The best beer you haven't tasted yet

Dan Popernack, of La Cabra, shows off his oak-barreled beers.
Dan Popernack, of La Cabra, shows off his oak-barreled beers.
Posted: October 25, 2013

THERE'S a brewery in Malvern making superb beer that you can't buy - not for all the money in the world.

The ales are fermented with unusual yeast strains, then meticulously aged for months in wooden barrels and often blended before bottling. Those few who've been lucky enough to get a sip say that they're on par with some of the most highly rated sour ales of Belgium, beers that often sell for $30 a bottle or more.

But put away your credit card. The only sure way to get a sip from La Cabra Brewing is if you get your name on an exclusive mailing list.

There's another brewery in the Queen Village section of the city that gets glowing reviews on a beer-rating website. If you're lucky, you might spot its brews at charity events and other festivals.

Otherwise, you need a password to get a taste from Mellody Brewing Co.

Neither La Cabra nor Mellody are federally licensed breweries. They're part of a young generation of so-called breweries-in-planning that are figuratively and literally testing the waters before formally opening for business.

In 2012, the Brewers Association reported that there were more than 1,200 breweries-in-planning nationwide, including about 60 in Pennsylvania.

Most of these wannabes are on paper only. But others are ambitious, if somewhat underground, operations that look and taste like the real thing.

As long as they don't brew more than 200 gallons a year and, most importantly, don't sell their product, they're not breaking the law. Technically, they're homebrewers.

But their operations go far beyond simple stovetop setups. Some have full business plans, logos, websites and high-tech brewhouses that put some professional systems to shame.

In Detroit, for example, Batch Brewing, which won't open till next year, impressed locals so much with its beer and business plan, it pocketed a $50,000 retailing prize.

In Dauphin County, Alter Ego Brewing, also slated for a 2014 opening, is already being promoted as part of the Hershey Harrisburg Craft Beer Country tourism campaign.

Mellody Brewing, which has been "in planning" for about three years, boasts a full portfolio of seasonal and year-round brews with local names, including Pennsport Porter and Mummer Feathers pale ale.

"I do it for the feedback," said Sean Mellody, 38, who is a marketing manager for an accounting firm.

"As a homebrewer," he said, "I don't think your family and friends will ever give you the honest truth. This way I can get feedback from people who know beer, but who don't know me."

Mellody's beers have become so well-known at local charity events and other festivals, he's already attracted more than 1,000 followers on Twitter.

He organized his most devoted fans, a tight group of 20, into a program called the Tasting Jawn. Mellody sends them freshly bottled, experimental styles, and they use a password to log on to his website and upload reviews under strict judging guidelines.

Similarly, Dan Popernack, of La Cabra, maintains a short email list of about 50 names.

Brewing out of a garage at his home across the street from the school where he works as an administrator, 28-year-old Popernack is perfecting a variety of barrel-aged ales. His complex Brettophile is a funky, mildly fruity ale fermented with, as its name suggests, Brettanomyces yeast. Villancico, a tart brown ale, is a blend that's aged in oak barrels.

Whenever he has a stash of corked bottles, he sends out word to his email list.

"I don't advertise. I don't beat my own drum," Popernack said. "But people will drive here and pick them up, and it just spreads through word of mouth."

Indeed, reviews of his ales by enthusiasts from as far away as Texas have cropped up on RateBeer.com.

(A RateBeer editor told me that the reviews likely break the website's rules, which stipulate that only commercial beers may be listed by users. He acknowledged in an email exchange, however, "It's impressive that folks are so excited about these breweries that they're already adding and reviewing them!")

Mellody, whose beers have been reviewed on the Untappd smartphone app, said that he's excited to see the response but that "it's scary because what they're tasting may not be the final product."

Popernack added: "It's great to get that kind of support. But then again, it's free beer."


"Joe Sixpack" is by Don Russell, director of Philly Beer Week. For more on the beer scene, sign up for his weekly email update at joesixpack.net. Email: joesixpack@phillynews.com.

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