In the midst of Philly’s current beermaking boom, which has seen more breweries open inside the city limits than any time in the past 100 years, the latest addition to the scene stands out.
Form, which officially introduced its space at Cecil B. Moore Avenue and Palethorp Street this month, doesn’t actually brew beer.
That’s because Form isn’t technically a brewery at all. It’s a fermentery.
Behind a three-tap bar and bench that form a mini tasting room (which will be open to the public a few days each month come spring), its 1,400-square-foot facility is home to 52 giant oak barrels. Only a few have been filled so far, but eventually they’ll all be brimming with wild yeast going HAM on fermentation.
“We actually have more in common with a winery than a brewery,” said Fermentery Form principal Ethan Tripp. He described the basic operating premise of the business he founded in 2014 with two longtime homebrew pals: “Liquid comes in, liquid goes out.”
What’s that mean, exactly?
Making beer has two fundamental parts. First comes the “brewing” — boiling malted grain in hot water to release sugars and create what’s known as “wort.” Second is fermentation, in which yeast is added to the wort in order to convert the sugars to alcohol.
When Tripp, 38, and his partners, fellow Philly natives Matt Stone and Scott Hatch, were brainstorming about how to turn their hobby into a business without “spending a million dollars” or losing control by bringing in outside investors, they had an epiphany.
They’d already become more fascinated by fermentation, blending and aging than any other part of the process — sour beers and gueuzes made up most of their homebrew output. So instead of being discouraged by the high cost of brewing equipment and the high rents that would go along with space to hold it all, they realized they could outsource that entire step.
“This area is in the middle of a brewery boom,” Tripp remembered thinking. “Why do I need to build my own?”
Tripp created a business plan that would see him contract with other local breweries to produce wort according to his recipes, and then have it delivered to his facility. Once there, it would be transferred into barrels with a proprietary blend of yeast and allowed to age and ferment.
It all sounded good, except for one thing: He wasn’t sure it was legal.
After reading through reams of LCB code and dozens of legal opinions, Tripp came to the conclusion that his plan was above-board, because “the state doesn’t care about sugar water.” Since wort is not yet alcoholic, it’s not regulated the same way as finished beer, and having gallons dropped off at his place wouldn’t open him up to charges of booze transport tax gone unpaid, he determined (and then confirmed with the appropriate agencies).
The Form partners bought a Pennsylvania brewery license, created a logo (Tripp’s background is in graphic design), registered with the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, and set about obtaining barrels and finding the right location to house them.
Since it was to be a production brewery (i.e. not a brewpub) the trio looked for something zoned industrial — and found it at 1700 N. Palethorp St., in the same building as the Keystone Mini-Golf & Arcade and where Federal Distilling makes Stateside Vodka. They shellacked the exposed brick walls, put a new coat of resin on the cement floor and hired local carpenter Will Stichter to build a gorgeous barn-style door for the room’s courtyard entrance.
Then it was time to find some barrels.
Barrel aging and fermenting has become a hot trend in American brewing, and waiting lists for the right casks can last many months. Even back in 2014, when Form was getting started, good barrels weren’t all that cheap or easy to come by.
So Tripp took a circuitous route. Rather than waiting around or shelling out top dollar for the perfect barrels, he bought a shipment of four-times-used containers from a Napa winery looking to get rid of them — “At the point these barrels were at, they usually become lawn chairs,” he said — and recoopered them himself.
Now those barrels form an impressive pyramid that’s the centerpiece of the fermentery.
The first two batches of wort have been delivered from nearby St. Benjamin Brewing Co., where Tripp personally oversaw the brew made from his hops and grain. They’re now fermenting with Form’s custom culture, a blend of standard saccharomyces yeast and funky brettanomyces yeast, plus some lactobacillus bacteria.
Those are the ingredients for what’s known alternately as wild ale or sour beer. But while many US attempts at these old-world styles end up tasting like vinegar, Tripp’s goal is not to make your mouth pucker — it’s complexity and drinkability.
“There’s so much more than sourness in these beers,” he said. “Floral flavors, minerality, pleasing bitterness.”
The first release, called Formhouse, is a bottle-conditioned ale that rings in at 6.2%. Most of Form’s beers will be blends pulled from various barrels at different stages of aging. The pyramid of casks will act as a what’s called a solera, with young beer starting fermentation at the top, then being transferred down to lower levels of barrels as time goes on.
Tripp plans to sell cask-conditioned draft brew to select bars around Philly, and sell bottles direct from the Kensington facility. You can also subscribe to the bottle club, which gets you two bottles of each and every Form release until the value of your $250 or $500 signup fee is met.
How often to expect new releases, Tripp can’t say. He estimates first-year production might reach 1,000 bbls — 0.1 percent of what Yards is aiming to produce annually at its new facility — but isn’t willing to make any promises.
“I could try to guess, but in the end it’s up to the yeast,” he said. “Microbes don’t care about business plans.”