ROB ZARKO’S two-story brick home, on a lazy shaded road in suburban Wallingford, Delaware County, looks much like every other home in the neighborhood.
Well-tended lawn, check.
Couple of bikes in the grass, check.
Portable basketball hoop in the driveway, check.
Thirty-gallon mash tun in the garage.
Welcome to Ship Bottom Brewing, the area’s newest and tiniest new brewery. If you blink, you’ll miss it.
Fully licensed and operational, Ship Bottom is brewing up minuscule batches of two barrels each, or enough to fill just over 100 sixpacks – if it had a bottling line. Instead, all of its product is draft and is distributed mainly to three or four bars around Media.
If small beer makers like Sly Fox and Yards are known as microbreweries, Ship Bottom is a nanobrewery.
The entire brewery fits inside half of Zarko’s two-car garage. His brewing kettle is so small, he has to cook two full batches to fill up his two-barrel fermentation tanks. Forget those fancy glycol cooling systems you might’ve seen on a brewery tour; at Ship Bottom, proper fermentation temperature is maintained with a simple air conditioner.
Basically, it looks like a glorified home-brewing system – which is appropriate, because that’s where Zarko got his start.
It began with a countertop home-brew kit that his brother purchased in the early ’90s at Montgomeryville’s Keystone Homebrew Supply. The two brewed their first batch at a summer home in Ship Bottom, N.J. (thus the brewery’s name).
“We did everything wrong that we could’ve done wrong,” Zarko said, “and it still turned out pretty good.”
Though his brother didn’t pursue the hobby, Zarko was hooked. Over the years, he added equipment and experimented with various recipes. A couple of years ago – about the time that he built an electronic monitoring panel that could be controlled with his smartphone – Zarko realized that it had become more than a hobby.
“I was investing more and more money into home-brewing,” he said. “I was making 10-gallon batches every weekend, more beer than I could possibly drink. I shared it with friends, and people would tell me it’s pretty good.”
Married to a full-time lawyer, with four kids to raise, Zarko, 44, knew he didn’t have the luxury of quitting his day job as an I.T. consultant. So he started to research his options and discovered the new trend of nanobrewing.
Nanobrewing is so young, it has no legal definition. Generally, it’s a brewing system that makes less than four barrels at a time, and fewer than 500 barrels a year. The beer is served either at the brewery or at local pubs, one keg at a time.
There are about 100 of them in the United States, including about a half-dozen scattered across Pennsylvania.
The lack of a legal definition is a significant challenge, because nanobreweries must follow the same local, state and federal alcohol rules as even the largest breweries.
Surprisingly, Zarko encountered little opposition from his neighbors.
“I went door to door and told my neighbors I’d been home-brewing in my house since 2000, and you didn’t even know it,” he said. “This brewery is not substantially larger than what I had already been doing. . . .
“There was only one person, a lady who spoke against me for 45 minutes at a township meeting. She kept saying she didn’t want my brewery to turn into the next Anheuser-Busch.”
Today, you’d hardly know there was a fully functioning brewery in Zarko’s garage. When I dropped in for a look, it wasn’t till I was halfway up the driveway that I caught the wonderful aroma of boiling malt. As for the operation itself, I’ve seen larger stacks of kegs on the front porches of Drexel University frat houses.
“The neighbors stop in from time to time,” he said. “They think it’s cool.”
But the bigger buzz for Zarko comes when he sees people drink his beer. “That just blows me away,” he said.
At this scale, Ship Bottom Brewery is mostly a weekend pursuit. Zarko said that he considers himself to be in the “branding” stage, when he can perfect recipes and learn what beer drinkers want.
Lately, though, he has found himself hustling to fulfill a commitment to provide beer for a July 6 fundraising festival at the Ship Bottom (N.J.) Firehouse, which was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. If you’re in the vicinity, stop by for a taste of Ship Bottom’s Beach Patrol Hefeweizen.
Otherwise, you’ll have to look hard to find Ship Bottom’s beers. They’re served sporadically at Pinocchio’s Beer Garden to Go and Quotations, in Media, and Pescatore’s Italian Restaurant and Firewaters, in Glen Mills.
Also look for them at Broad Axe Tavern, 20 miles to the north in Ambler, Montgomery County.
Why there? Well, it’s just down the street from Zarko’s day job.