Look at the craft alcohol scene in Berks
Brewers, winemakers and distillers discuss the growth, appeal and challenges of the industry.
In Berks County, those who craft alcohol beverages – brewers, winemakers and distillers – are on the forefront of a growing market.
In 2016, Pennsylvania loosened restrictions on beer, wine and liquor sales, revamping a system virtually untouched for decades. With new rules came growth: 12 breweries, wineries and distilleries have opened in the Berks County area since 2016.
“There’s been a big growth even since I got into it in 2014,” said Dan Brown, owner of Deerfoot Vineyards and Winery in Maidencreek Township. “We have more wineries in Berks County than in Lancaster or Lehigh, because we have great soil here and an interesting climate for growing.”
The growth is helping Berks develop as a region, according to Bill Smith, owner of Ridgewood Winery in Cumru Township.
“It’s a niche, and it’s carving itself out pretty well right now,” he said. “The bigger our industry here gets, the bigger impact we’ll have on the wine scene.”
The brewing scene in Berks and neighboring Lancaster County is vibrant as well, said Dain Shirey, co-owner of St. Boniface Craft Brewing Co. near Ephrata. Although some business owners are concerned the market could become saturated, Shirey believes the current growth is sustainable, as long as the products maintain a high quality.
“It’s the more the merrier,” said Todd Bray, owner of Broken Chair Brewery in West Reading. “When you have a brewery in an area, the people go to it solely because they’re going to that brewery. When you have multiple sites in an area, now it’s a destination. It’s an area where we all attract business. It’s a good thing.”
Peter Starr, co-owner of The Barley Mow, a bottle shop in West Reading, said he was excited to see a variety of alcohol coming from the area.
“There is some really good beer, really good liquor and really good wine here in Berks County,” Starr said.
Demand pours in
A variety of options, fondness for small business and local production and ingredients are driving consumers to buy craft alcohol, and moving producers to craft it.
“Consumers are dissatisfied with larger brands,” Brown said. “Here, they can go to a location and see it, touch it and know where it’s coming from. It’s something that’s as local as you can get.”
Sly Fox Brewing Co., headquartered in Pottstown, produces nearly 700,000 gallons of beer annually – enough to classify as a regional brewery, said owner John Giannopoulos. Even at Sly Fox’s size, a lot of the appeal comes from smaller companies making the beer, not multi-billion dollar conglomerates.
“People really want to support small, family businesses, it’s the heartbeat of America,” Bray said. “All these breweries started out in a garage or basement somewhere, which I did, and it launches from there. People love to support that.”
Another attraction is the variety of flavors and types of alcohol. One brewery, winery or distillery may produce a diverse set of beverages.
“A lot of beer lovers are pledging their allegiance to it, because I think it comes from the uniqueness of perspective that we as Americans enjoy things,” said Rob Metzger, co-founder of Chatty Monks Brewing Co. in West Reading. “We don’t like to stay inside the box for any amount of time, and I think that pushing the edge on flavors and trying different things and experimenting is just part of the nature of our culture and what we enjoy doing.”
Craft alcohol businesses also can create an entire experience out of a simple tasting by allowing customers to witness the brewing, winemaking and distilling processes.
“People love to experience the actual process,” said Missy Wilson, co-owner of Setter Ridge Vineyards in Greenwich Township. “Sitting out here, they can look out at the vineyard and enjoy a little piece of solitude, and it’s something that is so close to home, but you don’t ever get at home.”
Where they are
Alcohol has always had an uncanny ability to bring people together. That is also true for those who make it.
According to Kari Skrip, owner of Clover Hill Winery in Upper Macungie Township, Lehigh County, craft alcohol is the one industry where businesses work together rather than against each other.
“We joke, but there’s much truth to it that we’re friendly competitors,” Skrip said.
Lots of communication and work takes place between wineries, Skrip said, particularly involving the Berks County Wine Trail, a collaboration among 12 businesses in the county and surrounding areas. Wineries on the trail often will send customers to other nearby vineyards to spread business.
“You get a different perspective at each winery,” Skrip said. “While we are competitors, that’s part of the charm of it, is to go around and all these unique places and talk about how you grow grapes or how they like to make wine.”
Breweries often carry locally-produced wines and spirits in their taprooms to diversify their offerings and ensure they can meet customers demands.
“There’s a good variety of wines and liquors out there right now,” said Bob Harter, owner of Black Forest Brewery in Ephrata. “When people come in, their partner may really like beer, but they don’t, so we can certainly satisfy the other side as well.”
Neighboring breweries and distilleries occasionally assist new businesses with setting up their locations and tasting rooms. They are usually friendly with area businesses outside the craft alcohol scene as well, and sometimes work together to make new products. St. Boniface once worked with Square One Coffee Roasters in Lancaster to produce a special edition beer, SQ1 Coffee IPA.
Manatawny Creek Winery in Amity Township, Pinnacle Ridge Winery in Greenwich Township and Allegro Vineyards & Winery in York County have thrice produced a collaborative wine, “Trio.”
“It’s an excellent example of wineries collaborating with each other to make themselves better than they otherwise would be,” said Darvin Levengood, founder of Manatawny Creek Winery.
Shannon Birosik, owner of Calvaresi Winery in Penn Township, said distilleries have asked to buy wine barrels from her.
“That allows them to create complex flavors, they’ll not only get flavors from the wood, it’ll pick up the wine flavor as well,” Birosik said.
Working together can also benefit the community. In June, Broken Chair and Chatty Monks, Oakbrook Brewing Co. of Reading, Saucony Creek Brewery + Gastropub. of Maxatawny Township and Schaylor Brewing Co. of Cumru Township teamed up to produce Lauer’s Fellowship Ale. Through selling the beer, the breweries raised more than $5,000 to make repairs to the Frederick Lauer monument in Reading’s City Park.
The collaborative atmosphere of the craft alcohol scene stems the absence of a reason to keep secrets, said Erik Wolfe of Stoll & Wolfe Distillery in Lititz.
“I couldn’t reproduce my product at someone else’s place,” Wolfe said. “People say, ‘Oh, you’re competitors,’ but we really aren’t. What everyone’s doing is unique.”
Despite the success of the industry, businesses have unique challenges to overcome.
More producers means more places to drink, which threatens to oversaturate local economies. While some think the current growth is sustainable, others are less sure.
“I’ve lost count of how many (breweries) in Pennsylvania this year alone have filed their paperwork and are opening up,” Metzger said.
They might not feel like competitors, but as more businesses start fermenting, it can be difficult to stand out from the crowd, especially as larger companies try to cash in.
“Being lost in the noise is a big thing,” Brown said. “There’s a lot of big companies that are realizing they need to get into the craft alcohol space, and they aren’t drowning out the little guys, but they are being very crafty about how they are going into it. The biggest threat to local production here is when people get sucked into that stuff and don’t realize what’s in the bottle.”
At vineyards, the spotted lanternfly is causing trouble, and wineries are teaming up to find ways to address the infestation.
Another rising issue is consumer taste. Increasingly, customers are demanding more variety from craft alcohol producers, while expecting them to maintain the same quality.
“For everyone in the craft brewing industry, the challenge right now is that just being craft beer is no longer enough,” Starr said. “As the public gets more educated, the product needs to grow as well. You have to make sure that everything is perfect and keep reinventing yourself constantly, which is a huge challenge as far as production goes.”
Most producers, however, are not in the industry to make a killing. Many started making alcohol as a hobby, and have grown that passion to share it with others. The real challenge is making the best alcohol possible.
“It’s a craft, and you try to make the best product you can and show people what you’re capable of,” Shirey said.