Narberth locals' dream of brewpub could thrive on the Main Line

Eric Woods (left) and his Narbew partner Jeremy Boehm work together to pull the grains from the pot while brewing a batch of their Santa Java Stout.

Standing in front of a four-burner stove in his old college t-shirt, Jeremy Boehm carefully pulled a nylon bag full of grains from a silver pot. The dark brown liquid dripping from the bag signified the beginning of a long night for Boehm and his childhood friend, Eric Woods, who would stay up until the early morning caring for their “baby we hope to drink one day.”

Home brewers, Boehm and Woods, both 27, were hard at work on a blend of chocolate, coffee and cinnamon, a brew the two tentatively named the Santa Java Stout. The Santa Java will be a new addition to the Narberth residents’ homebrew line, Narbrew, something they hope to one day turn into a full-bodied brewpub where people can come to make their own beer.

“It takes a lot of money, and there are a lot of brewpubs, but that also means there are a lot of success stories,” Woods said. “The entire industry is steadily increasing.”

Though Philadelphia has a pretty saturated brew market, the Main Line isn’t overflowing with brewpubs. In July, Tired Hands Brewing Company began gutting an old physicians' office along Ardmore Avenue to open a brew cafe, set to open in the coming months. Villanova graduates Trevor Hayward and Luke Bowen partnered with Mark Braunwarth to create Evil Genius Beer Company, but they don’t own a brewpub and use Four Horsemen Brewing Company in Indiana to brew and bottle.

But with a lagging economic scene, legal restrictions and only occasional pockets of time, opening a brewpub wouldn’t be easy, something Boehm and Woods acknowledge – but it’s certainly a viable business venture. Not only do people like beer, but they, like Woods and Boehm, want to brew it, too.

Matthew Pieters of Havertown began brewing more than 10 years ago, and over the years, his friends began brewing too. He started meeting people through church from different towns along the Main Line who expressed the same interest, and over a couple of beers in November 2010, Pieters and his fellow brewers officially decided to create the Main Line Brewers Association. In December, they planned how the club would work, and by February of the next year, MLBA convened for its first meeting at the Flip & Bailey’s Bar & Grill in Rosemont.

Less than a year later, MLBA has 45 members. Though the club isn’t at all stiff, members pay dues and take each other’s advice seriously. At meetings, the officers do brief lectures on brewing techniques, do off-flavor tastings to help the members identify how they could fix a brew gone bad and talk about quality equipment.

MLBA’s success, Pieters said, is why a business venture such as Narbrew’s idea of a brewpub could thrive.

“There has definitely been a growing interest in home brewing,” Pieters said, noting that there was an unmet need for an outlet on the Main Line. “Necessity is the mother of invention.”

But MLBA’s growth means more than simple interest. People want to learn how to brew, which could be invaluable for Narbrew’s purposes.

“We want to focus on the home brewing thing because we want to help people create it,” Boehm said.

Boehm and Woods brewed their first beer from a homebrew kit Woods found in an old coach’s home. It was old, used and had two mice in it, but the childhood friends from Mechanicsburg, Pa., followed the instructions and made their first basic brew. About a year later, Woods got Boehm a newer, less-defunct brew kit for his birthday, and Narbrew, named after the town they’ve lived in for the past four years, was born.

Now, beer bottles with Narbrew labels for successful brews such as the Black Sheep, Honey-Money Stout and German Assassin line a bookcase in Woods’ apartment. Woods, an animator by profession, designed the labels as a precursor to what might be if Narbrew were to grow.

Another bookcase stays stacked with dated subscriptions to beer magazines such as Zymurgy and Beer Advocate, and even more filter in every month. The two improve their craft by chatting up other brewers, reading and taking notes during and after they brew each batch.

Boehm, who substitute taught after graduate school at Villanova before realizing it wasn’t for him, now works at Rock Bottom in King of Prussia, where the restaurant brews its beer on site. Though Boehm works as a server, he said he’s always picking apart the brewers’ brains about the intricacies of the process. As he stood by the stove where Santa’s Java Stout brewed, Boehm pulled a year-old Narbrew from the refrigerator – they stash away two of every beer they make – to taste-test so he could ask for the brewers’ opinion the next day.

Part of Boehm’s reasoning behind working at Rock Bottom is to soak in as much knowledge as possible. Right now, the two brew in either one of their apartments’ kitchens. But the apartments, located in a charming older home on N. Narberth Avenue, have lots of “character.”

Woods’ kitchen gets cramped with just two people, and because of the make of the house, the temperature during the summer is too hot to brew, and vice versa throughout the colder months. Add the importance of sanitary conditions and Boehm’s two large boxer pit bull mixes, and brewing becomes even messier than Woods’ stove after the night’s end, something his fiancée Kristen Gill “hates,” he said with a laugh.

“It’s amazing how much money and space influence the efficiency of brewing,” Woods said.

In order to brew more to have others taste and get the word out, they would need a more controlled environment. And in order to eventually sell a Narbrew, they would need to apply to the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board for a brewers’ license.
Homebrewed beer can’t be sold without a license, so for now Woods and Boehm only share their concoctions with friends and family. When Woods marries Gill in Mechanicsburg this July, all guests will walk out of the reception with a Narbew as a party favor (the kids will get root beer). One day, the brewers hope to do tastings at local pubs and bars, such as the blocks-away McShea’s in Narberth.

The opportunity to expose others to the flavors of beers beyond the major companies is also something Woods holds dear, much like the smell of a brewery, where he said he could sleep.

“I always remember when I first started getting into beer, realizing all the different flavors made beer really exciting to me,” Woods said. “To be able to introduce new beer to people is something we want to do.”