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The afternoon a U-Haul truck slammed through his new brewpub, Urban Village co-owner Dave Goldman was in the brewery, separated by a glass door from the rest of the space. He assumed the loud noise was one of the waitstaff dropping plates.
“So I just turned around to see how bad it was,” he said, “and there was a truck.”
The U-Haul crash made big news. Somebody even caught the destruction on video. Was it a sign? While the area has long been a beer mecca, Philly proper has seen dozens of new breweries and brewpubs launch inside the city limits over the last couple years, and more are on the way. Are there so many that newcomers will have a hard time becoming successful?
Despite the ominous accident, there’s no indication Urban Village is in trouble. At least not yet. Business has been consistently busy its first couple months. Goldman and partners re-opened just hours after the U-Haul incident, and then brewed a beer called Wrong Way IPA to commemorate the occasion.
[pullquote content=” It’s nothing but fucking difficult” align=”right” credit=”Evil Genius co-founder Luke Bowen” /]
Still, the scene is getting crowded. This year alone has brought Fishtown Brewpub on Frankford Avenue near the Fillmore, the Roy-Pitz Barrel House on Spring Garden, Fermentery Form in Kensington, Wissahickon Brewing in East Falls, Second District Brewing in Point Breeze and the Evil Genius “Lab” on Front Street under the El. By Billy Penn’s count, there are 25 breweries and brewpubs either open now or slated to open soon within the city limits. Most of the recent openings have been brewpubs, where the particular beer is available only on the premises, rather than breweries, which try to sell the beer elsewhere in the city or region.
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Industry leaders aren’t ready to call the market saturated, but several voice skepticism about entering the market without a heavily detailed business plan or the ability to differentiate from the competition.
“Everybody just thinks that opening a brewery is easy,” said Luke Bowen, co-founder of Evil Genius and a Billy Penn Who’s Next honoree. “Dude I’ve been doing it for six years. It’s nothing but fucking difficult.”
Twenty-five breweries is far fewer than some of America’s other best-known beer cities. Portland, Ore., and Boulder, Colo. — both places with populations much lower than Philly — are each home to nearly 50 beermakers.
Bart Watson, chief economist for the Brewers Association, a nationwide trade group, has studied the increasing number of breweries across the United States, which has spiked to more than 5,000 after reaching a nadir of less than 100 in the 1980s. He believes there’s no magic number for how many of these establishments a city can have.
“It varies by all the demographics and socioeconomics and rules of a place,” Watson said.
In 1995, when Yards Brewing began, Philadelphia had just a handful of breweries and brewpubs, and demand for local beer was high. Because the brewery — then located in a row home in Manayunk — was one of just a few in town, bar owners were thirsty for product. Many had tasted Yards at the city’s Craft Brew Festival and fallen for its rich, full-flavored English-style ale. So even when co-founder Tom Kehoe made a cold call or showed up at a the door of a publican he didn’t previously know, a sale was generally imminent.
“[It was a] personal relationship with the bar.” Kehoe said. “For the first year and a half we were at every bar for the first tapping of the beer. We’d deliver it and then we’d be there that night to drink some.”
No one could start a brewery in Philly these days with the same improvisational plan he and partner Jon Bovit had, he said. In fact, he opined, starting any kind of production brewery could be difficult.
Brewpubs are different. Places like Urban Village, Second District and Fishtown Brewpub, for instance, are only aiming to sell their beers within the walls of their space. These brewpubs have considerably less risk. Bowen, Goldman, Kehoe and others believe the model has legs — thanks to increased consumer desire for locally-made beer, brewpubs have the potential to steal market share from non-brewing neighborhood bars and restaurants.
But becoming the next Evil Genius or Yards — a brewery trying to distribute its product throughout the city, and potentially beyond — is a separate challenge.
“There’s too much on the shelf anymore and there’s only so much space on the taps at bars,” said Mike Treon, Roy-Pitz’s head of business operations. “We’ve been selling beer for eight years in the city and it’s just harder and harder.”
Nationally, many industry veterans agree. In the crowded market, the trend is toward smaller and more local producers. Brian Buckowski, founder of Georgia’s Terrapin Brewing (which was recently acquired by MillerCoors), speculated to Market Watch that if he had to start a business now instead of 10 years ago, he’d open a smaller brewery where he could sell out of a taproom. That’s similar to what Evil Genius — which was previously a contract brewer without a physical home, with recipes outsourced to other brewhouses — has done in Fishtown, making the best out of a recently-changed Pennsylvania liquor law.
“I think it’s a better strategy because everyone’s so caught up with local beer,” Buckowski told beer writer Jason Notte, “so how do you become relevant in a state where you’re not local?”
Goldman would never have considered making Urban Village a production brewery instead of a brewpub. Years in the restaurant industry taught him the safest bet would be to put together an experience that includes food and beer, he said, which he stressed will be fresher than anything you get at bars or the stores. At Urban Village, he can combine both sets of expertise and not worry about what he calls “hyper-competitive” shelf space.
“People will always go out to eat and look for something interesting,” Goldman said. “And we provide that.”
[pullquote content=”It varies by all the demographics and socioeconomics and rules of a place.” align=”right” credit=”Bart Watson, chief economist for the Brewers Association” /]
If shelf space is getting overcrowded, what about real estate? This summer, Chambersburg-based Roy-Pitz opened its Barrel House at 10th and Spring Garden. That’s right next to the forthcoming Love City Brewing and less than five blocks from the new Yards brewhouse, which is scheduled to open by the end of the year. Just a bit farther north in Kensington are Philadelphia Brewing Company and Saint Benjamin Brewing. And then ABI-owned, Chicago-based Goose Island is also planning to open a brewpub on Frankford Avenue. Along with Urban Village, Fishtown Brewpub. Fermentery Form and Evil Genius, that’s nine beermakers in the same general section of the city.
Proprietors admit that number is getting a little high, but also see a positive side.
“Visiting breweries is an event,” said Urban Village’s Goldman. “The idea that you could hit several in the same geographic area in the same afternoon almost makes it more desirable.”
At Frankford Hall, the Stephen Starr beer hall in Fishtown, general manager Joshua Mann often see groups come to his bar after spending time touring breweries. Business, he suspects, has only increased in the area because people know to come there for good beer.
“People want good beer,” he said, “and I don’t know that there can necessarily be too much of that.”
Evil Genius’ Bowen often gets phone calls from wannabe brewers, usually strangers who’ve been making their own recipes at home and find his number through his brewery’s website. He never discourages anyone or recommends they not open a place of their own, he said. Instead, he asks them a series of questions, from how much brewing and business experience they have to whether they’re generally handy, and lets them figure out the answer for themselves.
Even if he wanted to make a specific recommendation on whether or not to launch a new brewery, he’s not sure what the right answer would be.
“Will there be a time in a neighborhood when there’s just no more room?” Bowen said. “Whoever figures it out is going either make a lot of money or save themselves a world of hurt.”