Philly Beer

Philly Bar Wars escalate with custom beer you can’t get elsewhere

Yards, Victory, 2SP and St. Benjamin’s all make signature brews only available in a few locations.

2SP is currently brewing a beer to be served only at Craft Concepts Group bars

2SP is currently brewing a beer to be served only at Craft Concepts Group bars

Danya Henninger
danya

If you want to try the newest release from hot Delco brewery 2SP, you’ll have to visit a bar run by Alex Bokulich.

Solar Baby — a light, hoppy golden ale “that you can drink a ton of” — will only be available at venues that are part of Craft Concepts Group (Bru, U-Bahn, Cinder, Finn McCool’s), where Bokulich is beverage manager.

Breweries making beer sold only at specific bars isn’t exactly new, but it’s definitely getting more popular.

To taste Yards Cookie Swap Weizenbock, for example, you’ll have to order one at City Tap House. If you have a hankering for Victory Verde Saison, you’ll have to grab a seat at Alla Spina. Prohibition Taproom is the only place you’ll ever be able to ask for a pint of Yards Hoppy Li’l Hudson. And if you want to try Hop-Splitter by St. Benjamin Brewing, better get yourself invited to the Union League.

Why are custom brews a growing trend?

In Philly these days, it can be hard for a beer bar to stand out. A variety of choices on draft, including the best from the local scene plus new or rare finds from across the country? Yeah, you can find that at just about every tavern worth its salt.

Likewise, thanks to the intense proliferation of beermakers in the region and nationwide, taps switch frequently as bar managers try to please drinkers looking to try the hot new thing — which means it’s getting tougher for a brewery rep to count on guaranteed sales at any given account.

In this crowded market, custom collabs are a win-win solution.

Halfway IPA was one of the first Victory custom beers for Alla Spina

Halfway IPA was one of the first Victory custom beers for Alla Spina

Danya Henninger

On one side, bars get to offer something unique, and also play to their audience.

“Some of it is to draw the untappd crowd, get the destination business,” said Bokulich. “But it’s also for our regular customers — it’s a cool extra for folks who already come in. Something different.”

Last year, Bokulich collaborated with Pizza Boy Brewing on a custom label called Uptown IPA, which was the number one seller at seasonal pop-up Uptown Beer Garden. He’s expecting Solar Baby to be the same this year, as well as being popular at his year-round venues.

After all, Bokulich the one who’s most familiar with what his audience wants — and he uses that knowledge to help direct the final outcome of his collaboration brews.

“I wanted a lighter body, big aromatics and low backend bitterness,” he explained. “I knew that would sell. So I talked with 2SP and said ‘Hey, if you can make something like this for us, we’ll buy a ton of it.’”

Alex Bokulich helps brew the Solar Baby at 2SP

Alex Bokulich helps brew the Solar Baby at 2SP

Courtesy of Alex Bokulich

Which is one of the benefits on the other side: Breweries get a guaranteed big sale.

As City Tap House beverage director Andy Farrell remembers it, his first collaboration — a brown saison called Just Off Walnut — was originally the Yards sales rep’s idea.

“It secures a draft line,” he said. “In the super-happy world of rotating taps, that’s a huge anchor.”

Since then, Farrell has done three more custom beers with Yards, a couple with DC breweries for the Washington location of City Tap, and is currently working on one with Harpoon for the forthcoming Boston City Tap outpost.

He enjoys having a bit of say in the makeup of the beer: “It’s an opportunity for us to put our brewery hat on.” But “there is a potential downside,” Farrell noted, “which is if you’re not happy with the beer you designed together, you still have to sell it.”

That disappointment doesn’t come often (not at all to any bar owners or brewers we spoke with), but it is a possibility, because another benefit to breweries doing custom collabs is the chance to experiment.

“It lets our brewers play with new ideas and ingredients that aren’t in our normal production schedule,” said Yards founder Tom Kehoe. When Yards moves into its new, larger facility on Spring Garden, the small brewing system used for custom, one-off collaborations will be retired. But he still plans to keep doing them. It’s fun, plus “sometimes the beer turns out so well that we end up turning it into a regular release.”

That’s what happened with Victory’s Java Cask.

victoryjavacask
Courtesy of Victory Brewing Co.

Originally a custom, limited edition collaboration with William Reed of Johnny Brenda’s, made using JB’s house-roasted coffee, the barrel-aged stout has now become part of Victory’s lineup.

“It’s funny because it was the largest batch I ever brewed with someone, but it turned out to be Victory’s smallest release,” Reed said. “It sold out faster than any other bottle release they’ve done, or something.”

Reed, a former brewer who’s also co-owner of Standard Tap, has done dozens of collaborations over the years. He does one every year with Sly Fox, has done multiple collabs with Victory and has also done one with Dock Street.

“This was years ago, so when I told Dock Street I’d really love to do a Berliner Weisse, they were worried it wouldn’t sell,” Reed recalled. “The style wasn’t popular yet. So I told them, ‘Well — I’ll buy all of it!’”

Reed agrees that the effort also benefits bar owners. “It’s a way to differentiate your bar, you have something that’s not available elsewhere,” he said. “Plus it builds the relationship with the brewery. It’s a longterm alliance.”

In the end, custom collaborations are probably more about camaraderie than anything.

When Bokulich visited 2SP to help brew Solar Baby, “they put me to work — made me hose out the brew kettles!” he said. “But mostly I went there to hang out for a while. For the conversation. It’s a chance to cement a friendship.”