When Brooklyn Brewing ran into Philly’s Billy Pflaumer

IF STEVE HINDY looks a little uncomfortable on Monday when he and a panel of local brewers gather for a talk about the “craft-beer revolution” at Yards Brewery, don’t blame me.

The founder of Brooklyn Brewery is an experienced journalist – a former Mideast correspondent for the Associated Press – and he can handle the grilling I’ll dole out as moderator of the event.

No, if he’s squirming in his seat, it’s because Philly hasn’t always treated him so well. He has bad memories of one guy in particular – the man whom the Inquirer once called “the shadowy lord of the Philadelphia beer business. “

Billy Pflaumer.

Pflaumer is a familiar name to anyone who was drinking beer here before all these microbrews began popping up. He was the owner of Christian Schmidt Brewing Co. in the 1980s, when the massive Girard Avenue plant was the country’s ninth-largest brewery.

A Kensington rowhouse guy who wore dark, Roy Orbison-like shades because of an eye defect, Pflaumer was known for working deals – some legit, others not so much.

On the plus side, he salvaged both the Rheingold and Ortlieb brands when they went belly-up. He was well-known for crowd-pleasing Christmas-light displays at his home in Drexel Hill. And who doesn’t love a guy who names his trucking company KMA, for Kiss My Ass?

On the negative side, well, he seemed permanently on the FBI’s radar. The feds ID’d him as an organized-crime associate, and though they indicted him several times, the best they could do was send him to jail on tax charges.

For pure audacity, though, it would be hard to top that time in the 1970s when he got caught switching labels on cheap kegs of Ballantine at his beer distributorship, rebranding them as more expensive Piels and Schlitz.

Among Pflaumer’s myriad holdings was Midway Beverage Corp., on Long Island, one of the first places to distribute Brooklyn Beer after it launched in 1984.

Hindy remembers Pflaumer in his book, The Craft Beer Revolution: How a Band of Microbrewers is Transforming the World’s Favorite Drink (Palgrave MacMillan), as the guy who “lost almost every customer I had ever handed him. “

Pflaumer schooled Hindy in the wholly Philadelphia art of chiseling.

Midway “went to great lengths to avoid paying me,” Hindy writes. “Our contract specified payment in 30 days. But typically the check would be mailed on the 30th day. It was drawn on a Philadelphia bank, so it took a few days to clear. Once, I received an unsigned check that Pflaumer’s accountant insisted I mail back to Philadelphia for a signature. “

As sales of Brooklyn’s fledgling brands evaporated, Hindy cut his losses and left Midway and Billy Pflaumer. Instead, the company would distribute its own beer.

It was one of the best decisions of his life, and not just because Midway went out of business three months later.

Self-distribution meant that Brooklyn would keep more of its sales revenue, a huge asset for a growing operation. And it led to agreements to sell other brands in New York, including Philadelphia’s Dock Street, which helped Brooklyn reduce operating costs.

While the Pflaumer episode (and to a larger extent Hindy’s book) is inside baseball, it’s an intriguing look at the challenges that start-ups faced as they took on the big guys and, indeed, transformed beer. If the little guys hadn’t made it past mundane ordeals like bounced checks, mendacious middlemen and cutthroat competition, we’d still be drinking BudMillerCoors.

So when Hindy stops by Yards on Monday, we’ll talk about some of those challenges and victories. But Brooklyn Brewery’s chief will have no reason to squirm in his seat. Bill Pflaumer passed away back in 2010.

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Join moderator Joe Sixpack for a public forum on “The Craft Beer Revolution,” with Steve Hindy; Tom Kehoe, of Yards Brewing; Daniel Endicott, of Forest & Main Brewing; and Scott Morrison and Erin Wallace, of Barren Hill Tavern & Brewery, at 6 p.m. Monday, at Yards Brewery (901 N. Delaware Ave., Northern Liberties). Tix are $6 at eventbrite.com.

The event is part of Brooklyn Brewery’s Mash, a week of events in Philly, including beer dinners, cheese pairings, homebrewing instruction, music and films. More at brooklynbrewerymash.com/philadelphia.

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