NJ, garnered Silver in the "Smoke-Flavored Beer" competition. As the guy responsible for both sites, Misson (who won three Golds of his own before joining Triumph in 2003) is happy to bask in their reflected glory.

Triumph Brewing was founded in Princeton in 1995 by Adam Rechnitz and Ray Disch. Rechnitz was the original brewer, soon followed by Stevenson, whose been with company since day one. The New Hope pub opened in 2003 and a third location will be operating by next spring if all goes well. Triumph has signed a lease in Olde City and is planning to open Philadelphia's fourth (and badly needed) brewpub. With only Nodding Head, Independence and Manayunk within city limits, this beer mecca town has suffered an embarrassment of non-riches, brewpub-wise.

As noted, Misson lives along the New Jersey shoreline. You might not be familiar with the geography, but, trust me, his residence forms a lengthy triangle with the two brewery locations, and the city site will make the journey an even lengthier trapezoid of sorts. "I'm already a driving fool," he says, "doing over 600 miles a week back and forth." Help may be on the way, although not immediately. Misson says a fourth Triumph pub will be built somewhere on the Jersey shore "when and if we find the right situation." Wow, talk about badly needed…

Meanwhile, 75 miles south of Triumph's New Hope pub, Stewart's Brewing Company head brewer Ric Hoffman, who missed a GABF of his own in 2000 when his brewery won a medal (due the imminent birth of his daughter), will definitely be in Denver on October 1. He may have been absent when Stewart's won that first medal, a Bronze, but Hoffman's been to the party since and hopes to re-experience the sense of accomplishment he had in 2003 when Stewart's Barleywine took a Gold and its Oktoberfest a Bronze.

Stewart's was founded in 1995 (that year again, see "Ten Years In" below) by Al Stewart, who was also the original brewer. Tony Ciconte followed and Hoffman came on board as his assistant in 1998, then took over in 2000. "I guess you could say the beers are pretty much all mine at this point," he says, "especially the seasonals. We have 70 or more recipes at present and 90% of them are ones I developed. Plus I tweaked most of the others, because that's what brewers do." He produces his beers on a 7bbl Peter Austin system and says that the brewery is moving up on its 1000th brew.

In a state where the publicity-savvy Dogfish Head and Iron Hill dominate the beer news, and with a location at the rear of a shopping center in the little town of Bear, where you have to want to go to go, if you know what I mean, Stewart's is, Hoffman laughs, "the redheaded stepchild" and has become very much a local venue. "We have very loyal customers who pay real attention to the beers," he says. "Our Stumbling Monk's golden ale, for example, gets them so excited that they pull out cell phones and start calling their friends when they see it on tap. I don't know if you'd call ours a beer-savvy clientele, but they certainly know and appreciate our beers."

The brewery took another step into the spotlight this summer with the introduction of Blue Rocks Pilsner, a very good beer named for Delaware's Class A baseball franchise, which is also sold at the stadium. Meanwhile, weep not for their operating figuratively in the shadows: Stewart's experienced a 23% growth in sales last year and is on line to do same in 2005.

A Brewhouse and a Dream.
On a hot and humid August Tuesday, Manayunk Brewery and Restaurant head brewer Chris Firey raised his hand during the auction of the brewhouse and contents from Valley Forge Brewing Company, which closed its doors earlier this summer, and said "$25,000," topping an existing Proxy bid of $24,500. With that, the 10 bbl. Specific Mechanical system, capable of about 1400 barrels a year, was his. It will be the basis for Synergy Brewing, an enterprise Firey hopes to get up and running within the next year.

Standing next to Firey in something close to shock at the time was Mike Rose, Manayunk's general manager.

"Mike's a great guy and I've always kept him informed about my plans for Synergy, so he knew what I was doing right away," Firey recalls, "but you should have seen the look on his face. He never expected me to buy the whole place then and there." Firey immediately sold off some of the "whole place" to Mark Edelson of Iron Hill Brewery and Restaurant for cash and two older bright tanks which Iron Hill has in storage. "Mark came to the auction prepared to buy the brewhouse," says Firey, "but he was nice enough not to bid against me and I was more than happy to work with him in an arrangement that helped both of us. He needs that tanks for his new brewpub in Phoenixville which will open next year."

While he continues to man the tanks at Manayunk, Firey will be working on the business model for his Synergy concept this coming year. "The idea is to market a few brands under our own name, but mostly to do custom beers for restaurants, bars and clubs, anyone who can sell 20 kegs in three months or so. It's a plan I have had for a long itme and I think the timing and location is right. For now, we're putting the brewery in storage until a proper site is found."

Comings & Goings.
Marc Worona, head brewer at Stoudt's Brewing Co., resigned as of August 26 to become hops purveyor Yakima Chief's Director of Sales for the Western United States and the Rocky Mountains. Worona was with Stoudt's for the past ten years and headed up a three-man brewing team which has revitalized Pennsylvania's oldest microbrewery over the past 18 months, including the movement of all production in-house and ramping-up several beers, to national acclaim. For now, at least, associate brewers Brett Kintzer and John Matson will hold the fort in Adamstown…..Another former brewer for Stoudt's (not to mention Independence, Sly Fox and Ortlieb's) has landed at Lancaster Brewing Co., where the demand for their Hop Hog Imperial IPA has left them happily reeling while trying to keep up. Bill Moore took over the helm in late August, bearing the scary title of production manager, when former head guy Joey McMonagle moved on to brew at Johansson's Dining House and Brewery in Maryland. Moore, who garnered 18 GABF medals in his much traveled 17-year career, says he hopes to add at least one more to the total at Lancaster.

Ten Years In.
I noted last month that 1995 was a seminal year in Delaware Valley brewing, with lots of start-ups. Another event that magical year, well, to me anyway, was the appearance of my first beer article, a cover feature in one of the local alternative rags which ran under the title "Homeboy Brews." In more than 4,200 words, I got to chronicle the emergence of Yard's (today Philadelphia's only full-production brewery), Tun Tavern (which has morphed into a successful Atlantic City brewpub) and Valley Forge (as noted above, closed this summer, just past its 10th anniversary); celebrate two of the early harbingers of the changing scene, Sam Adams Brew House and Dock Street Brewery & Restaurant (both gone now), and get the first eerie inklings of the painful disasters that Independence and Red Bell would become. Along the way, I met now-legendary publicans like Tom Peters (then bar manager at Copa Too) and Dave Wilby (whose Dawson Street Pub was instrumental in bringing the handpump back into local favor) and homebrew gurus George Hummel and Nancy Rigberg.

To paraphrase W. C. Fields, that story assignment drove me to drink and I didn't even have the decency to say thank you…

Copyright (c) 2005 Jack Curtin

Return to Archive Listing