Above: Volunteer Brewing Company owners Kevin and Dawn Schatz with their Dead Poets IPA. Photo by Joe Grace
The craft beer scene is coming on strong in this burgeoning community
By Pam George
When Kevin Schatz decided to turn his passion for homebrewing into a profession, he didn’t look far for a brewery site. He and his wife, Dawn, had lived in Middletown for more than a decade. And Dawn, a licensed clinical social worker, had a business on Main Street with a dilapidated two-car garage.
With a can-do attitude, Schatz renovated the 500-square-foot space and opened Volunteer Brewing Company during the town’s 2017 Peach Blossom Festival. “We sold out of beer in an hour,” he recalls.
Five years later this month, Volunteer Brewing has become part of the MOT (Middletown-Odessa-Townsend) landscape in more ways than one. The brewery now has a taproom next door in the 200-year-old former home that the company purchased and renovated.
When Volunteer Brewing opened, it was the only brewery in the Middletown-Townsend-Odessa area. Now there are four, and that’s a plus for local hopheads and tourism.
Like many MOT residents, the Schatz family moved to the area for the schools and the sense of community. Those advantages also appealed to Paul Hester, who with his wife bought a home in Middletown shortly after graduating from college.
When Hester decided to leave his cybersecurity position at JPMorgan Chase & Co. to open a brewery in Middletown, he knew his market well. “Middletown has a high level of commercial and residential growth, which you can see just by driving around,” he says. “Still, to this day, projects are popping up.”
The corporate executive didn’t rely on his opinion before opening First State Brewing Company in 2020. He also studied marketing materials citing the desirable demographics. “Middletown checked all the boxes,” he says.
Unlike Schatz and Hester, Andrew Kulp was unfamiliar with the area when he moved his family from Roanoke, Virginia. The former nuclear engineer had been working as an assistant brewer at Roanoke’s Big Lick Brewing Company.
“I learned a lot because the brewer was also the owner,” says the Virginia Tech graduate. “I had the opportunity to ask a lot of questions.”
He quickly discovered that if he wanted to make a viable living, he needed to own the brewery, and if he was going to become an entrepreneur, he wanted to do it near family in Allentown (Pa.) and Havre de Grace (Md.). Middletown offered affordable housing.
Kulp, who grew up in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, partnered with high school pal Justin Lovuolo to start JAKL Brew Works, which is a blending of their initials. The brewery opened in 2021 on Patriot Drive, the same street as First State Brewing Company.
Each brewery has a distinct personality. JAKL is so small that visitors will rub elbows with the owners, who are doing multiple jobs. Kulp feels this adds a personal, casual touch to the atmosphere.
First State is a licensed microbrewery. “We are allowed to sell food, but we don’t have to,” Hester explains. Food, however, has become a draw thanks to Nicholas Carr, formerly the executive chef at Big Oyster Brewery in Lewes and Hester’s buddy since fifth grade. The menu includes poutine, charcuterie, tacos and sandwiches, including an apple-scrapple grilled cheese and a cheesesteak with onions braised in witbier.
“A lot of people come for the beer and leave talking about the food,” Hester says. However, they also learn a thing or two about beer. Hester and two other employees are certified cicerones, which is to beer what a sommelier is to wine. Joseph Spearot, the quality manager, is an advanced cicerone.
“We’re the only brewery I’ve ever heard of that opened day one with a quality manager,” says Hester, who formed his business in 2014 but did not open until 2020. “We have the mantra of continuous and never-ending improvement.”
First State Brewing, which won a gold medal in the 2022 U.S. Open Beer Championship, is also focused on distribution. The beer is available throughout Delaware and in Maryland and Philadelphia areas. The brewery recently debuted its products in Washington, D.C.
JAKL plans to can beer once the volume increases, but it will only be sold in the taproom.
Meanwhile, Crooked Hammock Brewery is a lifestyle brand with an easy, breezy backyard vibe and a family-friendly menu.
To Give and To Receive
Crooked Hammock Brewery opened in 2019 on Auto Park Drive. It is the second of three locations; the first is in Lewes, and there is one in Myrtle Beach. For its first expansion, La Vida Hospitality Group looked for an up-and-coming area, says Rich Garrahan, managing member of operations for La Vida Hospitality Group.
“The mayor at the time was working hard to make Middletown grow, so we felt really supported by the government there,” he recalls. “We felt like it was a really business-friendly town, and we wanted to go to a town that would embrace us.”
The other brewers would agree. “The town was really willing to work with us,” says Schatz.
When he decided to open Volunteer Brewing within the town limits, there was no defined zoning for breweries. But government officials willingly accommodated Schatz as the town’s only brewery and the zip code’s first. The town was also receptive to Schatz’s purchase and renovation of the 200-year-old home next door. The state has also been helpful. In 2020, Volunteer Brewing received a $49,330 EDGE Grant from the Division of Small Business.
The favorable government response is appreciated. But customers have the final vote of confidence, and their reaction has been positive — a line of revelers wrapped around the building when First State Brewing celebrated its first anniversary.
“We weren’t expecting it,” Hester says. “There’s been tremendous community support.”
Garrahan says beer enthusiasts embraced Crooked Hammock in Middletown as soon as it opened. “They were starved for craft beer, and they didn’t have a lot of options. We’ve had lines out our door for new beer releases.”
Schatz wants to return the favor to his hometown and his place of business. Giving back to the community and nonprofits is so important that he named his business Volunteer, and not all the philanthropic initiatives involve beer. The company has helped plant trees and clear brush.
“People get to meet outside the brewery setting,” he says.
Putting Middletown on the Map
The breweries’ customer base includes more than locals. People are crossing the Delaware River and the canal to spend the day in the four locations.
“That’s the nice thing about Middletown with the breweries popping up; we get a lot of people who are brewery hopping. They get a flight and move on,” says Kulp.
“Middletown is now a destination,” adds Schatz. “We didn’t have that before, and it’s great.”
Both brewers want their establishments to feel like a neighborhood hangout, a vibe that is becoming more needed as the population explodes in the MOT area and the farms on the west side of Middletown give way to houses.
“As an area grows, there are people who know less and less about the community,” Schatz says.
Initially, Volunteer Brewing was only open one day a week, and customers spilled out of the garage and into the yard.
“They would run into people they hadn’t seen in years,” Schatz says. “It felt like a small town in a backyard. The breweries can still capture some of that small-town feeling.”