Seeking greater Independence, a microbrewer adds labels, pub

No one will ever mistake Bob Connor for Augie Busch, but the Northeast Philly brewery chief is building a mini-conglomerate that may unnerve some diehard microbrew fans.

In recent weeks, Connor’s Independence Brewing Co. has acquired three beer labels and joined with Washington, D.C.’s, Capitol City Brewing to operate a long-awaited brewpub at Broad and Chestnut streets. The moves suddenly give Independence a step up on most of the area’s craft brewers, who are concentrating on selling just one label.

(The exception is Poor Henry’s of Northern Liberties, which also brews Dock Street.)

Connor, an ex-stockbroker, still has a long way to go till he joins the ranks of the St. Louis beer baron. Budweiser, as the proverbial saying goes, spills more beer than Independence bottles.

Nonetheless, his acquisitions likely are a harbinger of the microbrewery industry, whose slowed growth has many predicting widespread shutdowns and mergers. For those who remember when a visit to the deli meant a soulless selection of Bud, Coors and Miller, that’s a worrisome development.

Connor, of course, is hardly a threat to gobble up the area’s dozen or so other micros. On the contrary, his company has been a champion of diversity, among the first in the East, for instance, to package bottle-conditioned ales. And he puts out one of the best lagers around – Franklinfest, a 1998 World Beer Cup finalist.

But it’s no longer good enough, as Connor said, “to make a great product, put it out there and it sells itself. It requires a lot of work and you have to react to the market.”

“There’s a lot of competition. Advertising plays an important role, and it’s expensive to advertise – we just can’t afford to do it on a consistent basis.”

Connor’s strategy is acquisition. For a relatively low cost, he picked up the labels of three regional craft beers: Nittany Ale, which had been produced by Whitetail Brewing of York; Blue Hen, a Delaware-based line of beers that had been contract-brewed by Lion Brewing in Wilkes Barre; and Gravity Brewing, formerly produced by America U-Brew in Northern Liberties.

All have a decent following that Connor hopes will produce profits that can be funneled into advertising for his flagship brew, Independence Ale.

Meanwhile, Independence’s partnership with Capitol City gives Connor a long-sought brewpub in Center City. It’s expected to open by Thanksgiving.

“I like the brewpub concept because it exposes our brand,” he said. He’s hoping the Center City lunchtime crowd and evening visitors to the Avenue of the Arts will remember the name and seek it out when choosing from the daunting selection at the distributor.

And the brewpub can serve as a laboratory, for smaller test batches of yummy ales and lagers that might one day make it into bottles.

As harbingers go, that’s a hopeful prospect.

Maybe they meant “the great outdoors of Northern Liberties.”

In a recent press release, Stroh Brewing Co. referred to Schmidt’s – brewed at 2nd and Girard for about 100 years until it was sold in the early ’80s – as “a brand synonymous with the great outdoors of the Northwest.”

Sign of the apocalypse, Part I

A British company is fiddling around with gel-like lager that won’t splash when jostled. The goo sounds like the perfect brew for buck-a-bottle nights on Delaware Avenue.

Sign of the apocalypse, Part II

The first microbrew novel is on the shelves. Called “Hometown Brew,” it’s billed as “a dark novel of corporate intrigue and sexual politics set in a small Wisconsin beer town.”

Beer radar

Mall-bound beer-drinkers can ditch their mates during the interminable wait outside the Nordstrom’s dressing room and head over to the area’s newest brewpub. It’s Brew Moon at King of Prussia Plaza, a shopping destination heretofore served only by the blandly intoxicating McHoolibenigans . . . Look for Hennepin from Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown, N.Y., to begin seeping into the area. The bottle-conditioned Belgian-style ale is a farmhouse brew with ginger, honey and grapefruit aroma . . . A blurry-eyed reader spied this billboard at Super Beverage Warehouse in Brookhaven: “Who Needs Viagra? We Have Beer.”

Joe Sixpack (written this week with a bottle of Betsy Ross Kristall Wheat from Independence) appears every other Friday.


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