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Entrepreneurs mounting craft brewery catchup in York County

Martin Virga, front, and Greg Bennett package beer at Gunpowder Falls Brewing in Shrewsbury Township, York County. Virga owns the business that specializes in German-style light and dark lagers. Photo/Amy Spangler
Martin Virga, front, and Greg Bennett package beer at Gunpowder Falls Brewing in Shrewsbury Township, York County. Virga owns the business that specializes in German-style light and dark lagers. Photo/Amy Spangler

The pioneers of York's microbrewery scene downtown soon could be flanked by new operations in Springettsbury Township and West York, according to partners in the new endeavors.

York County is a late but rapid bloomer on the midstate's burgeoning craft beer scene. None of the county's currently licensed and operating breweries were open just two years ago.

The first two to open in the city were Mudhook Brewing Co., a brewpub adjoining Central Market House Co. in the heart of downtown, and Liquid Hero Brewery operating from its property across the street from Sovereign Bank Stadium. Both opened in 2011.

Crystal Ball

Crystal Ball Brewing Co. initially looked to join them downtown at the former Met-Ed steam plant on West Philadelphia Street last summer but has switched gears to West York. There, it found the type of space it was looking for, with concrete floors, high ceilings and garage-bay doors, partner Ryan Johnstonbaugh said.

Crystal Ball's partners are Johnstonbaugh and fellow Spring Grove Area High School graduates Jesse James DeSalvo and Ashley Garvick.

Johnstonbaugh said he came to brewing as a hobby, thought it'd make a great job and got his two friends into the business with him.

The partners are working to potentially lease property in West York that, once signed for, would put them opening at least six months afterward if everything else goes according to plan, Johnstonbaugh said.

In the meantime, they've been participating in events with their beer to keep the name out there, he said.

Baldy Beard

On the east side, Jonpaul Terwilliger and his business partners were raising money on crowd-funding site Kickstarter.com to help get Baldy Beard Brewing Co. into a location, said Terwilliger, its president.

They recently passed their goal and will receive about $19,000 for renovations to their planned space, he said.

They had picked out a property in Springettsbury Township and worked with the township and the property owner ahead of raising the cash for renovations. The site allocates money from pledges only if the target amount is raised.

In the meantime, the venture is not disclosing the exact location until a zoning issue is taken care of and the lease is locked in, Terwilliger said.

The partners — who wish to remain unnamed — went to York College together and started making beer together about four-and-a-half years ago, he said.

Most of them are from outside the midstate — Terwilliger is from New York — but they decided to stay and get jobs in the area after graduation. Terwilliger received his MBA from York College as well.

The Baldy Beard partners currently brew on a 1.5-barrel system, but larger equipment is on its way, he said. The partners plan to have a taproom on-site and distribute to bars. The business is named for the partners, who are all bald and have beards, he said.

Specialties are somewhat odd concoctions and experimentations, which will be part of the mix when Baldy Beard opens, Terwilliger said.

"We call them the 'peculiars,'" he said.

When the brewery opens, they will be keeping their day jobs, he said.

They've also worked with brewers in the area as well as Mr. Steve's Homebrew & Wine Supplies to help give them a strong footing starting out, Terwilliger said.

South County

The brewery scene in the county is not isolated to the city and its surrounding municipalities. In fact, there are two now that are relative neighbors in the more rural area near the Mason-Dixon line and east of Interstate 83.

Coming online around the same time as the two current city breweries was Fawn Grove-based South County Brewing Co.

Owner J.R. Heaps said he wanted to open a brewery because it sounded like it would be a job he would enjoy every day and where he wouldn't have to sit behind a desk, and he also has a passion for the creative process of making beer.

The business opened in July 2011, and Saturdays are particularly popular for in-brewery customers, many of whom come from northern Maryland, he said.

Today, the business produces at about a 500-barrel rate per year, up maybe 10 percent to 15 percent from its rate in 2011, he said. But that could increase with planned geographic expansions in the Philadelphia and Danville, Montour County, areas, Heaps said.

It also has a three-beer release under way this year, each named for up-and-coming heavy metal rock bands, he said.

The small brewery market has become crowded with beer brands, which is one of his business' challenges as it seeks to expand its distribution, he said.

"Knock on wood, hopefully there is enough room for all of us," Heaps said.

Gunpowder Falls

Even in this more-rural area of the county, South County already has a neighbor — which came north because its owner saw Pennsylvania brewery regulations as more favorable than those in Maryland.

Gunpowder Falls Brewing, formally Shrewsbury Township-based Bauernhof Brewing Co., is the latest result of owner Martin Virga's nearly lifelong love of beer and brewing. It actually started long before he ever could drink beer.

When Virga was 6 years old, he said, his family went on vacation from their home in California up the Pacific Coast and stopped at a brewery in Washington along the way.

The operations captivated him. And as time went on, it seemed every family vacation included a stop at a brewery.

Almost by chance later in life, Virga switched gears from majoring in biology in college for a planned career in medicine to learning how to brew in Germany.

He chose to move to Baltimore after finishing in Germany because it was a large and affluent metro area when coupled with nearby Washington, D.C., but it did not have an established craft brewing industry. After a couple successful ventures, he sold his stake in an Ellicott City business in 2004 and got out of the industry.

When the brewing itch started again, Pennsylvania is where he found he could sell on-site and not have to bother with a restaurant because of what he called more favorable rules for small breweries north of the Mason-Dixon line, Virga said.

Not surprisingly, the business makes German-style light and dark lagers that help it stand out among craft breweries that often might specialize in ales or India Pale Ales, he said.

Overall, the operation is expecting to double its modest production this year, thanks mostly to selling through its outside distributors in the commonwealth and Maryland.

"Whatever I send to them, it's immediately gone," Virga said.

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