Brewmaster hops back into the beer biz

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Thank God, Brandon Greenwood’s brewing again.

The cantankerous zymurgist – a temporarily idled veteran of two local breweries – has spent the last year or so bending Joe Sixpack’s ear down at the corner pub, grumbling about the uneven state of beer in Philadelphia. Out of work and given to moments of pessimism, Greenwood even had me – the eternally optimistic beer-drinker – wondering about the future of the city’s craft-brew renaissance.

If I could’ve afforded it, I would have bought him his own brewery just to make us both happy.

Someone else did us the favor.

Greenwood is now head brewer at Nodding Head Brewery & Restaurant, the city’s newest microbrewery. Located on the site of the old Samuel Adams Brewpub on the second floor of 1516 Sansom St., Center City, the brewery formally opened this week.

Suddenly, the scowl is gone and beer-drinkers can rejoice.

“I’m a very fortunate guy – they gave me everything I wanted,” the 32-year-old brewer said as he poured his first drafts from the joint’s mahogany bar.

“They” are a group of highly regarded bar operators making their first stab at the brewing biz.

Co-owner and manager is Curt Decker, who previously ran Brownie’s Pub, an Old City stop for beer fans looking for cutting-edge brews.

He’s joined by consultants Tom Peters and Fergus Carey, who own nearby Monk’s (16th and Spruce streets), the primo Belgian cafe.

(For the record, Decker’s partner is a newcomer named Barbara Thomas, whose presence at Nodding Head seems largely the result of the vagaries of state liquor laws that prohibit bar owners from operating breweries. Thomas is married to Peters.)

“The management are all beer lovers,” Greenwood said, “They’re enthusiastic about drinking good beer, which is crucial because the concept here – unlike other brewpubs – is the beer first, then the food.

“They’ve turned me loose in the brewery. There hasn’t been a lot of pressure to brew specific styles, and they’ve deferred to my judgment, where the quality of beers is concerned.”

Indeed, even before the brewery opened, word spread around town that Greenwood, the perfectionist, had dumped his first batch down the drain.

“It’s true,” he confirmed. “It was the session ale [a relatively low-alcohol brew designed for all-night consumption]. It was a good beer, but it wasn’t what I was looking for. I didn’t want to put it on just to say we had beer on. I wasn’t completely happy with it. Management said, ‘If you’re not happy with it, get rid of it.'”

In addition to the session, the regular rotation will include a robust porter and a scotch ale.

Greenwood’s immediate task is to learn his brewery. The West Chester native earned his brewing degree at Scotland’s Heriot-Watt University malting and distilling program. He cut his teeth as an apprentice at the mammoth Stroh brewery in Minnesota before doing local stints at Red Bell (where he was responsible for its outstanding Wee Heavy) and Yards.

Nodding Head, in comparison to his earlier work cribs, is a broom closet. The owners spent gobs of money to replace much of Sam Adams’ equipment, which was more simply designed to brew extract recipes, so Greenwood could brew richer, fuller-tasting all-grain ales. The new tanks and kettles are squeezed into the space of a two-car garage. “I really enjoyed the design aspect of it,” he said, crediting Red Bell brewer Jim Cancro with helping him through the tough spots. “But now it’s time to start brewing.”

He said that, finally, with a smile.

Beer radar

McGillin’s Olde Ale House (1310 Drury St., Center City) is rationing its keg supply of Sierra Nevada Big Foot Ale. Limit: one pint per customer per visit. At 10.1 percent alcohol, a single glass is equal to about 3 bottles of your basic Budcoorsmiller. . .Dock Street is doing the growler thing. The half-gallon takeout jugs start at $14, with refills as cheap as 10 bucks. That works out to an el cheapo $2.50 per pint. . .

Look for the new River Horse Hop Hazard Pale Ale in bottles. I got my first taste of the brew on tap last weekend while washing down the hot stuff at the Lambertville, N.J., brewery’s chili festival. The ale is dry-hopped (which means hops are added in the final brewing stage) for a big, flowery aroma.

The brew and the crew

Though nominally an annual food fest, the Book and the Cook, is evolving into a weekend beer bender. Call early for reservations to the following:

Thursday, March 2 – Brewpub dinner with Canadian beer critic Stephen Beaumont, featuring recipes from his cookbooks, at Nodding Head (1516 Sansom St., Center City). Tix are $45. Info: 215-569-9525.

Friday, March 3 – Black-tie beer dinner and roast of British beer icon Michael Jackson, at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, 33rd and Spruce streets, University City. Tix are $150. Info: 215-898-3900.

Saturday, March 4 – Tutored beer tasting, conducted by Jackson, followed by festival tasting, at the University Museum. Seatings are at 1:30, 3:30 and 6 p.m. Tix are $40. Info: 215-898-3900.

Also that day, the Golden Age of Beer in Philadelphia Tour 2000 will visit eight city pubs with Pennsylvania beer writer Lew Bryson. Tix for the tour, from noon to 8 p.m., are $85. Info: 609-406-1432.

Sunday, March 5 – Belgian beer dinner with cookbook author Ruth Van Waerebeek (“Everybody Eats Well in Belgium”) and Beer Philadelphia’s Jim Anderson, at Cuvee Notredame (17th and Green streets, Fairmount). Tix are $55. Info: 215-765-2777.

Also that evening, Jackson will speak during dinner at Monk’s Cafe (263 S. 16th St., Center City). Tix are $75. Info: 215-545-7005.

Joe Sixpack, by staff writer Don Russell, was written this week with a bottle of Magic Hat #9.


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