From Garage to Taproom: NEPA Pico-Brewers Turn a Passionate Hobby into a Promising Startup
With the sun dipping behind the Heights section of town to the west, the shadow of Northampton Street finally darkens Elmer Sudds around 6 p.m., but the party has been going on inside for some time.
Save for a few small but important differences, the crowded taproom looks like any other Wilkes-Barre bar on a breezy, bright Friday evening in April. But the scene is the fruition of, arguably, the most unimaginable fantasy of Chris Miller and Mark Lehman, two admitted computer geeks from nearby Plains Township with a shared passion for brew and what you might call a drinking problem.
Their problem: finding quality craft beer. Their solution: make it themselves.
Hence the subtle differences this evening to Elmer Sudds' usual presentation: strewn around the tavern are stickers, magnets and placards bearing the logo of the guys' startup, Breaker Brewing Co.
--and all four of its current brews are on tap.
It was the garage-sized brewery's second official public offering, having held a similar event at another local establishment on a previous night, but the neophyte brewers still seem a bit unaccustomed to the attention.
One of the local newspapers has already stopped by, and the guys can't move a few steps through the crowd of about 60 people without feeling obliged to stop, shake hands and talk. Miller avoids it completely by focusing his energies behind the scenes, constantly checking the pour of the taps and then rushing to the basement to check the kegs. Lehman mingles, but seems almost exhausted from accepting the praise.
Still, Lehman, 37, and Miller, 35, couldn't be happier. "A lot of people told us they were going to be here tonight," Lehman says, adding that people have pointed out the smile permanently affixed to his face. "We've heard more tonight [that] we're living other people's dreams."
"We've heard, 'This area needs this,'" Miller says. "When you get something small like this building up... people can't get enough of the story."
They are part of a burgeoning craft-brewing industry that, according to the Brewers Association
, increased nearly 6 percent by volume in 2008 and more than 10 percent by income. The entire $101-billion U.S. beer industry increased .4 percent, the association reported
Lehman and Miller, however, aren't even big enough to be part of that statistic. According to Bill Corcoran, a local beer aficionado and blogger
, they're what's know as a "pico-brewery" because of their extremely small production.
Says Lehman: "It's basically a lot smaller than a micro-brewery."
Rating Breaker's offerings at "a 7 or an 8" on a 10-point scale, Corcoran says the local production would help inspire brand loyalty. "It's just like supporting Stegmaier
(which is contract-brewed by Wilkes-Barre's Lion Brewery
) or Yuengling
. It's the same reason that people go to the farmers' market and get locally produced food. Why not get locally produced beer?"
He added that local production has an environmental aspect, as well, because less energy is used to deliver it. "These guys are doing well," he says. "They're literally brewing this out of their garage."
That's just where Lehman and Miller wanted to start because, as Lehman puts it, there's "less risk."
Miller and Lehman have known each other since their mothers held Tupperware parties together, and their mutual interests have kept them close. They became good friends working on Volkswagens in a mechanic's garage, but they've also worked together at a grocery and a telephone company before both got involved in computers. By day, Miller is a network engineer and Lehman a programmer.
The idea to start brewing wasn't a big leap. "All these jobs we've done: this is OK, this is OK, this is OK," Miller says. "Then we discovered beer brewing, and we said, 'This is great!'"
They began by experimenting with small batches that they would keep on tap at their homes, but eventually ramped up their enterprise into weekend-long marathon brewing events, with meticulous cleaning at the end. Then they have to wait for the beer to ferment before they can taste and keg it.
They both still keep their beers on tap at home. "We have to because people just come over," Miller says--and complain if nothing's available.
The brewery was named in honor of the region's coal-mining legacy. The name and logo refer to the massive coal-breaking buildings that dotted the Anthracite Coal region back in its heyday.
Beers are named "over a pint" and keep with the coal theme. Anthracite Ale comes from the type of coal that was mined exclusively in Northeastern Pennsylvania, while Olde King Coal Stout refers to the industry itself, and Malty Maguire Ale alludes to the infamous Molly Maguires, a secret society among Irish miners that fought for better working conditions through unattributed violence.
"We said Malty Maguire, and we just looked at each other," Lehman says of the name's origin.
Goldies Blond Ale was named after a Wilkes-Barre whorehouse, Miller said, based on his father's idea, but his wife edits the colorful menu descriptions.
No doubt, the drinking and brewing is fun for the pair. "As you're watching it go through … you can't wait for the end product, to actually try the fruit of your labor," Lehman says--but there's also a lot of more laborious work. The legal stuff, such as local zoning and state licensing, Lehman and Miller agree, is the hardest part.
Then there's creating a buzz about the buzz their beer creates. Their computer background helped them quickly put together a website, market merchandise and embrace online social media. In just two weeks their Twitter feed had attracted 150 followers.
Then there's getting bars to sell it, although the unveilings weren't too complicated. The Brewers have friends who own bars and were excited to carry the line. "Since I told [Elmer Sudds owner John Yencha] that we're going to be making beer, he's been hounding me," Miller says. He would tell Miller "I want two sixtels (1/6-keg-sized containers that Breaker brews in) of whatever you have all the time."
Then, they've got to think months ahead to have seasonal recipes ready. They're considering strawberry wheat or blueberry wheat or both for the summer, and "we're talking Christmas beer already," Miller says. "Between working a regular job and kids and this, it's a whirlwind... Then again, you're making beer."
Rory Sweeney writes on energy and the environment when he's paid to and sits around talking about them when he's not. Send feedback here.To receive Keystone Edge free every week, click here.
Chris Miller and Mark Lehman in their garage brewery.
Barrels of barley begin the beer making process.
Barley that will be ground for making beer.
Barley being heated to seperate.
Chris Miller pours a glass of Goldies from the tap.
All Photographs by Aimee Dilger