Breweries came, breweries went
and a little bit of history faded away

by Jack Curtin
Atlantic Ale Trail
October - November 2007

You probably know the old Chinese curse: May you live in interesting times. Well, some body apparently laid that one on the Philadelphia beer community this summer. There was a stretch there in August when I'd wake up every morning to polish the story I was about to break, jump online to post it and then quickly roam the web to see what news the other guys had uncovered while I was working on mine.

Things got started when Allentown Brew Works, a sister brewpub to the nine-year-old Bethlehem Brew Works, held its grand opening on June 16. The completion of this four-year project is good news for Allentown, where it's expected to help revitalize the downtown area, and for the Fegley family, who founded the original BBW, but it's been so long in coming-four years-that it was almost a "gee, I thought that already happened" moment for many.

The real excitement kicked off at the end of July with news that the Yards Brewery Co. partnership was splitting up and that departing Bill & Nancy Barton will retain the current plant and equipment in the city's Kensington section and will start their own Philadelphia Brewing Co. there, while co-founder (with the long-departed Jon Bovit) Tom Kehoe gets the Yards name and recipes and will move into a new brewery in 2008. Under the agreement, Yards will continue brewing and bottling in the current brewhouse until year's end. This is gonna be a touchy one. Neither side in the split is very fond of the other and the eventual battle for tap handles, if and when it comes, will be a bitter one.

The Bartons will already have the existing brewery, of course, but Kehoe has been supremely confident whenever I've talked with him. He's purchased a 50bbl brewery from Florida. He has an intent-to-lease agreement on a new location as of late August and has been reported to have several other sites under consideration just in case. He has been meeting with and talking to some interesting brewers. He says that, if he can get a lease deal done by October 1, he's convinced that a relocated Yards can be up and running on January 1, 2008, with no break in production. Still hanging over him and complicated the situation, however, is a court decision which could prohibit the current self-distribution by Yards. They've won that battle at every level so far, but the last decision in the brewery's favor was remanded to the lower court by a higher one and is being reconsidered.

Early August brought word that Boston Beer Co. had reached an agreement with Diageo for its brewery near Allentown for $55 million and would begin brewing there in the last half of 2008. The historic site has been home to the Schaeffer, Pabst and Stroh brands over the years and some Boston Beer products were actually brewed there from 1994 to 2001 while Pabst was the owner. The arrangement effectively scuttled a plan for BBC to build a $4 million facility in Freetown, Mass., and will double the company production capacity by 1.6 million barrels with room for further expansion.

The very next day, the daily Morning-Call in Easton, Penna., reported that the city planning commission had approved plans for Victory Square Brewing Co. downtown. That's a still-in-negotiations thing as of this writing. Downingtown's Victory Brewing Co. and an Easton developer are negotiation for the former to create a brewpub for which Victory would make the beer. Will it actually happen? "Although the opportunity is still intriguing, we need to solidify a number of details before the project progresses," Victory PR spokesman Jacob Burns cautioned in late August.

Mid-month, the downtown Independence Brew Pub was suddenly padlocked by Sheriff's deputies while brewer Tim Roberts was still in the middle of a brew because of a mind-boggling $800,000 in unpaid back rent. The site has been "interesting times" cursed from the start. Built but never used by the defunct Red Bell Brewing Co., it was taken over by a group of investors in 2000 who had bought, and were in the process of running into the ground, the original Dock Street Brewery & Restaurant. It has been operated for them by a Washington DC-based management firm who clearly cared little about the beers Roberts brewed as mainstream brands dominated the taps. In their defense, Red Bell built only a 10bbl brewhouse in the place, intending to truck in most of the beer from its brewery in the city's Brewerytown section a few blocks away, and it wasn't possible to make enough beer onsite for the tourist crowd which was the main audience. If they'd been smart enough to feature only local beers, it might have worked. The most interested potential new lessee will likely sell off the brewhouse.

Almost simultaneously, it was announced that investors (not the same ones) had acquired River Horse Brewing Co. of Lambertville, NJ, and that founders Tim and Jim Bryan will remain with the company. Tim Bryan told a local reporter that the acquisition was "a great positive step forward for River Horse that helps to safeguard our future and realize our full potential." The brewery is located in a former cracker factory along the banks of the Delaware River in Lambertville and was founded in 1996. Most readers here have probably not heard of the place, which kept an extremely low profile and whose beers didn't, in the main, get the beer geeks excited.

The Independence closing brought city's brewpub number back down to three (Nodding Head, Manayunk and Triumph), but that was quickly rectified with the opening of the new Dock Street Brewery in West Philadelphia on August 20. Nothing formal (that was scheduled for early September), just the doors being opened by a happy Rosemarie Certo. She and husband Jeff Ware owned the original Dock Street brewpub which, she convinced me in a recent conversation, doesn't get nearly enough credit in the story of how craft beer came to Philadelphia, and this venture is her dream of recapturing that magic in a new, grittier location just west of the University of Pennsylvania campus. The pub hopes to be a focal point for a refurbished and lively neighborhood. Perhaps showing how far public attitudes have changed, the venture has overwhelming local support rather than uniformed opposition.

I'd broken the story that the new Dock Street brewer was Julius Hummer, the son of the founder of Boulder Brewing, a few days previously and opening day was my first chance to meet him in person. He's definitely a brewer you can look up to-standing a towering 6'7"-and has had several jobs in the brewing world, mostly out west (he did do a East Coast stint at Vermont's Otter Creek). "I've always wanted to live and brew in a big Eastern city, so this is really exciting for me," he said. Exciting enough that he slept on a cot at the brewery for his first week in town, getting right into the thick of things. The first four beers, among them a very interesting rye-based IPA (RYPA), were created by former McKenzie Brewhouse brewer Scott Morrison, who is still working on setting up his own place. Hummer says he'll keep a couple of those and starting adding some of his own, the first of which will be his Left Coast Ale.

If Dock Street can do for its neighborhood what a pair of local beer bars, Standard Tap and South Philadelphia Tap Room, did for theirs in recent years, it will be both a successful enterprise/good citizen and the harbinger of the expansion of craft beer culture into the so-far untapped southwest and west part of the city. Certo is certainly saying the right things-"Dock Street was pushing the envelope in the early '90s before everybody else and we want to do the same thing now"-and the 10bbl brewhouse is large enough that they should be able to fill her promise of our soon seeing Dock Street taps around town and in the 'burbs.

Less noticed (I didn't even know it was gone until I got word of the new tenant) was the passing of Copa Too!, a center city bar which was, in its day, the epicenter of a burgeoning beer culture in the city. The bar manager there was a guy named Tom Peters, who poured the first Belgian draught in America, 18 kegs of Kwak in the summer of 1995, and, with promoter Jim Anderson, put together a small beer fest the following spring which featured 14 Belgians on tap, some of them for the first time ever and all of them for the first in the U.S. In 1997, Peters and Fergus Carey, who was bartending next door at a great dive bar, McGlinchy's, opened Monk's Café, a little pub of which you may have heard. The new tenants have opened Jose Pistolas, a Tex-Mex themed bar with a real focus on quality beer. Ironically, while we lost a bit of our history, we may have gained another good beer destination in a city overflowing with them.

Michael Jackson.
This column is being written on the day we learned of the death of the man who made beer writing possible and who remained the best there was at that craft until the day he passed. So many of us-writers, brewers, publicans-can, and do, say that Michael Jackson made our careers possible; I can amplify that to note that he literally made my career at Celebrator Beer News possible. My first appearance in these pages was in the April/May 2000 issue, with stories on the black tie "Michael Jackson Roast" at the University of Pennsylvania Museum on March 3 of that years, and the historical all-lambic beer dinner at Monk's Café two nights later. I've not left since.

I got to know Michael reasonably well after that, even at one point broaching the idea of my writing his biography if he wasn't planning to do an autobiography, an idea on which he was noncommittal but one which he at least didn't dismiss out of hand. I meant to bring the subject up again the last time I ever saw him but the opportunity never presented itself. Michael was in the area visiting Carolyn Smagalski and, knowing that he and legendary brewer Bill Moeller (who helped start Brooklyn Brewing and the original Dock Street, among others) were old friends who hadn't seen one another in a while, I put together a Sunday brunch for the four of us at the Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant in Phoenixville on March 25. It turned out to be a wonderful three-plus hours spent listening to two legends reminisce about old times and tell stories about the history that they'd helped shape with the enthusiasm and joy of men half their ages.

If it all had to end, that bright and perfect Sunday afternoon when we all felt young again is as appropriate a personal farewell to the Bard of Beer as any.

Copyright (c) 2007 Jack Curtin

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