You could still smell the hay. Saint Benjamin Brewing Company was once a carriage house and a sprawling home for horses. Jackie Cusack, the brewery’s Sales Representative, brought Bryan and I through several floors of the dusty, almost mystical, brick building. The steps that carried us up ran parallel with a stone horse ramp used to lead the horses to the second floor. 14 inches of concrete and steel held the structure was under our feet. Sunlight passed through large, thinly framed warehouse windows facing the street. The walls were ripe with history; far below, 9 fermenters churned fresh beer.
The plan, says Jackie, is to eventually expand the brewing operation to the second floor. The enormous possibility of the building was tangible. It was beautiful. For now, however, Jackie, and Tim Patton, the founder of the St. Benjamin, were busy maintaining their brand new kitchen, taproom, and a significantly upgraded brewing system. Tim credits his inspiration and craft beer finesse to years of home brewing. Experimenting with brewing techniques and ingredients urged him to leave his job as a software developer behind. Judging by the immense transition St. Benjamin has made in recent months, it was clearly the right decision.
Barrel for barrel though, craft brewing in Philadelphia is competitive. Our city is packed with innovative breweries and intelligent drinkers. According to Tim, St. Benjamin brewed 435 barrels last year. This year’s goal is a striking 3,000 barrels. Our question: What can starting as a nano-brewery teach brewers about the business of brewing and the craft? It’s time to flex that micro-brew muscle. The answer in our interview below.
CTH: Could you talk a little bit about the origin of the brewery and how things have changed since your recent expansion?
Tim: It was weird. I got everything I wished for. I got a cool old brick building in South Kensington. It turns out it has a romantic history as part of an old brewery [i.e. Theo Finkenauer Brewery]. It started as a carriage house and stable. The carriages were mostly stored down here [the taproom]. The horse stables were upstairs. Their support beams are up there. There's all this crazy concrete and steel.
We want [the taproom] to be a meeting space. If any of the neighborhood groups want to use this spot to have meetings or small gatherings — we want to do that. We want the taproom to look like a neighborhood bar that people would go into on a regular basis as a opposed to your once a month trip to the brewery.
I had been looking for probably 10 or 11 months and my real estate agent showed me the listing for this place. I locked it down as soon as possible. I was like, “If I don't buy this someone will turn it into condos.” I knew no one would knock this over because I don't think anyone could afford to. It looked like it should be a brewery. When the building came up it was one of the easiest decisions I've ever made for the company. It was a no brainer. Being three stories was a little quirky, but I think we'll be able to work with it.
As for the change of going from a nano to a micro brewery. We brought on more people. We were working with one brewery through the fall on our old system. Now we have an assistant brewer and an intern — both of them are practically full time. We also ramped up our sales force. One of our reps is leaving; he's moving out of the area. We're going to be replacing him with two people. I hate the saying, but it's true. It was like, “Go big or go home.” We were running a very small business that wasn't really making a lot of money and wasn't really losing a lot of money.
CTH: Just staying steady?
Tim: Yeah, and there was no future in running it that way. I'd always known that the nano-brewery was a temporary thing. Basically, what this [expansion] involved was a big leap, more risk. I had to bring on so many additional people. I would say overall, beer wise, this transition has been amazing. This new system blows away the old one. It makes brewing good beer so much easier. We gave Andrew Foss, our head brewer, a lot of latitude to make changes to the beer, to make suggestions, and really run the brewhouse entirely how he wanted to. He's a very smart, very resourceful person. He was trained by Scott Morrison. We really came into our own when we got the new setup.
CTH: Is there anything you learned as a nano-brewery that you can apply now?
Tim: There are a lot of things we took chances on with our small system because they weren't as much of a financial or marketing risk. Because we’re new, we would not have had the confidence to do them right away. If we’re making three barrels of something, we'd all sit down and say, ‘"You know, we can give that a try. We can do a small batch of that.” Had we we started with a 15 barrel system and had it been me coming in as an outsider to the industry, coming in as a homebrewer, it probably would have been a little more of a risk at first. All the sudden I'd have several thousand dollars per batch on the line.
Now, though, because we've done so well with some of those original ideas we've maintained that sort of experimental quality. We know we could brew on the old system and the old system was harder to work with than the new system. We're a lot more confident and we know we can execute it because we have. For instance, we're getting into starting our first sour. We didn't want to touch that on the old setup. We wanted to make sure we really had our quality control standards very high.
Jackie: When we had the three barrel system we had seven year-round beers. It was easy to do that. We realized it wouldn’t be easy to have seven year round beers at such a large quantity. We really sat down and looked at our market to see who was buying our beer. By understanding them, it made much more sense. We want to do this crazy saison aged in red oak barrels. The sales reps and I know where this is going to sell. I know where a good portion of our Yardarm is going to sell. By doing small batches of things we were able to learn the market and who wanted which kinds of beers.
Tim: Our path with me [starting] as a homebrewer, then [moving to] a very small nano-brewery, then a microbrewery — that meant that by the time we had more beer to sell we also had a good reputation. People already knew about us. We weren't coming into the market with a lot of things to sell and people being like, “Well, who are you?” That lowered the risk. If we started bigger, we would have to hit sales and marketing hard from day one. It would not have been the grassroots thing that was built.
CTH: How many barrels do you plan on producing per year? How many tanks do you have now?
Tim: Right now we have 9 fermenters. Last year we brewed 435 barrels. I think we're going to end up somewhere around 3,000 barrels this year.
CTH: How about distribution?
Tim: Right now our primary distribution is Philadelphia and the surrounding four counties. We distribute in Reading; we also have a beer distributor in Atlantic and Cape May counties. We'll be signing one in the eastern half of South Jersey. Next year we'd both like to get into Delaware because we both have strong family and personal connections there.
CTH: What beers are you most proud of? What beers make St. Benjamin what it is?
Tim: I would say the Inca, our Hoppy Cream Ale. I think we did something different with the style. We're making something that is sort of familiar but also not like anything else. There's also the Junto, which is a Kölsch aged in whole ReAnimator coffee beans. It's golden and pale in color. It's actually lighter in color than an actual Kölsch.
CTH: It’s really, really good.
Tim: We took a beer that nobody's done that with. It kind of dumbfounds people. People see it and they're like "No, no give me the coffee beer."
CTH: We’re so used to it being black.
Jackie: We're seeing more pale, more coffee IPAs.
Tim: We're seeing a lot of coffee IPAs, coffee browns; there once was a coffee cream ale. But no one is doing it like this.
We’re [also] trying to come up with a stronger IPA program. They're all very aromatic and low on bitterness. We have one [coming] in the Fall that's gonna pretty bitter and more traditional. I like, though, that Andrew is trying to bring the floral, aromatic side out without necessarily being a hop-bomb or crazy bitter.
CTH: What do you think Philly is looking for in particular in beer? Is there anything that we're pooped out of or anything that's super hot right now?
Tim: I’ll say that it's really evolving and changing. Everyone is all over Gose lately. Everyone is getting into flavored Goses. We're not too big on chasing trends. Instead of a Gose, we ended up doing a saison with a little bit of sea salt in it. That's what Andrew wanted for a summer saison.
Jackie: Our Bayside is my favorite beer to drink right now.
CTH: Yeah, we could crush that right now.
Tim: That's one that will probably end up in cans next summer. I love the idea of making a little beach pack with the Wit, Bayside, and our wheat IPA that we have for the summer. “Here's your party back for the weekend at the beach.”
CTH: Beer is so seasonal. People want certain things at certain times. Often, just the name sells the beer.
Jackie: That's funny because our Junto was originally called ‘Coffee Kölsch.’ Accounts would say, “We love this beer but it's hard to sell because people look at the chalkboard” or printed sheet, whatever that bar has, “and say ‘they don't know what a Kölsch is.’” Now it just says ‘Junto’ and the bartender can talk it up.
Tim: Or they just say, “Pale beer with coffee added.”
CTH: Do you feel like Philadelphia is pretty educated when it comes to craft beer and that makes it a competitive market?
Tim: Incredibly. To the point where when we do beerfests there's a marked difference between what people are asking us for and the kinds of questions they have about beer. In general, jumping back to your last question, Philadelphians are looking for anything. I thought sours were going to take over this city four years ago. Sours have come, they've had their place, but I was thinking every taproom was going to be half sours. I think we're gonna stick to, not only what we're good at, but what excites us. I'll admit that what excites us is really mundane. We made a Maibock; we have a Czech Pilsner in the tank. It's a standard, normal Czech Pilsner; no frills, no crazy exotic hops, no high abv. It's our tribute to great Czech beer. Things like that excite us.
There are times where I talk to Andrew and we wanna work on this very standard English ESB; it's going to be 4% alcohol, and there's going to be bunch of firkins of it. It's not quite a jalapeño mango IPA. We want to be known for making good beer. We don't need to follow all the trends. It may not have the latest, greatest hot ingredient. There are times where we get a little quirky. Andrew's really into making raspberry beers. He wants to work with real raspberries; not a flavor or an extract.
When I think of American breweries that I really admire, I will always think of Great Lakes or Founders. Great Lakes, I don't think they make anything crazy exotic but every beer is solid. If I see Edmund Fitzgerald at a bar I'm ordering it. I don't care what is on tap or what time of year it is. They just make great go-to beers in the English, German, and American tradition. [If we’re] doing that well, then we can get a little weird. I like a lot of Dogfish Head beers, but that isn't the path we want to go down.
CTH: A traditional line up of traditional beers done really well — it fits in with the whole place — with St. Benjamin, Ben Franklin, the man who created the foundation of America in a lot of ways.
Tim: That’s a great way to put it that haven't thought of. We want to have a solid foundation of good ales and lagers.
The plan is to have a full-time, year round lager program. I don't know if anyone on our scale is doing lager all the time. We have a few extra conditioning tanks so it seems logical. People have been saying lagers were going to blow up in craft beer, and I know they haven't — but I want to drink these beers because lagers have been coming out so good. At the end of the day we're making beers we want to drink. It keeps us from chasing certain trends. Every now and then we'll try something weird, and it'll turn out to be good. We didn't know the beer would be as drinkable as it is!
It's been an exciting time. We took our business plan, crumpled it up into a ball, and threw it away. In a way, we're starting over. We've this taproom, a bigger system, wider distribution. It looks nothing like it did a year ago.
CTH: Are there beers that you're excited about?
Tim: I was super excited when we released our Export Stout. It's a style that's made and often served in the Caribbean. It's a stout that'd be good for the summer. I basically told Andrew what I liked, some examples, and said, “Go for it.” We ended up with a really nice beer.
Jackie: We put a little bit of the Export Stout into a rum barrel. That will be here, on the hand-pump, when it's finished. That rum barrel came from Cooper River distillery. Cooper River used that rum barrel make a beer infused with our Inca. This little barrel really traveled. I'm excited to try that when it's done.
CTH: What were your first couple of batches like as a homebrewer? Were you ever blown away or immediately like “Man, why'd I do this?'"
I only ever lost one barrel due to infection. I was messing around with some brewing techniques and had some home improvements going on with the same time. I would say the beer was always okay when I first started. I started doing kits and I got more involved. I started using extract, then partial mash, all grain. At home I was always striving to make the beer better because I had this idea early on that I wanted to do this. Processing techniques would [eventually] be more important than just recipes.
When I first decided I wanted to open a brewery, I created a California Steam Beer called Transcontinental. It was my first original recipe. The first few batches were good. By the time I stopped homebrewing, there were some awesome batches of that beer — to the point where we've done it here and have made tweaks to make it resemble what I was making at home. Through the process of making the beer bigger, make some tweaks, and changing our suppliers, it drifted a bit from what I had originally had in mind. That beer really drove things forward.
Learn more about St. Benjamin Brewing Company here - and be sure to check out their stunning facilty and taproom!