If “levante” means “to rise up” in Italian, then Eric Gillard, Levante Brewing’s Director of Sales and Distribution, is the embodiment of the term. Opening a brewery takes some serious finesse, capital, and good old sweat equity, but perhaps that’s why we admire breweries so much. The kind of camaraderie and craftsmanship it takes to maintain a brewery speaks to a rare kind of American mobility, a willingness to innovate on a local scale. Currently there are about seven full time workers at Levante Brewery and many more part time employees in their taproom. Gillard is a formidable jack-of-all-trades who quite literally rose up through the ranks of Levante Brewing alongside Founder and President, Eric Santostefano, and Founder and Brewmaster, Tim Floros.
“I actually started out as a taproom team member here pouring beers,” says Gillard. “I volunteered to do some brew days and I quickly morphed into a Brewer slash Sales Manager then up from there. It's been a good ride so far.”
Having strong beer knowledge is an absolute necessity when it comes to salesmanship. Through the multifaceted nature of Gillard's experiences, he made himself the prime candidate for the job. Up he rose.
“The success that I've had in my current role has really been from what I've done since the beginning. Being able to go to an account, speak about the beers, the process and actually know the ingredients and, at certain points, have my hands on the beer really speaks to what Levante has on the streets. Being able to bring that knowledge helps our beer. I've done many different tutorials with bars and restaurants about our beers. Being so young and so new that is crucial for us. Putting a keg in a bar and no one knows who we are that doesn't help anybody.”
All great enterprises start with a single of kernel of inspiration. Born in an apartment then, after, a shed, then a basement, and, finally, a no-nonsense warehouse in West Chester, the concept of Levante Brewing developed slowly. Perseverance and ingenuity are the hallmarks of craft beer. Levante Brewing isn’t any different.
“Myself and Tim, my brother in law, he bought one of those beer kits eight or nine years ago and we started brewing in his apartment,” explains Santostefano. “He was going to Villanova at the time. We stunk up his apartment with our first beer. It was called The Hoppy Plopper. We made it and it was drinkable. I mean I don't know if it was good or not…We went from his apartment to his Dad's shed to my garage slash basement. As we were getting more serious people started saying we should do something with this. So we started listening. It took about four years from idea to opening. I think that was one of the keys - taking our time. We gave it it's due diligence.”
And here’s what’s most remarkable about Levante Brewing: they don’t make a bad beer. Regardless of style (Belgian Tripel, Milk Stout, Cider, IPA, Lambic) every brew stands on its own two feet. It seems like practice and patience makes perfect. If you haven’t had Cloudy and Cumbersome yet try it and you’ll know what we’re talking about. Levante Brewing’s diverse portfolio does not weaken the overall quality of their beers; rather, it pushes them to innovate.
“There are certain breweries that really focus on pushing out three core beers. You know what? We're pushing out seven - smaller batches - of beers. Same volume, but different variety. That's a beautiful thing,” says Gillard. “That keeps us new. And we are new, but that keeps us fresh. The fact that the beers are the quality that they are is a testament to Tim [Floros].”
Thanks to the talents of Floros, Levante has managed to strike a fine balance between traditional brewing techniques and experimentation. Beers like Coffee Shoppe Terminology, a “chewy” milk stout made with a speciality coffee blend from Golden Valley Farms and a dash of lactose, is “a beautiful beer” says Santostefano. Meanwhile there’s Froth, a Northeast IPA with lactose, orange peel, citra and azecca hops, as well as vanilla Madagascar beans. Floros explains. “You have the creaminess of the beans with oats and wheat. Then you have those melded flavors of the citrus, orange, grapefruit, and vanilla. We continually want to innovate.” Levante’s Urbino, a puckery Lambic packed with Balaton cherries, blew my tastebuds away. Great beers aside, craft beer is still immensely competitive. As the United States approaches, according to Floros, 5,000 breweries, space behind the bar and in keg rooms becomes increasingly limited.How does a burgeoning brewery from West Chester compete in an arena as packed as Philadelphia? Is being a brewery from the ‘burbs a barrier?
“I don't think it's ‘suburbs versus city,’” says Gillard. “It's the the newness of us; that was the biggest barrier. People being reluctant to try a new brewery. I hear it all the time: ‘I’ve never heard of you guys. I haven't tried your beers yet.’ That was the barrier. My job has become so much easier now, than it was a year ago. The quality of the beers I'm able to bring out there - I've now proven us on the streets. People respect the fact that we're at City Tap House. People respect that they see a high quality place like that carrying our beer. We've grown from that.”
Looking ahead, Floros foresees a pop in the popularity of pilsners (not surprising consider the recent comeback of the lager). “[P]ilsners are an area of interest to us. German, Czech style, Bohemian pilsners. The world of American style pilsners is still in its infancy. We're approaching 5,000 breweries in the US and you haven't seen a large percent of them create their own take on the pilsner. It's very continental still. People are really going to start improving the American style pilsner.” Based on what we’ve had so far, we’re confident Levante Brewing can take the style to new, delicious heights. Ultimately, it’s the community that shapes the craft of Levante Brewing. Santostefano elaborates.
“The biggest key to our success is the relationships we have inside and outside the company. The brewery doesn't belong to us, really. It belongs to where we're planted.” That, perhaps, is the biggest takeaway from our time with Levante Brewing. Santostefano, Gillard, Floros, and their team are both a product and essential part of their community. Their beer is made for and by the people who drink it. Santostefano said it best.
“When you're buying Levante, you're buying us as a family.”
To learn about Levante Brewing's tasting room and tappings, visit them online.