Friday, January 16, 2015

Iron Hill Brewing, and some thoughts on chain brewpubs

    Chestnut Hill, PA is one of Philadelphia's most genteel and upscale neighborhoods, with Federal-era stone and brick homes and businesses on curving cobblestone streets. Nice spot for a food-centered brewpub, which is what Iron Hill Brewery must have thought when it opened one of its eleven locations here.  The cold, windy day called for a good warming soup, and out of three choices at the bar I settled on a Louisiana Chicken Gumbo.
 What to pair with that spicy, delicious soup and cornbread?  The tap list offered thirteen choices, five of them followed by the letters HB.  Something called Om Nom Nom, not one of the HBs, caught my eye and then appeared in my schooner.  It came across as a stout-porter hybrid; head brewer Chris LaPierre had posted all the numbers a beer geek could wish for (abv, 6.5%, O.G., 1.075, color, 33, IBUs, 32, special ingredients, oats, cinnamon, vanilla beans, and pureed raisins).  Mouth-coating sweetness but hoppy enough to say it's still beer.
     For my next small glass, I went with one of the HB series, a Pig Iron Porter.  My server, Becky, told me HB stood for House Beer, one of the five always on tap in each of the chain's pubs scattered across three states.  Two more had SB following the title, seasonals which would also be on tap in every pub.  The other seven were chosen by Chris, the head brewer, and would be found only here in Chestnut Hill.
     The business model known as the chain brewpub or chain gastropub is characterized by small systems able to make enough beer for their own restaurants, little or no distribution to taverns, little or no bottling or canning,take-home sales limited to growler fills, and the same beers at each location, although brewers may have some latitude to add their own creations.  In our region, McMenamins, the RAM chain, the Rock Bottom/Gordon Biersch combined entity, and the Elliott Bay brewpubs all exemplify this model.  Diamond Knot is a combination of brewpubs and a production brewery.  The desire of brewers to show what they can create pops up in most organizations of this type,
and Chestnut Hill gives Chris almost half the taps to play with.
     A brew kettle a bit under 14 barrels and a series of 12-bbl fermenters makes enough beer for this pub and the growler fills.  There is one small exception to the model: the Bottled Reserves program.  These are high-end brews, imperials, an English Barleywine, a Wee Heavy, and the like, in 750-ml bottles with champagne-style corking.  They are priced from $16.50 to $20.50 and again, may vary some from one pub to another.
     The Pig Iron Porter was a good finish to the     gumbo.  I wanted to try one more unique beer.
                         I settled on a Munich Dunkel, always a favorite back home the way Chuckanut brews it.  The abv was 5.0% here and the IBUs were 18.  Not hoppy-bitter, then, but it finished with a crisp tang I liked.  Becky had worked a few years in the Seattle area, at Airways Brewing in Kent and the Dog and Pony in Renton, so it was fun to compare beer scenes.
     The Iron Hill chain is going on twenty years now, having started in Delaware in 1996.  It's here to stay.

(Visited 10/14/15)

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