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United in spirits: Partnerships lift craft alcohol business

Husband-and-wife teams, from left, Denny and Wendy Browne, and Melissa and Tom Beers, are owners and operators of River Bend Hop Farm and Brewery in Perry County. The craft-beer operation, which overlooks the Juniata River, opened this fall. - (Photo / Amy Spangler)

When Tom Beers tells a customer “it’s not a local pub,” he means it.

Even though his rural brewery is visible from Route 22/322, River Bend Hop Farm and Brewery is a hard-to reach destination.

To get to the brewery, which opened on Sept. 22, visitors need to exit the highway, go through Newport and then follow a series of temporary yard signs past the borough and into Miller Township, a Perry County municipality of less than 1,000 residents.

After a scenic journey through the woods and past railway lines, visitors come upon a 22-acre farm with a refurbished barn that houses the brewery — the county’s only active beer producer.

Central Pennsylvania may not be Napa Valley, the famed California wine region. But it boasts an expanding market for alcohol-related tourism thanks to destinations like River Bend.

“People come here because it’s unique,” said Denny Browne, who co-owns the brewery with Beers.

And those destinations have helped by working together, collaborations fueled in part by Act 39. The 2016 state law gives Pennsylvania beer, wine and spirit makers the ability to sell other alcoholic products for on-site consumption. Craft breweries, for example, can sell Pennsylvania-produced wine and spirits.

River Bend is no stranger to the trend, as it sells cocktails made with spirits from a craft distillery in Port Royal. River Bend also makes its own cider and mead products to keep its 11 tap lines full and flowing.

Its owners want the farm to be more than just a place to have a few drinks.

One of River Bend’s signature features is a set of 104 poles installed two years ago by Beers and Browne to grow 1,000 Cascade and Chinook hop plants. The hops are now being used in some of the brewery’s beers, though some are sold to local home brewers, as well.

Beers and Browne also plan on taking reservations for special events and opening up as an outdoor venue for music festivals.

An event space is taking shape on the upper floor of the barn. The area, which spans more than 3,000 square feet, should be ready to host weddings and other events next year.

Browne also would like to build an outdoor music stage next year near the hop yard. River Bend already attracts live music and food trucks every week. Performers set up now either inside the brewery or on a small outdoor patio.

In addition, the partners are mulling plans to start growing Christmas trees on a lower field, among other projects to expand the property’s appeal.

Pairing up

The ability of craft producers to collaborate under Act 39 is especially helpful for limited distilleries, which are starting to pop up more frequently in Pennsylvania, said Ken McDermott, a liquor-law attorney for the law firm Tucker Arensberg in Lemoyne.

“Distilleries are trying to figure out how to draw more people in,” he said. “Cross-selling plays a big role now because they don’t have to produce their own (beer or wine). I think that is having a big impact.”

A limited distillery is a Pennsylvania licensing category created in 2012. Limited distilleries are capped at making 100,000 gallons per year, while the full distillery license requires production of at least 100,000 gallons per year. That volume requirement kept most aspiring distillers out of the business.

Niche producers not only help diversify the mix of products made and sold in Central Pennsylvania they also help other service companies, including mobile canning companies, McDermott said.

And as craft products proliferate, producers need to be more creative with their names and designs, he said. That benefits graphic designers and other artists who might collaborate with a brewery or distillery on labeling projects.

Partnerships have been a key component for Better World Spirits, which was founded by Wade Keech. The York County resident formerly owned Whitetail Brewing.

Keech is partnering with Harrisburg-based Appalachian Brewing Co. to produce an all-natural line of hard sodas under the Better World brand. The initial versions will be made with vodka and rum.

ABC makes its own line of sodas at a production plant on Carlisle Pike in Silver Spring Township. ABC co-owner Artie Tafoya read a Business Journal story about Keech’s distillery plans earlier this year and contacted him about producing a spirit-based line for Better World.

The two hit it off and Keech is finalizing plans for two flagship products — a blood orange, peach and ginger drink made with vodka; and a mango, lime and mint drink with rum.

Better World is hoping production can start in January, Keech said.

His license application with the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board is still pending, however. And he also is waiting for the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau to approve his company’s recipes and can labels.

Keech said he plans to sell directly to bars and restaurants, beginning in the Philadelphia market and also in Central Pennsylvania because of the ABC partnership. He also would like to get his products into state liquor stores.

“Once we prove the concept, we can expand,” he said.

He intends to supplement the lineup at Better World with seasonal cocktails — maybe a cranberry drink over the holidays. He’s already planning for a citrus cucumber cocktail with gin, as well as a whiskey sour-inspired drink and an Irish coffee blend.

“I don’t want people to think of it as beer or soda,” Keech said. “I wanted to do something different. I want to find a niche that is not being met.”

Diversity, unplanned

While the new projects at River Bend Hop Farm and Brewery may sound like part of a long-term diversification strategy, co-owner Denny Browne said there was never really a plan for any of it.

The co-founder of Capital View Wealth Management in Wormleysburg, Browne said he and his wife, Wendy, bought the farm on a whim thinking they would use it to grow their own vegetables and have a little retreat from their Cumberland County home.

“We weren’t out farm searching. This whole thing fell together,” he said. “It’s been crazy.”

The Brownes attended a conference on vegetable growing, which led them to a session on hop farming.

The hops led to brewing beer. Now Browne and co-owner Tom Beers are taking the next steps — including the installation of larger signs to help people find River Bend.

The owners, both from the Enola area, said they have no desire to grow as large as Troegs. And Browne said he isn’t leaving his wealth management job.

They prefer to be a destination and hope more craft alcohol businesses discover Perry County as a place to plant their roots.

In the meantime, the owners of River Bend continue to weigh whether to add more equipment and increase production. The brewery currently brews four times a week to keep up with demand on the three days that it is open.

Revitalization impact

Also breaking into the limited distillery space in 2018 will be Dead Lightning Distillery in Lemoyne.

New Cumberland residents Andrea and Eric Montgomery started the distillery in honor of their late son, Skyler, who died last year at the age of 21. Still in the process of getting its vodka and rum recipes and bottle labels approved by the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, Dead Lightning will soon be part of the revitalization efforts in downtown New Cumberland.

The distillery will open a retail location in part of the former Coakley’s Restaurant and Irish Pub, a longtime borough establishment closed by bankruptcy in 2014.

The new distillery will make its products in Lemoyne in a space owned by the Montgomerys. The Bridge Street location in New Cumberland, a former Coakley’s cigar bar, will serve as a retail tasting room. A grand opening for the tasting room is slated for March 3, said Andrea Montgomery.

Dead Lightning plans to sell three styles of rum — a white, a spiced and an oak-aged rum — along with flavored vodka products. The vodka products will be branded as Local Legend.

Montgomery said Dead Lightning, a name inspired by rock band The Grateful Dead and the nickname for moonshine, white lightning, also will serve Pennsylvania craft beer, wine products and cocktails featuring its own spirits.

There are no plans to try to sell the company’s spirits through the state liquor system, she said.

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