Some structures form iconic images in our minds, perhaps because they are encountered so frequently at an impressionable period of life or their contrasting uniqueness made them stand out.
Such is the case with us – and we’re guessing generations of north Wilmington drivers who’ve traversed Miller Road en route to and from the base of Concord Pike on the edge of the city’s legendary 9thWard (across from the Home Depot) – when it comes to the peculiar, low-slung stucco building on the high side of that street, something that always struck us as an elegant, out-of-place Cuban horse paddock along a stretch that had seen better days.
For many years the purpose and history of that place was a curiosity, a mystery. No longer.
Stick around long enough and you’ll learn something … get lucky and you’ll get to learn with a delicious, freshly-brewed beer in your hand.
That pretty much describes the combined delight we experienced last Thursday night at the new Wilmington Brew Works that has taken over the iconic 1917 Mission/Colonial Spanish Revival style building on Miller Road. Thanks to a pre-opening fundraiser benefiting the Delaware Center for Horticulture (more on that here), we were served up a sneak-peek of what will become Wilmington’s first fully operational brewery in 60 years.
For over half a century until it closed in 2000, the site hosted the Harper-Thiel Electroplating Company, which acquired the building from Francis Irenee du Pont, who built the facility to house his Delaware Chemical Engineering Company.
Now it is set to begin a new life – in a matter of weeks according to co-founder Craig Wensell – as a brewery featuring the freshest of stouts, dubbels, ales, ciders and even Italian soda. Food trucks will service on-site hunger and a new wood-fired pizza operation will soon take over a wing of the L-shaped structure, managed by the owners of long-time Concord Mall staple Café Riviera (name TBA).
Approached by city officials about starting a brewery in the former industrial space, Wensell, a founder of Bellefonte Brewing Company, spearheaded the organization of Wilmington Brew Works’ five-person ownership team. He met and worked with his new partners through the local home/craft-brew community.
“For all of these years I have supplied home brewers (with homebrew beer ingredients), and over time I have really come to know most of the homebrewers in the area,” said Wensell.
These included Keith Hughes, the new business’ chief financial officer, IT and website manager; Derek Berkeley, vice president and chief operating officer (ie, taproom manager); Dan Yopp, the “cellarman” who among other responsibilities is on point for yeast propagation; and John Fusco, the creative director who handles marketing and social media.
All of them were happily working the taps on Thursday night.
The Horticultural Center has partnered with Wensell over the years, and that close relationship led to the special fund/curtain-raiser. The event was a terrific opportunity to meet the WBW team and, critically, take a test drive through the tasty beverage menu before they are besieged with thirsty crowds that are sure to appear once the “open” sign is foisted.
Before more on that, a quick word about the space: it is magnificent.
If ever there were an ideal place for this kind of business, it is this, evoking the inviting spread at Kennett Square’s family-friendly Creamery. Cheers to Mr. du Pont for building this funky spot and to the electroplaters for not totally destroying it.
Beautiful exposed cedar beams line the vaulted ceiling and new windows draw sunlight from all sides. The bar, constructed with wood from an old barn, sits between the stainless-steel brewing equipment and hand-crafted benches (Brewmaster Wensell’s handiwork) with wooden picnic tables courtesy of the Challenge Program, where patrons enjoy flights of creations with “playfully pretentious names” according to Hughes, like “Nocturnal Indiscretion” (Belgian Rye Stout, 5.0%), “Lupulin Enlightenment” (Northeast IPA, clocking in at a hearty 7.3% – delicious, but dangerous) and our favorite, “Superfluous Nomenclature,” a “brute” pale ale, dry, crisp and highly drinkable at 4.8%.
Various suds will be rotated on a seasonal basis through the sixteen working taps, and WBW is licensed to produce wine and meads. “As a small craft producer, we will definitely keep the experimentation high,” said Hughes.
Tipplers and amateur historians will enjoy Wilmington Brew Works’ “flights of discovery” program, group tastings of five different style beers accompanied with a little history – about the site or a talk about the history of IPA along with a brewery tour.
Out of the gates, the WBW already has their retail moxie firing on all cylinders, selling a range of t-shirts, and other swag, along with 3-packs of 32 oz. cans to go, with Andre the Giant-sized koozies to match.
A noteworthy surprise about the location: there is great parking out back with ample spaces and easy sidewalk access to the beer hall.
Hughes says that the enterprises’ name proudly evokes the heritage of a city that has been missing an important piece of its history for six decades. “We wanted to identify with Wilmington,” he said. “We want to be Wilmington’s brewery.”
And so it will be.