Founder Profile: Curt Keck of Hijinx Brewing Company

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Allentown native Curt Keck is in love with beer.

The love affair began when he was in college, working in a Grateful Dead gift shop across from a homebrew shop. As soon as he turned 21, he bought himself a kit and as he puts it, “It snowballed from there.”

Keck got himself a job in the homebrew shop, read every book on the shelf and practiced his art to the exclusion of everything else, including his studies. He dropped out of college — despite the fact that he had nearly enough credits to graduate — and got a gig at the now defunct Old Lehigh Brewing Co. in Allentown as an assistant brewer.

After a year and a half, the Weyerbacher Brewing Company in Easton called him and offered him a job as a brewer. He stayed there until 1999. Then he went into IT, taking a position as IT director for the National Tattoo Association, where he still works.

But that passion for beer never left him — he continued homebrewing, capturing some awards at competitions, notably the gold medal at the Masters Championship of Amateur Brewing. So in 2006 Keck decided to launch Hijinx Brewing Company; he sold his first beer in 2012, and now his brews are on tap throughout Eastern Pennsylvania and, starting this summer, New Jersey.

What inspired you to start Hijinx Brewing Co.?

My friend Jack Romaine talked me into starting a brewery. We met through a mutual friend on a bus trip to a brewery. I had never stopped brewing, but I wasn’t interested at the time. Hijinx was conceived in 2006, but it took about five years to get everything together and go through the licensing.

How did you get started?

I did lots of research. I had the experience of working for the other two breweries, but I had no business background. It was privately funded. The Lehigh Small Business Development Center gave me some help with the business aspect.

Jack Romaine (CEO of Element ID Inc. in Bethlehem) has been a gem; he’s extremely knowledgeable and helped a lot with the business end of it. He’s now our CFO.

We started in my garage where we stayed for the first two and a half years. We incorporated in 2011 and our first beer was sold on tap on September 1, 2012.

I made a big mistake: I registered as a sole proprietor, and went through all the federal and state licensing. When we decided to go from one barrel to 10 barrels, we also decided to incorporate as an LLC. I had to go through the entire licensing process all over again, which is about a six-month process. I don’t recommend that anyone do it that way.

How has the business grown?

It has grown 10 [fold]. We moved from a 400-square-foot facility and a one-barrel system to a 4,000-square-foot facility and a 10-barrel system. We plan on increasing our output from 52 barrels a year (in the garage) to 750 barrels this year. We’ve done 220 barrels so far in 2015. It’s been very fast growth.

Now we’re in the old Mack Truck assembly facility, which became [Allentown Economic Development Corporation‘s] Bridgeworks Enterprise Center, a small-business incubator.

Our distribution is from Philadelphia to Scranton, out to Harrisburg, and, by the end of the summer, we’ll be distributing in New Jersey.

We have a tasting room in the brewery where we have a new beer almost every week, and we still use the old one-barrel system for that. We have four beers available all year, but we rotate among about a dozen. We do seasonal beers.

We have two employees on the payroll and a lot of volunteers. Our entire staff, except Jack, are homebrewers, and most are certified and nationally ranked beer judges. Anytime you come into the tasting room you have a knowledgeable person serving you beer.

My partner, Chris Becker, is in charge of operations; he does most of the day-to-day brewing.

How do you come up with your recipes?

All the recipes come out of my own head. It’s like cooking — you learn what goes together and what doesn’t. There’s a lot of math and science that goes into it as well. If you don’t know the ingredients, which is the art of it, even if you do know the science of it, you won’t be able to make a good beer. And there are a lot of brilliant scientists who don’t make a very good beer.

What have you learned about beer and brewing?

I’ve learned a lot about the science and, as you learn that, the beers will get better. You have to understand the chemistry of your ingredients and the biology of yeast, which lives and dies at certain temperatures and with a certain pH.

Ninety-five percent of beer is water, and water chemistry is extremely important in making a good beer. The salts, minerals and pH of the water all come into play.

What types of beer do you favor?

I like English beers — Imperial style and English bitters. I have trouble with sour beers because of heartburn, but I love all kinds of beer. I have a friend who lives in Bruges, Belgium. I visited him a couple of years ago and we tried lots of beers there. There were awesome people in Belgium and great beers.

What has been the biggest challenge?

Bureaucracy, on the state and federal levels. There are a lot of regulations and rules you’ve got to follow — I still don’t know nearly enough.

Things are changing, though. Recently, a law was passed that allows us to do what wineries have done for years which is to sell a glass of our product onsite. That allows us to compete. We can now have a meadery and a distillery in the same building. For years you couldn’t do that.

What’s next for Hijinx?

We’re concentrating on getting our name and products out there. We will start selling glasses of our beer at the brewery.

Writer: Susan L. Pena

http://hijinxbrewing.com/
Bridgeworks Enterprise Center 905 Harrison St. Allentown, PA 18103

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