Joe Sixpack | When beer comes second, brewpubs die

Posted: August 17, 2007

THE CITY'S brewpub scene took two steps forward this summer and one giant step backward.

Triumph opened a smart-looking joint in Old City, and Dock Street began making beer at its new West Philly spot. But the big gasp you just heard was the sudden closing last Friday of Independence Brew Pub at Reading Terminal.

Sheriff's deputies descended on the place with no notice and padlocked the doors. Brewer Tim Roberts was ordered to shut down his kettle in mid-brew. Perishable food was scooped up and donated to the city's homeless agency. The signs say it's "temporary," but this is a done deal.

The city Redevelopment Authority, which owns the old Reading Headhouse where Independence had operated for the past six years, said the restaurant's owners owed close to $800,000 in back rent.

"It's anybody's guess why it failed," said spokesman Frank Keel.

Well, here's one guess: The owners didn't have a clue.

Independence Brew Pub is owned by a group of investors, called GS Capital, who picked apart the bones of the original Red Bell brewpub that was supposed to open in that spot in 2000. Those investors created a subsidiary called DS Holdings II - made up of former investors in the failed Dock Street brewpub on 18th Street - to hold the liquor license. And that group hired a third company, a Washington, D.C., restaurant management firm called Sam & Harry's, to run the place.

It was a money deal. Good beer was completely secondary, and it showed.

Independence was the closest place to the Convention Center to get a drink (not counting the grimy little beer garden at the Reading Terminal Market), yet you hardly knew it was open, lurking in the shadows of Filbert Street. At lunchtime the place would be empty, while the Hard Rock Cafe was packed to the gills.

The food was uneven and service was a joke. But its worst sin was the beer. Roberts brewed a nice line of hand-crafted ales, yet the boneheaded operators undercut him by also serving the likes of Miller Lite, thus devaluing the one thing that made the place special.

It's no wonder they couldn't make the rent, which I'm told was as high as $43,000 a month.

Keel said the RDA called in the sheriff after GS Capital failed to gain additional financing from the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Bill DeMarco, one of the DS Holdings II investors who holds the brewpub's liquor license, declined to comment.

Keel said the RDA is already talking to other potential investors, which he declined to name.

My sources tell me that, just before it shut, GS Capital had invited Lancaster Brewing Co. to take over the operation. Other sources say there's a very good chance the property will not survive as a brewpub.

There's good news up the road in Upper Macungie, where they're set to make beer again at the old F.M. Schaefer brewery.

For the past six years, the once-proud brewery had been reduced to churning out gallons of godawful Smirnoff Ice. With sales of the chemical crud falling, its owner, Diageo, decided to sell the plant for $55 million to Boston Beer, which makes Samuel Adams brands.

Look for Johnny Brenda's, the celebrated Fishtown tavern, down at the Linc this season. The bar is part of the stadium's new Philly local food lineup, which will also feature McNally's famous Schmitter sandwich and food from South Philly's Shank & Evelyn's.

Johnny Brenda's GM Pesamino Kelekolio says it'll be serving its trademark grilled pork and meatball sandwiches and Victory Prima Pils on tap.

The new Dock Street Brewery & Restaurant (50th and Baltimore, West Philly), slated to open on Monday, has brought on Julius Hummer as its brewer. Hummer, whose dad, David, was co-founder of Colorado's Boulder Brewing, previously worked at Fish Brewing in Olympia, Wash.

Expect to see more River Horse beer shortly. The Lambertville, N.J., microbrewery is being sold to a Philadelphia-based private investment group that promises a major expansion in its operations.

Tria has opened its second location, at 12th and Spruce in Center City. It's a slightly larger version of the original (18th and Sansom), celebrating the trio of fermentables: beer, wine and cheese.

Plates are tapas-size, and they pair nicely with surely one of the best beer lists in the city. Though fewer than 30 beers are listed (including eight on tap), the selections are exceptionally solid, with no space wasted on mainstream labels.

Check out Dr. Fritz Briem's 1809 Berliner-Style Weisse (Germany), Dogfish Head Festina Peche (Delaware), Franches-Montagnes La Meule (Switzerland) and the exceptionally aromatic Makana Iqhilika Herbal Blossom Mead (South Africa), which pairs well with Ewephoria, a sheep's-milk cheese from the Netherlands. *

"Joe Sixpack" by Don Russell appears weekly in Big Fat Friday. For more on the beer scene in Philly and beyond, visit www.JoeSixpack.net. Send e-mail to joesixpack@phillynews.com.

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