1995 – #3 the Founders.

1995 is a multi-part Liquid Diet special report. I have asked an array of local beer luminaries to recount for us what they were doing in December 1995 and the story is told in their own words. The entire series is being cross-posted on a new 1995 page in chronological order as we go along for the convenience of late-comers who want to read the story in the order it was intended.

TOM KEHOE. A lot of people. including me, consider the first pouring of Yards ESA at the initial Philadelphia Craft Beer Festival on May 18, 1995 to be Ground Zero for today’s Philadelphia beer scene. Tom Kehoe and then-partner Jon Bovit shook up the local beer world with their cask-conditioned Extra Special Ale and everything changed. Here’s Tom on what happened before that…
“1995 was my first winter in Manayunk. Back then I was driving a Nissan 300z, I almost killed myself trying to navigate the Polish Alps of Philadelphia. Within a week I was driving a Isuzu Trooper. The window of the brewery and and the door was always steamed up from the boil Kettle so it always seemed really cold outside. I worked on Thanksgiving after an early dinner so I could have off on Black Friday. Jon and I were invited to the Dawson Street Pub Christmas party/dinner seemed like a good fit. We came out with our first Christmas beer, a dark mild, in one liter flip-top bottles and it had a red and green label, and we gave it out to bar owners, friends and the press.”

RON BARCHET & BILL COVALESKI. Victory Brewing Company is on everybody’s list of the great American craft breweries and is the transcendent success story in local brewing. It’s been a long road from the time when it was hard to find the new guys located in an old bread making plant in an industrial park to to the point where they’ve become one of the signature businesses in a resurgent Downingtown. Ron remembers the struggle and how nervous they were, way back when…
“1995 was very pivotal for Bill and me.  For the first 8 months of 1995, I was working full time as Brewmaster at Old Dominion Brewing Company in Ashburn Virginia, while still making the plans to open Victory. We were raising private equity, while also shopping for loans. After many, many (~15) rejections, we finally got funding from a bank. Then we found a building, which took forever because few municipalities could handle the sewage requirements of a production brewery. Then  came the licensing headaches, whereby we couldn’t get money from the banks until we had a license, but we couldn’t get a license until we had all the equipment in place.  Yada yada yada…

“We installed our original brewhouse (now at Weyerbacher) in December of 1995.  That month we also brewed our first beers, Festbier being the inaugural beer. Bill and I were busy brewing and still getting the building in order for the February 1996 restaurant opening. This included building the pizza oven from scratch with plans from California. Near its finish in January, the top caved in and the whole thing collapsed.  We got it right on our second try. Then a pizza expert came in and told us we would never be able to serve enough guests with that “tiny little bread oven.”. So, we build a second oven, twice as big as the first, and sure were glad we did that on opening night.

“On a personal note, 15 years ago my daughter was 14 months old and my first son arrived. Given the hard work, crazy hours, fear of failure, fear for financial survival that went along with betting it all on Victory, it is no wonder the whole timeframe is a blur.”

SAM CALAGIONE. You may have heard of this guy a little bit. He’s a brewer…he’s an author…he’s a TV star…he’s the only man in the world who could tell a morning TV audience that his beer is “selling like crack in a schoolyard” and get away with it. He’s… Sam.
“By the holiday season at Dogfish in 1995 our six-month-old brewpub was already knee deep in a jiy-normous (for us) expansion. We took growlers of Chicory Stout to a cannery auction ten miles from Rehoboth and bid on the stainless steel tanks they were using to hold cleaning chemicals.  We kept the farmers who were also bidding on stuff at the auction in beer and asked them to please not bid on those three stainless steel tanks in the corner. The auctioneer was pissed when we got the tanks for something like 900 bucks.  The farmers even helped us load them into out pickup trucks by hand.

“By new years day we re-welded them and completed our jump from a 15 gallon MacGyver-ed brewery to a 5-barrel MacGyver-ed brewery.  Every first batch of a new beer is still made on that 5-barrel system in our Rehoboth pub today.  Within months of getting the new brewery and handmade two-head bottling line going, I was driving pallets of Shelter Pale, Chicory Stout and Immort Ale to Friedland’s distributorship in a god-forsaken corner of Philly.  I would drop off the beer, get the check so we could make payroll that week, then take samples to bars and restaurants around the city.

“My buddy Tom Fant who lived in the city at that time took me around to the good beer joints he knew.  I was 26 and so scared and anxious that I was sweating and had wicked BO. The first sale I ever made was to an off-centered bar manager at Copa Too! The name of that wonderful young whippersnapper of a bar manager was Tom Peters.  As I walked out of Copa Too! I thought to myself, `Man, this selling beer thing is gonna be easy.’ It wasn’t.  We got our asses kicked for a number of years trying to sell our beers to a lot of places that didn’t want them.  If it weren’t for our pub, we would have gone bankrupt.  But we never gave up, never dumbed-down or discounted our beers.  And somehow, thanks in large part to the burgeoning craft beer community of Philly, we made it though. What a long strange trip it’s been!”

MARK EDELSON. With partners Kevin Davies and Kevin Finn, Mark Edelson created the award-winning Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant chain (GABF “Large Brewpub of the Year 2005”) which has eight locations in three states and more to come.
“Coming into the end of 1995, I was still working for Astra-Zeneca Pharmaceuticals as the Manager of Manufacturing in their Newark, Delaware plant. My partners and I were deep in our plans for opening a brewpub. We had a lease and investor money, but were still waiting on approval of a bank loan. I took two weeks off from work to attend Seibel Institute’s Short Course in Brewing Technology in Chicago. It was fantastic and for the first time I was feeling like a professional brewer. I was anxiously awaiting the next year, where I knew I would have to quit my paying job and start construction on our brewpub in Newark.”

DAN WEIRBACK. The original Weyerbacher Brewery may have been the most improbable situation in craft brewing history this side of the legendary New Albion. It was in an old stable, a cramped space with low ceilings and uneven floors. For a brief, shining moment it was also home to the coolest brewpub I have ever been lucky enough to visit. Dan Weirback persisted against all the odds and grew the company into one of our more interesting local breweries.
“Weyerbacher had just begun selling our beer two months before. We were still trying to figure how to get our bottling machine to bottle beer without losing 25% to waste. 70 to 80 hour work weeks were the norm at that point, and our entire production team consisted of myself and one other full-time employee. The only beers we were making were Easton Pale Ale and ESB. Boy, did we have a lot to learn.”

CHRIS & JOHN TROGNER. The Brothers Trogner, though they pooh-pooh the fact today,  were significantly less adventurous in the beginning. Entering a big market such as Philadelphia was not in the plans.  A local retailer (unnamed, but You Know Who, used to drive up there to buy kegs and bring them back). Now they are one of the region’s top breweries and produce some of the most sought-after beers in the country and are about to make a major expansion. Chris remembers when it was all just a plan…
“Fifteen years ago, John and I were simultaneously beginning our beer exploration some 2000 miles apart — John in Philadelphia, PA and I in  Boulder, CO. We were delving into beer and the seeds were planted to start a microbrewery. I convinced John to quit his job in Philadelphia and move to Colorado to get some hands-on brewing experience in hopes of one day opening a brewpub in Colorado.

“While I was pursuing a business degree at the University of Colorado (and writing the Troegs business plan), John rolled into town and in less than a week found a job at the Oasis Brewpub working in the cellar. We whipped up a lot of pilot batches on our back patio and kept many of their neighbors in beer as we constantly tweaked recipes.

“While John was working at Oasis, I managed a restaurant (which quickly soured me on a Troegs Brewpub concept) and finished my degree; we then decided to return to our East Coast roots and began work on Troegs Brewery in Central Pennsylvania.”

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