Joe Sixpack: Even 'nanobrewery' is too big for Fishtown

Posted: February 11, 2011

SOMETHING STINKS in Fishtown.

Late last year, a 33-year-old Internet developer named Tim Patton went before the Fishtown Neighbors Association with a proposal for a small brewery in his home on Richmond Street near Marlborough. The company would produce about four kegs a week - so small that it wouldn't qualify as a microbrewery; instead, it would be classified as a "nanobrewery."

Patton presented plans that showed the entire operation could fit in a small room in the back of his house. It would be like the thousands of other home-based businesses that make everything from cookies to furniture. He told the association that the equipment would be minimal: a brew kettle, a fermentation tank, some cooling equipment and kegging supplies. He guaranteed there would be no bar, no patrons, no deliveries other than what he could fit in his own family vehicle, no on-premise sales.

More than half the 70 or so people in attendance would not accept his promises.

They worried about the smell.

Now, many people will tell you that the smell of a brewery is one of the most pleasant aromas in the universe. To me, the sweet scent of boiling malt is like a woman's perfume; whenever I get a whiff, I can feel myself rise on my toes as I follow my nose to find its source. The smell of brewing beer reminds me of love.

Patton conceded that some people might not like the smell. So he promised to install a vapor condenser on the boil kettle that would chill the steam to prevent it from escaping into the air.

The crowd still didn't trust him.

Some of Patton's supporters pointed out that the neighborhood is already rich in funky odors. Within a block of his house, there's a medium-sized bakery and a corner sausage shop. On the next block, there's a meat packager, and a few doors beyond that is the plant that makes Kissling sauerkraut.

Across the street is roaring I-95, its diesel fumes wafting down among the rowhouses. And, oh yeah, Yards Brewery, which makes 200 times the beer Patton would, is just down the street.

Indeed, it's believed that the very name of this old neighborhood, once filled with busy docks, came from its smell.

To be fair, it wasn't just the smell that turned them off in Fishtown. At least one opponent theorized that somehow the yeast might explode.

"There was nothing I could do to dissuade them," Patton said. "People just wouldn't believe me. There was kind of no arguing with them."

The residents voted against the nanobrewery, 36-32. Without neighborhood support, Patton lost his request for a variance from the city Zoning Board.

Brian Rademaekers, editor of the Fishtown Star and himself a former employee at Iron Hill Brewery, said in retrospect that the opposition was mostly about change. "People have legitimate concerns about having an industrial feel in a residential area," Rademaekers said. " . . . When people aren't familiar with the goings-on of a brewery, it's kind of a scary idea."

He added: "Some people didn't want anything put there at all just because it was different - it's the kind of thing that gets shot down."

Which seems remarkably shortsighted.

A nanobrewery is exactly the kind of business a neighborhood should be trying to attract. It starts small - a one-person operation, quietly making beer to be sold by other local businesses. There is no smell; there are no explosions. There are scores of similar small-scale brewing operations in residential neighborhoods across America, and I've yet to find reports of serious complaints.

With luck and success, the operation would grow beyond its tiny space and move into a larger, industrial facility. It would buy supplies from other local businesses. It would hire neighbors and pay taxes.

Some day, the company might even produce beer in bottles to be shipped around the world, bringing a touch of fame to its hometown.

Matt Karp, chair of the FNA's zoning committee, said Fishtown is not anti-business. But he acknowledged that some residents have been dubious about development since the SugarHouse Casino was OK'd over their objections a couple of years ago.

Patton, meanwhile, says he's still pursuing his dream, hoping to find a place for his nanobrewery in another neighborhood. Despite the negativity, he's sticking with the original name for his company: Saint Benjamin Brewing Co. It's a tribute to Philadelphia's patron saint of beer makers, Ben Franklin, who is credited with the famous aphorism, "Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy."

Fishtown is living proof of something else altogether.

"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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