From Home Brewers to Craft Brewers

Scott Pruden

The microbrewing craze continues unabated, with four more on tap

At this point, it might seem like everyone has that neighbor (or perhaps you’re that neighbor) who has given home brewing a try in the basement or garage.

In fact, so many of the booming microbreweries around the First State (and pretty much everywhere else) began as garage brewing operations that it’s almost become a cliché.

But you’ve got to give credit to Middletown’s Kevin and Dawn Schatz for taking that “garage brewer” idea and pushing it so far that it goes beyond cliché right back around to cool. The two are the proprietors and brew masters of Volunteer Brewing Co., perhaps the most micro of Delaware’s microbreweries, located in a renovated two-car garage at 120 Main St., behind the Middletown Volunteer Fire Company.

Volunteer is just one of several new microbreweries popping up this year and into 2018, a growth spurt for the local brewing scene that may add as many new brewers during a nine-month period as we’ve seen over the last few years.

The Schatzes were originally attracted to Middletown from Chadds Ford, Pa., 12 years ago, when they went looking for a smaller-town feel and an escape from the traffic of the Route 202 corridor. What they found, they say, was a place that was gradually growing while struggling to retain its small-town vibe.

Crowlers from Volunteer Brewing Co. in Middletown. Photo Jack Pickett

The decision to go with such a small space, says Kevin Schatz, allows them to focus on their motto: “Serve Local Beer,” which also includes an emphasis on local community service and support for other local businesses, along with brewing superior small-batch.

“Local is really where we want to focus one hundred percent of our time,” says Schatz. For example, Volunteer’s Orange Blossom Honey Wheat is made with honey from a local beekeeper.

And while Volunteer has yet to commit to regular hours—beers and opening days are posted each month—their opening during the Middletown Peach Festival was met with long lines of thirsty customers for pints and 32-ounce “crowlers” (cans of fresh beer filled and sealed at the brewery).
“We’re asking people what they’d like to see and drink and putting that together and keeping it local whenever we can,” Schatz says.

Burning the Midnight Oil

Microbrewing, by its nature, often starts as a hobby pursued after spouses and children have gone to bed. And so, Midnight Oil Brewing Co. has taken that work-into-the-night ethos and applied it to its full-time brewing philosophy.

Founder and brewer Mike Dunlap had been brewing for about 10 years, and four years ago he and cofounder T.J. McGrath decided to move forward with a brewery distribution model focusing on a venue space within a tap room, rather than a brewpub model. Two years ago, a third partner, Joe Stickel, joined the team. A brewery/tasting room is slated for a late fall opening, says Patrick Jones, director of sales and taproom operations.

Midnight Oil Brewing Co. founder & brewer Mike Dunlap (top), with (l-r) Joe Stickel, Patrick Jones, and T.J. McGrath. Photo Jim Coarse

That distribution model, thanks to Delaware laws, means a location at 674 Pencader Dr. in a light industrial park outside Newark. The focus on the taproom environment is welcoming to beer lovers. The finishing touches are being put on Midnight Oil’s taproom, which will open in December with 90 seats, eventually expanding to about 120, Jones says.

Above all, he says, the emphasis will be on quality in an area that’s already full of great brewers. “We have great respect for our peers who were here before us. We’ve done our homework and developed communication and relationships with those who’ve already been here, so we’re super excited about working with people around the state who’ve already paved the way.”

A Stitch in Time

In 2016, the building at 829 Market St. in Wilmington was already on its way to becoming a restaurant. Local restaurateur Scott Morrison, who owned Chelsea Tavern and Ernest & Scott, was renovating the long unused industrial property for a new brewpub. Then, in February, Morrison died suddenly from a heart attack.

Not long after, Dan Sheridan, who had already successfully opened Wilmington Pickling Co. and Locale BBQ Post in Wilmington’s Little Italy, was looking for his next venture. Ideally, one that wouldn’t dominate his life the way the two previous openings had. And he thought a brewpub might be just the ticket. The fact that the former Morrison property was available made it seem like Sheridan’s next project, Stitch House Brewery, was almost meant to be.

Looking at an opening late this year, Stitch House aims to be a full-service brewpub with a wide selection of house-made beers and a food menu that will keep the downtown lunch crowd fed while offering a welcoming destination for the dinner and evening crowd as well.

Stitch House Brewery’s logo.

“Obviously, the beer is the focus. But to group it with a nice atmosphere and to be in the city of Wilmington, then couple that with good food? That got us excited,” Sheridan says.

The plan is to have 12 beers on tap always, with a rotating list of specialty and seasonal brews. The food menu will be heavy on cast iron skillet dishes and cassoulets at reasonable price points. Plans are for an opening before the end of the year.

The building itself, which at one time was a linen mart and the pole house for the Diamond Electric Co., informed the brewpub’s name. Work crews have been busy rehabbing the space, which has yielded some treasures, Sheridan says.

“Once all the crews got in there and ripped out everything from people trying to cover stuff up, we really uncovered a lot of cool steel and brick and architectural details that we’re trying to incorporate everywhere we can,” he says.

North of the Border

What’s a Delaware brewer to do when the right space just doesn’t present itself nearby? Head north, of course.

That’s what took Kent Steeves of Braeloch Brewing, soon to open in Kennett Square, out of the Diamond State and into the Keystone State. After he spent nearly a year trying to find the right space in Newark, Pennsylvania eventually beckoned with a building at 225 Birch St., just up from the Creamery of Kennett Square.

Steeves started out as a homebrewer, then got serious about owning his own brewery when his daughters left home for college. After visiting Germany for ideas and inspiration, he began hashing out a business plan with his wife, Amy, and partners Kathy and Matt Drysdale of Hockessin.
Plans are for 12 taps, with a running selection of IPAs, a few seasonals and at least one experimental brew.

Braeloch Brewing’s logo.

“We can and need to offer a broad range,” Steeves says. “For the IPAs, we want to always be highlighting different hops to really try to help customers choose what they want to taste.”

Some of that hops—as well as much of the beers’ barley—will be sourced locally. “There are a lot of barley growers in the region, and a local hops grower wants to be able to expand his acreage,” he says.
As for food, a small kitchen will provide light fare like nachos and flatbread pizzas, with a rotating cast of food trucks—vetted for quality and speed of service—adding variety. The space will also be fitted out for catering and to accommodate large groups.

The building, erected in 1903, will boast a 4,000-square-foot taproom with a 3,000-square-foot beer garden that overlooks the east branch of Red Clay Creek.

“We wanted that large taproom and outdoor space,” Steeves says. “We wanted this to be a place you want to go and hang out and completely relax and enjoy.”

Brewing Up the Perfect Storm

Never mind getting started as a brewer in your garage. Local entrepreneur Craig Wensell started with his own brewery.

One of the founders of Bellefonte Brewing Co., Wensell has since sold his interest to his partners at the Old Capital Trail brewery and embarked upon blazing a microbrewery trail in the underserved northern reaches of Wilmington by creating the first production brewery to be located within the city limits in more than 60 years.

Wensell’s new baby, Wilmington Brew Works, will occupy a former brownfield site at 3201 Miller Rd., just a stone’s throw from Route 202 and, conveniently, in his own neighborhood.

“I wanted to create this synergistic effect between my small business and other small businesses and bring it to my neighborhood to enhance the nightlife in that area,” says Wensell. “My goal was to bring to my neighborhood the things that I wanted to be near.”

The cleaned-up Spanish colonial-style building is the former site of the Harper-Thiel Electroplating Co. The building was where the duPonts are thought to have developed smokeless gunpowder. The renovated space will include a 1,400-square-foot taproom with a second wing that site owners Ralph and Rose Pepe will likely lease to a restaurateur or a group of restaurateurs as a dining room or upscale food court.

Wilmington Brew Works also will feature two outdoor spaces, one patio overlooking Haines Park across the street and the other adjacent to the Northern Delaware Greenway Trail, from which Wensell hopes to draw thirsty bikers and walkers.

Wilmington Brew Works’ logo.

He hopes to create a family-friendly neighborhood spot with live music and excellent beer—from IPAs and lagers to his forte, wood-aged sour beers.

“We’re a neighborhood microbrewery, and the challenge for me at this point is to navigate that brand concept in a way to tie my brewery to the city and the neighborhood,” Wensell says. “I’m really trying to distance myself from the concept of ‘bar.’”

He says he feels he is filling a need in the city and the neighborhood that for too long had been devoid of such amenities.

“I feel like we’re adding the right touch at just the right time to do what the city’s trying to do. It’s kind of a perfect storm of rainbows—everything coming together at the right time.”

So, what do you think? Please comment below.