IT TAKES BRICKS and people to build a neighborhood, but don’t forget to bring along the beer.
That’s the message from Ken Weinstein, a private Germantown developer who has converted scores of vacant and deteriorated commercial properties, including some of the city’s popular beer-centric destinations. On Tuesday, he’ll lead a fun but wonky pub-crawl in Mount Airy, called “Beer: An Agent of Change. “
I caught up with him last week for a few pints at Earth Bread + Brewery, one of the properties he owns and helped convert into one of the city’s flourishing brewpubs. Here are excerpts of our conversation.
Q: What do you mean “agent of change”?
A: If you take a look at Mount Airy, it was a very different place 15 years ago, looking for an identity . . . There were a lot of vacant, deteriorated properties. A lot of day cares and hair salons on [Germantown] Avenue. Meanwhile, the residential neighborhoods on either side of the avenue were in much better condition and higher quality than the avenue itself.
The avenue was calling for change. People wanted to walk to their own business district.
I think the elevation of beer came along the same time and really helped Mount Airy get to the next level.
Q: How, specifically, did beer help the neighborhood change?
A: We already had Brewer’s Outlet [beer distributor], which was doing well. We had McMenamin’s Tavern, which was an institution. But we needed more to make it a beer destination. So as we [Weinstein’s company, Philly Office Retail] started to buy up properties and renovate them, the logical choice to fill them was beer destinations.
It started with Cresheim Cottage Cafe [now closed], which was wine-oriented but quickly added good beer, thanks to the suggestions of Bob Wegbreit [a mutual friend from the suburbs who sat in on our conversation].
Then we opened the Trolley Car Diner with a very minimal beer list. We’ve also brought in Cresheim Grain Exchange and reopened Goat Hollow, which have great beer lists, too.
Q: Was there an “ah-ha” moment when you realized beer was becoming such a draw?
A: Definitely. It was when this place opened. Earth Bread + Brewery. It was the turning point of Mount Airy.
First of all, after we bought this property, it took us 2 1/2 years to push out Anglesea Pub [the former occupant] . . . Getting them to leave was really key.
Q: So, just to be clear, when you say beer is an agent of change, you mean good beer?
A: Well, yeah. I mean, as people become connoisseurs, you just can’t serve anything.
Q: How did you attract Tom Baker and Peggy Zwerver, the brewpub’s owners, to Mount Airy?
A: They were in New Jersey, and they were looking all over for a location. And, in fact, they had a lease negotiated in New York City. It didn’t work out, and somebody told them, “You should look in Mount Airy. “
They didn’t know what Mount Airy was, and I remember sitting down with them at the old coffee shop across the street, and they’re going on and on about their concept, about how they were going to recycle doors and fixtures, about sustainability, and I finally said to them: “You have no idea of how Mount Airy you already are. “
They just fell in – it was a perfect location. Of course, we spent $100,000, and so did they to really change this place around.
Q: I read once that Mount Airy is the most perfectly diversified ZIP code in America. It’s one of the reasons I love McMenamin’s. It’s the most diverse crowd of any bar I’ve ever been in my life, and I’m drawn to that. How did that happen in Mount Airy?
A: It’s just our history. It has been true since the ’50s, when Mount Airy and its leadership fought to keep it diverse, and it’s not easy. The second you take your eye off the ball, the diversity could easily leave. It’s something that we’re aware of and very proud of . . . And beer appeals to everyone – black, white, lesbian, straight, whatever.
Q: The other thing for me is that beer is so accessible and fits the image of Philly perfectly.
A: Agreed. And beer is a better fit for Mount Airy. We may not be very blue collarish here, but we’re also not snobbish.
“Beer: An Agent of Change” with Ken Weinstein, 7-9 p.m. Tuesday. Starts at Trolley Car Diner,
7619 Germantown Ave. Tix $20, mtairylearningtree.org. Info, 215-843-6333.