Scott Rudich got a text one November night from his pal Rich DiLiberto, who was in a bar drinking bad beer and listening to a bad cover band.
"We should either start a brewery or a band," DiLiberto wrote. Rudich's reply: "Neither of us play instruments."
And so it was that the grains of Round Guys Brewery were set to steep. Of course, that dream would ferment for nearly 31/2 years before these two pharmaceutical workers would finally open the doors to their Lansdale brewery in early March, when Rudich could legitimately pick up the phone and say with a wink: "Hello, I am the yeast whisperer."
In the beer-crazy world of the Philadelphia region in 2012, however, dreams of new local breweries are suddenly coming true at a stunning pace from Ardmore to Perkasie, fueled by the entrepreneurship of a down economy, a common pursuit of lower-alcohol beers, and sophisticated tastes weaned on one of the nation's richest beer cultures. With at least five debuts since the beginning of the year, and no fewer than four more expected (not even counting the expansion of the Iron Hill and McKenzie's brewpub chains, plus several openings in the Lehigh Valley and South Jersey), the region is seeing a nearly 30 percent increase over its 30 or so existing breweries, and the biggest major influx of new brew energy since the mid-1990s brought by standard-bearers such as Victory, Yards, Sly Fox, and Tröegs.
"It's kind of crazy - especially in Philly, where we have such an array of choices," said Gerard Olson, a former McKenzie brewer who last month opened the Forest & Main brewpub with partner Daniel Endicott in a refurbished Victorian house in Ambler. "At the same time, I don't think the market's nearly saturated, especially if you can offer a regional or local specialty."
National statistics showing an unquenchable thirst for good locally brewed beer indicate that the odds are in their favor. Sales of craft beer made by small and independent breweries rose by 15 percent from 2010 to 2011, to $8.7 billion, a rise to 9.1 percent of U.S. beer sales, according to the Brewers Association in Colorado. And new breweries are opening at a steady clip, surpassing 2,000 nationwide this February, up from just under 1,500 in 2007.
Philadelphia's reputation as a beer mecca - to be flowing in full glory as Philly Beer Week begins frothing across the region Friday - has been built more on the diversity of national and international labels available here than on the number of its local breweries. Other regions have considerably more - at least 50 within San Diego County, and 40 within the city limits of Portland, Ore., alone. Philadelphia proper has only eight. Vermont leads the nation in local breweries per capita. Pennsylvania comes in only at 23d, presumably leaving plenty of room for more local flavors.
"We feel like there was a gap in lower-alcohol, session-style beers that are still full-flavored," said Trevor Hayward, who opened Evil Genius in West Grove in September with partners Luke Bowen and brewmaster Mark Braunwarth.
The pursuit of "session" beers - easy-drinking brews generally no higher than 5 percent alcohol, allowing for multiple beers at a sitting - is a sentiment echoed by nearly the entire new class of brewers. Experimentation with barrel-aging, funky brettanomyces yeast, Belgian styles, collaborations, and even beer-blending is gaining popularity, too.
Another common thread for many of these brewers was the weak job market that spurred them into entrepreneurship.
"Luke and I were in business school at Villanova and realized that our job prospects weren't going to be all that great when we finished," Hayward said. "So we looked at the idea of starting our own business."
Rob DeMaria, who opened Prism Brewing in North Wales in 2010, is another who focused his MBA project on transforming his hobby as a home brewer into his profession, specializing in beers with unusual ingredients, from cardamom and chives (White Lightning) to a brown ale made with strawberries and jalapeños (Love is evoL).
"That's what's so great about craft beer - it's a medium," he says. "I see my beer like an artist would see a painting. Not everyone's going to love the same painting. But some will. I've developed a thick skin."
DeMaria will debut a Philly Beer Week collaboration beer made with Round Guys and Evil Genius called Brewvolution to bring attention to the growing camaraderie of this new generation. He also echoes the common sentiment of his class that the existing breweries were the true pioneers: "They paved the road and laid the groundwork for these new breweries to start up," he said.
But Philadelphia's rich culture of craft-beer bars and homebrewing resource stores has also played a role.
"When I turned 21, my friend's oldest brother took us all to Monk's Café, and I was just blown away," says Olson. "This generation has been blessed to be raised on fantastic beer. And without individuals like Tom Peters [of Monk's Café] and Jason Harris [of Keystone Homebrew] I wouldn't be doing what I am doing."
In fact, at least four of the new breweries (Forest & Main, Round Guys, Prism, and Free Will) have roots in Harris' Montgomeryville store.
"Yeah, I feel proud," he says. "But every brewer who's had a few batches of success thinks: 'I'm going to open a brewery.' It's inevitable. For these few people who've made it, thousands of others have only dreamed it. It is a tough business being a pro brewer."
Brian O'Reilly, the brewmaster at Sly Fox in Pottstown, can vouch for that, having seen the market become significantly more demanding over the last decade.
"You could get away with a little more 15 years ago. The beers didn't have to be so pristine," he said, "because it wasn't as competitive. It's encouraging to see this passion, but how can some of these small breweries sustain it? If you get sick, no one delivers the beer."
With the cost of these start-ups ranging widely from $80,000 (to simply begin large-scale brewing) to $750,000 (for an operation where the real estate is owned), a number of the new brewers have hedged their bets. Many have cobbled together brewing systems by having equipment welded together locally from raw stainless steel. Some have kept their day jobs, like Rudich and DiLiberto of Round Guys, and Dominic Capece and John Stemler, the co-owners of Free Will, which opened in Perkasie in January. Others have opened restaurant operations to subsidize the breweries, even if it's limited to house-made bread, pickles, and cheese, as is the case with Tired Hands in Ardmore.
"The way I'm thinking about the beer-food paradigm is that the food serves the beer," says Jean Broillet IV, whose Tired Hands "brewcafe" is set to open at 16 Ardmore Ave. by next week.
One thing that is clear, however, is that making great beer on a production scale is a learning process. Jason Kohser of West Chester's Boxcar Brewing, which opened in 2010, had to close for three months before he could solve some essential problems in translating his five-gallon home-brew recipes into 300-gallon professional batches.
Meanwhile, in today's results of The Inquirer's Brew-vitational competition for local beers, the top two scores from this class came from the only two that have brewers with professional experience: Tired Hands and Forest & Main.
How many of these new entries will ultimately survive is anyone's guess. But as long as the local beer culture continues to thrive, it's unlikely any of the aspiring new brewers will be deterred.
"I could think of several reasons not to open a brewery," says Capece of Free Will. "But we did it because we thought we could. You only live once."
Watch video of The Inquirer's third Brew-vitational, a grand tasting to find the best beers in the region, at www.philly.com/brew
Contact Craig LaBan
at 215-854-2682 or email@example.com.