Brewing Up Business in Wilmington

The city’s first brewery since 1954 opens in a neglected part of town 

Craig Wensell had a bellyful of the corporate life. He was used to being his own boss and he chafed under the structured life he was living. So, he decided, as legendary bluesman Muddy Waters once sang, to live the life he loves and love the life he lives.

As a result, Wensell is the owner of the soon-to-open Wilmington Brew Works on Miller Road in north Wilmington. It joins a growing group of breweries sprouting up all over the state and the country. But Wensell’s is different because his is the first production brewery in the city since 1954, when Diamond State Brewery closed its doors, and he’s creating his business in a neglected part of town that is far from the bright lights of the Christina Riverfront and the hustle and bustle of Market Street.

The Spanish architecture of the building is rare for Wilmington.

“That’s an old perception that we’re hoping to change,” Wensell said. “I did feasibility studies, I did my homework, and I think this is a fantastic opportunity. The building is beautiful and this area is hungry for something like this. To me, the time and place are perfect.”

Reviving those neglected areas of Wilmington has been a point of emphasis for the administration of Mayor Mike Purzycki. So, when city officials heard that Wensell was looking for a place to set up shop, they approached him about the site on Miller Road, which is owned by Ralph and Rose Pepe.

The 11,000-square-foot building is a brownfield—a contaminated property that gets federal aid to clean up potential hazards so it can be redeveloped. Wensell was drawn to its unique-for-Wilmington architecture. It has a red-tile roof and Spanish flair that make it look more like a hacienda than the industrial shop it once was. It used to house the Harper-Thiel Electroplating Company back in the day when Gaylord’s department store and Jack Lundy’s Jewish delicatessen were the big attractions in that part of town, but the building has been vacant since Harper-Thiel left it in 2000.

Wensell had hoped for a May grand opening, but weather-created delays have pushed that projection back to June. 

Good Buzz

“But it’s already creating a lot of good buzz for Wilmington on the whole and for the northern section of the city in particular,’’ Purzycki says. “Anticipation is high that it will be successful and a popular attraction for nearby neighbors as well as for patrons city-wide and regionally.

“If you have a good product to offer and a pleasant and safe setting for people to enjoy themselves, then the location of a business becomes less important. This new business fits nicely into our administration’s mission to strengthen city neighborhoods, which can become stronger when they are near other popular amenities.”

Wensell plans to add food courts and live music as his business grows and he’s already in negotiations with pizza and taco vendors, among others. As for his beer, he plans to produce only 500 barrels a year, which is far fewer than the big breweries that produce them by the thousands—Dogfish Head, the reigning king of Delaware breweries, produces about 260,000 barrels annually. Wensell will brew the popular IPA and different seasonal beers, but his specialty is sour beer, which is intentionally made acidic or tart. Wilmington Brew Works will also serve non-alcoholic drinks because Wensell wants to make it a family-friendly destination.

At least one new neighbor hopes Wensell’s patrons will be hungry as well as thirsty. Domenico DeCicco is the owner of Hotspot, a casual restaurant located in a strip mall adjacent to Wilmington Brew Works, and he’s thrilled about the imminent arrival of a new business in the Miller Road area.

“And it’s not just me,” says DeCicco, who has owned his restaurant for three years. “I have a lot of customers come in here who ask when it’s going to open, and you can see that they’re excited about it. There’s nothing like that around here, a place where people can get together and have a good time and maybe listen to some music, and it’s going to be good for my business and the whole area in general.”

DeCicco said Wensell has already stopped by his shop as he gets to know his new neighbors and he’s already made a favorable impression.

A Long and Winding Road

“He’s very friendly and very personable and I know he’s going to do well there,” DiCicco said. “This is something we’ve needed around her for a long time and I’m glad he’s the one to do it.”

Wensell’s road to Wilmington was a long and winding one, with some interesting side trips. He grew up in Oklahoma and got his undergraduate degree at Oklahoma State and his master’s degree in Music Performance at Florida State. He was an assistant professor of music at Columbus State University and also spent many years as a freelance musician (he plays the bass) and played all over the United States and Canada, including a stop where all musicians dream of playing—Carnegie Hall in New York.

Wensell will be inviting customers to enjoy food courts and live music soon after the June opening of Wilmington Brew Works.

He has also used his hands in another occupation—he’s a licensed aircraft mechanic and served a two-year tour of duty in Afghanistan in 2009-2010 with the Army National Guard as a Black Hawk Helicopter crew chief.

After his tour of duty, Wensell continued to work in the aircraft industry, but he found himself doing more paperwork and less mechanical work and he hated being chained to a desk instead of being in a shop or concert hall. More than anything, he missed being his own boss as he had been during his touring musician days—although, as a married man with three children, he knew he couldn’t resume that vagabond lifestyle.

Eventually, he decided to try turning one of his passions into something profitable. Like millions of Americans, he had been an avid home-brewer for years. So he went professional and created the Bellefonte Brewing Company, which he operated out of his home before moving into a small brewery space on Old Capitol Trail. Wensell sold his interest in Bellefonte last fall and moved on to the underserved northern Wilmington area.

And the rest, as they say, is geography.

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