More troubles at Red Bell-Dock Street-Independence

TIME TO pull out your scorecards, beer fans. That brewpub next to Reading Terminal is changing its name again.

Now, they’re calling it Independence Brew pub.

Before that, it was Dock Street.

Before that, Red Bell.

So, what’s in a name? Not much – it’s the same beer.

And that’s a sad commentary on the state of microbrewing.

“In a lot of ways,” said brewpub sales director Suzanne O’Brien, explaining the name change, “it comes down to the logo. Independence had one we could use.”

Man, that’s a far cry from the days when craftbrewers boldly declared their nonconformity. Their beer was distinct, fundamentally different from anything the competition was brewing. They scoffed at comparisons.

It turns out, the only real difference is which historical character you slap on your beer label – Ben Franklin or Betsy Ross.

The story at the Terminal brewpub is so complicated, it gives me a headache. But here goes.

Development of the site – a prime location a block from the Pennsylvania Convention Center – was a government project, financed by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority. A suburban venture capital firm, GS Capital, teamed with Red Bell Brewing to build the pub and operate it.

It took two years to outfit, but then the facility sat unused while the partners battled over cost overruns. The dispute wound up in bankruptcy court, and GS – which had no hands-on beer-making experience – took control.

GS, desperate to find a partner that knew how to run the brewing equipment, brought in Dock Street, and created a paper subsidiary called DS Holdings.

Naturally, Dock Street has its own convoluted history.

Founded in 1986 by restaurant entrepreneur Jeffrey Ware and a group of backers, Dock Street was originally just a contract brewer. Its beer was made by F.X. Matt in Utica, N.Y., and sold from New York City to Washington.

In 1990, Ware opened the Dock Street Brewery & Restaurant at 18th and Cherry streets.

Eight years later, he sold the business. The restaurant was taken over by some of his backers and changed into a French brasserie. (It, too, is changing its name, to Dock Street, The Original.)

And he sold the licensing rights for his contract brew to Philly brewing scion Henry Ortlieb.

For a year, Ortlieb bottled Dock Street at his brewpub, Poor Henry’s, in Northern Liberties. Then Ortlieb went belly-up.

Ware, accusing Ortlieb of welshing on payments for the licensing rights, said he reacquired the Dock Street brand at a sheriff’s sale. (I couldn’t locate Ortlieb for comment.) Last year, Ware returned to the contract brew business and began selling bottles of Dock Street brewed at Matt.

Meanwhile, he filed a federal trademark suit to stop DS Holdings from using the Dock Street name on its Terminal brewpub.

The brewpub’s owners were “not paying the fee,” Ware said. “They altered the trademarks without our permission, so I ordered them to stop using them.”

DS Holdings did not return a phone call to comment.

O’Brien said the name change was largely due to the confusion over the Dock Street name.

And who wouldn’t be confused?

Dock Street’s name is on four local businesses: Ware’s contract brewing firm, the original restaurant on Logan Circle, the Terminal brewpub, and a bar at the airport.

“There were just too many conflicts,” O’Brien said. “You say ‘Dock Street,’ and you didn’t know if you were talking about Cherry Street or this place or some street down at Penn’s Landing.”

Many of the Terminal brewpub’s beers weren’t even made there. From day one, huge convention crowds drained the vats so quickly, the pub was forced to buy kegs from other area micros, including Yards and Victory. Yards also brewed and bottled Savage Ale, a separate Dock Street label named after then-head brewer Eric Savage.

You might excuse a brewery for serving craftbrews from other area micros. But the Terminal brewpub then committed the unforgivable sin of polluting its patrons’ palate with mainstream dreck, like Miller Lite.

So much for the fresh taste of locally made handcrafted ale.

Enter Independence Brewing.

Founded in 1995 as a brewery in Northeast Philly, Independence had long sought a brewpub in Center City. It never happened, though, and the publicly traded company took a dive in 2000. Its brewhouse was auctioned off to pay creditors.

Recently, the firm’s president, Bob Connor, joined with Henry Ortlieb to develop both their labels as contract brews. They’ve begun brewing Nittany Ale at Jones Brewing near Pittsburgh.

As for the Terminal brewpub, Connor said, “It’s just a license deal. It’s not an ownership deal.”

Independence finally gets its name on a brewpub – some much needed visibility.

And the Terminal brewpub gets a familiar-sounding name, plus ready-made logos from the old Independence operation.

That’s no small matter in the restaurant business.

“Down at the airport bar, we’ve got 19 different signs. Some of these signs cost up to $40,000,” O’Brien said. “The Independence logo is the same shape as the Dock Street signs. The look is so similar, I don’t think [the name change] will have much effect on us.”

And the beer? Like I said – Red Bell, Dock Street, Independence – it’s just a name.

Terminal brewer Tim Roberts will make the same hand-crafted styles as before. They’re well-made brews that complement the basic brewpub menu.

Robert’s ales will be supplemented by a few Independence lagers, including the award-winning Franklinfest marzen. But they’ll be brewed 50 miles away at Pottstown’s Sunnybrook brewpub, by former Independence brewer Bill Moore.

By my count, that’s at least eight beer companies that have some connection to the Terminal’s taps.

It’s enough to make you wonder, what’s the point in calling it a brewpub?

The Terminal brewpub’s owners are kidding themselves if they don’t think this matters. Despite the bottom-line cynicism inherent in all these name changes, craftbrew drinkers really do care about who’s making their beer.

Maybe the Independence makeover will solve the Terminal brewpub’s problems, but I’d like to remind the owners of an old bit of drinking wisdom every beer fan has learned over the years: You mix that many different brews, you wake up with a mighty mean headache. *

 Joe Sixpack, by Staff Writer Don Russell, was written this week with a bottle of Flying Fish XPA.

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