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Iron Hill Going from Strength to Strength

Iron Hill Going from Strength to Strength

Director of Brewing Operations Mark Edelson (right) with Brewmaster Chris Lapierre in the new Center City brewhouse.

By Tony Forder

With their well-established Brewery/Restaurant template, Iron Hill has grown organically over 22 years, opening new stores at the rate of one of every couple of years. This year, they have amped things up with four new openings to bring the total to 16 outlets – not bad for a couple of homebrewers!

That would be Mark Edelson and Kevin Finn, who turned their hobby into one of the most successful brewpub chains in the eastern U.S. Edelson, a chemical engineer by trade, remembers, “We didn’t have toys back then like we have now, we had to build our toys.”

They started kicking around the idea of a brewpub but neither had much experience in the hospitality field. A mutual friend in the restaurant business put them in touch with Kevin Davies, a restauranteur in Wilmington, DE.

Triumphant trio 1996: Edelson, Finn and Davies.

It took about two years to put the first project together, said Edelson, opening in Newark, DE in 1996. Two years later they opened in West Chester, PA. “We always knew we had to expand,” he said. “Supporting three families out of one restaurant doesn’t make it!”
West Chester was the right place at the right time. “That was such a phenomenal store for us and still is to this day. We got in early and it just exploded. West Chester is such a big scene these days.”
In 2000, they opened in Media, PA, followed by six more stores over the next 16 years in PA, two in in New Jersey and one more in Wilmington, DE. This year, as depicted in their logo, they spread their wings to Hershey, PA, Rehoboth Beach, DE, Greenville, SC and the biggest venture to date – Center City, PA.

Edelson’s longtime partner Kevin Finn had this to say, “I think one of the things that has made Iron Hill so successful is that each of the founding partners bring their own skill set to the business. In Mark’s case, his background as a chemical engineer was great training for brewery operations. Brewing is part art and part science and Mark is able to excel at both sides and also is a great teacher and mentor for young brewers. Additionally he is extremely passionate about beer and brewing and this is evident in his beer. He has been a wonderful partner and friend!”

While the stores have kept the same theme – industrial craftsman decor, good freshly prepared food, good on-site brewed beer, the structure of the company has certainly evolved. They now have a CEO and a paid board of directors.
“A couple of years ago we brought on some private equity,” Edelson said. “When you do things as a small business, you have less discipline. (The equity people) help us set strategy, keep us disciplined, and work with financing of course.”
Among the board members are a retired Starbucks executive (their real estate expert) and a former CEO of Rock Bottom. Their current CEO, hired in June of this year is Kim Boerema, most recently COO of California Pizza Kitchen. “Instead of the three of us inventing the wheel…when you bring on a lot of experts you get to the answers a lot quicker. The learning curve goes away.”

Regarding their most ambitious project to date – Center City, said Edelson, “On our own, the way we used to do business, we would have not come down here and pay this kind of money. But, we wanted show we can do an urban location. The board said why don’t you do it on your home turf.” The timing was good – Philadelphia’s East Market Street section is undergoing a major redevelopment.

Opening day Center City, June 2018.

On display at Center City are Iron Hill’s tried and true trademarks, although some of the slogans have evolved over the years. Currently – the phrases scratch kitchen, craft brewery are interchangeable – craft kitchen, scratch brewery. “We’re a brewery and a restaurant,” said Edelson, “We never wanted to be a brewpub,” noting that back in the 1990s brewpubs got a somewhat undeserved bad name for mediocre food. Come to that, the beers, by today’s craft brewing standards weren’t exactly spectacular back then either. “What did you have? Five styles if you were lucky.” Iron Hill was unusual in that one of their initial beers was a lager. Indeed it was their first medal winner – gold in the Munchener Helles category for Lodestone Lager at the Great American Beer Festival in 1997, beginning an unbroken string of medal victories over 22 years. They also won Brewpub of the Year twice (don’t call them a brewpub!) at the World Beer Cup – all of which enables them to proclaim they are “The Most Award Winning Brewery East of the Mississippi.”

Of the Pig Iron Porter I was sipping, Edelson, whose title is and always has been Director of Brewing Operations remarked, “That is the only recipe we’ve never changed. I’m very proud of that.” Another thing that hasn’t changed that much is the brewhouse, or at least its size – 7-bbl is the standard Iron Hill issue from Canadian manufacturer, Specific Mechanical. “I’d like to say we had foresight on that but we didn’t.” He said that other brewpub chains made the mistake of installing big 15-bbl systems. “The beer ends up sitting around for way too long.”

Of course the beer selections and choices have changed a lot over the years. “We found that 15 (beers on tap) is the sweet spot. We do a lot of kegging and moving stuff around.”
Edelson does admit to being a little slow to adapt to one new style fashion – New England IPA. “I was the fist shaker on cloudy beer – ‘Beer should be brilliant ,’” I said. “Eventually I gave in on it, but then I felt like we launched it way after the customer screamed for it. We’re not going to do that again. We’re going to look at the market, and when it starts to be a thing, we’ll jump right in, but we’ll research it and we’ll do it right.” Look for a Brut IPA soon.

Currently lagers are making a comeback, but Iron Hill was ahead of the curve on that one. Tart Berliner Weisse style fruit beers are also enjoying popularity, especially among women. Foodwise, “We’re doing a lot more than we’ve done historically with cooking with beer. Reconnecting food and beer together.” Nearly half the entrees listed on their weekly Chefs Table website specials have beer infusions. Beer pairings are also suggested for most dishes. The website is all encompassing, listing beers and menus for each location updated weekly. If you want to eat at home, simply order and pick it up. Career information and Iron Hill’s charity activities and opportunities are also listed.

He describes staff training as “pretty brutal – a lot of education…and testing.” One of the keys, he said, and a job which falls to the brewer, is to make the staff passionate about beer – Iron Hill beer. “If you do that, they’re going to sell beer.”
Edelson said that while Iron Hill is indeed looking into a centralized production brewery, he insists onsite brewing will remain an integral part of their operation. “Brewing on site is our brand – let the guys in the locations focus on what they’re most passionate about, things they create. It’s a different thing without a brewery. Having a brewer on site talking and educating about beer keeps people focused on beer. We sell a lot more beer than other restaurants.”

If and when they build a production brewery it would be to brew some of the flagship brands and allow them to do away with mobile canning which they use at some of their locations.
While growlers remain popular – you can put any of IH’s 15 draft beers into a growler – cans have completely eclipsed them. “It’s a great thing that cans became hip,” he said.
At first they thought they would put flagships into cans, but it turned out that’s not what people wanted, they wanted the seasonals, but only for sale in the stores. “I will not put our canned beer into retail until we build a big brewery, because we don’t brew that way. The worst thing that happens is putting brewpub beer into retail. It’s not designed to do that – to sit warm on a shelf.”
Currently, two favorite winter seasonals are available in 16-oz cans – Reindeers Revenge, a 9% hoppy twist on a Belgian Tripel, and 9.8% Russian Imperial Stout are the 16-oz offerings. In the summer Maholo Apollo summer wheat ale is the biggest crowd pleaser.

Edelson said he’s proud of Iron Hill’s staying power just as he is of his peers. “There’s sort of this class of ’96 – Dogfish Head, Yards, Sly Fox, Dock Street, Victory, Troegs. The bulk of that group is still here.” They brew together every year for Philly Beer Week under the banner of Brotherly Suds. “Last year we opened it up to a lot of the other new smaller breweries. We have to stop being the old guys!”

He embraces the new wave of micro or “garage” breweries even though, he notes, they may not all be good. “Like the last wave, customers will decide they don’t want to drink the poor quality stuff and people that aren’t focused on quality aren’t going to survive. Right now there’s just this wave of acceptance of this new thing, but people will make choices that will clean the marketplace out – it’s just a cycle. That’s how we survived in the late 90s. A vaccuum was created by people who went out of business, so there was more for the rest of us.”

So where next for Iron Hill? Definitely not New York City. “Well, we couldn’t find anything in Pittsburgh. We like DC, North Virginia, South Carolina…Charleston, the Raleigh-Durham area.”
And for Edelson? While his partner Kevin Finn has transitioned from President to Chairman of the Board, Edelson is not yet looking for an exit strategy. For one thing three of his five daughters are currently in college with the other two in high school.
His biggest lesson: “The business needs to grow beyond the skills of the founders, but we’ll always be the ambassadors.”

Edelson on the Brewers Association…

As well as founder and brewing linchpin of the expanding Iron Hill empire, Mark Edelson spent a decade on the board of the Brewers Association. In fact, he was on the board when it was the Association of Brewers, before the merger with BAA (Brewers Association of America), which brought in some of the larger, heritage craft breweries like FX Matt, Anchor and Sierra Nevada along with a more businesslike approach to the nascent craft brewing industry.

As Treasurer he oversaw a windfall of dollars that events like the Craft Brewers Conference and the Great American Beer Festival began to bring in. “Not a lot of trade organizations have a public event,” he noted, referring to the GABF.

The largesse has brought the BA greater stature, and the realization of something that took 10 years to come to fruition – the excise tax cut for small brewers that was signed into law along with President Trump’s tax cut at the end of 2017.

When InBev bought Anheuser-Busch, the dollars the latter was putting into crop research virtually dried up. Edelson said the BA was in a position to step into the breach. “It’s funny, the organization that was considered the little guy in the room is now funding the research that AB used to do. I guess it’s kind of a sign of the times.”

The challenge for the BA board now says Edelson says is, “how to meet the needs of the changing landscape of the membership.” Today 80-85% of the member breweries are brewing 600 barrels or less. For a long time the BA was pushing for 20% of all beer sales by the year 2020. “How does that help these garage brewers?”

Edelson has also been active in the various state guilds where IH operates. In New Jersey, he was part of the push to legalize tasting rooms and loosen brewpub laws; however since a recent split between old guard and new guard brewers, he has taken a step back.