The brick building on Main Street in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, not far from Valley Forge, has a long history with beverages. It’s the current home to Root Down Brewing Co., which has occupied the space for the past couple of years, but from the 1950s to the 1980s, it was a Hires Root Beer plant.
The existing infrastructure, including tiled floors and drains, made it an ideal spot for a brewery, and while Founder Mike Hamara has worked to make the space its own—with graffiti-styled walls, a soundtrack of nineties hip-hop filtering through the speakers, and plenty of seating—from the long bar facing the serving tanks to the bar area complete with church pews to a back area with pinball machines, the past is still visible.
Take the tour, and Head Brewer Steve Bischoff, who joined Root Down before it opened, is happy to take you down a narrow staircase into the belly of the building where room-sized ammonia chillers, cast-iron boilers, and other large pieces of now obsolete and nonworking technology sit, driving home the point that this place was made for drinks.
“It definitely has a lot of history, and it’s cool to be doing what we do here, especially when you see how the equipment has evolved,” Bischoff says as he shows off a now-broken elevator shaft that may or may not have a ghost story attached to it.
What the building was versus what it is now has a nice balance to it, and that extends to the diverse beer list offered by Bischoff and his brewing team. A dozen or so taps run the gamut of beer styles from classic Pilsners to hazy IPAs.
“It would be boring if we were doing only one kind of beer but in just slightly different ways,” says Hamara.
The diversity, the attention to detail, and the dedication all stem from the paths that the head brewer and founder each walked before they either joined or started Root Down, and it’s what led them to being awarded Midsized Brewpub and Midsized Brewmaster of the Year at the 2018 Great American Beer Festival. The brewery also netted gold for Bine, an American-style IPA, and a silver for its gose, Salty by Nature.
It makes sense because a homebrewer’s commitment to sticking the landing each time still runs through Root Down. Bischoff had worked at a number of different breweries, including time in both the cellar and on the brew deck at Sly Fox Brewing Co., a regional craft brewery also located in Phoenixville (and which has served as an incubator for other brewers who have also opened in the area).
Hamara started homebrewing when he was in the Marine Corps stationed in North Carolina in 2000. From almost the first time he brewed on a Mr. Beer Kit, the dream to one day open his own brewery started to grow.
“I think that’s the way it is for a lot of homebrewers, but at some point the dream fizzles out, maybe after a year or two,” he says. “I just kept going. I knew it was going to be my career.”
On weekends he would head into Wilmington and drink at Front Street Brewery, tasting and analyzing the beers, trying to unlock secrets that would help his own brewing.
Eventually he headed north to Pennsylvania where in 2009, he opened a homebrew-supply shop in Downingtown, home of Victory Brewing Company, and thought about putting a small brewery in the shop, but at each step, the plan just kept growing.
“First you think it’ll be a three-barrel system, and then some time passes, and you say ‘maybe we should go to a seven-barrel,’ and then that becomes a 15.”
When the space in Phoenixville became available and another brewery passed on it, Hamara pounced. That brewery had already moved in church pews for their taproom concept but left them behind, adding to the eclectic nature of the taproom. The brewery has been growing ever since it opened two years ago. They are on track to produce 1,700 barrels this year.
Most of the beer is sold through the taproom, but cans and kegs are also sent out into distribution, and plans are in the works to get into some specialty accounts. No matter what, Hamara says, he wants the brewery to keep its balance when offering beers.
“It’s so crucial for what Root Down is. I don’t want to be a trend-follower, and I’m not saying we’re a trendsetter either. We want to make a diverse line of beers that stand on their own. We can’t allow ourselves to follow hype just because it sells right now. I see these brewers who say, ‘Oh, I wish we could make an ESB.’ Well, you can. It might not fly off the taps, and it might not get you a ton of social-media exposure, but if you want to create it and sell it, do that,” Hamara says. “But get behind it 100 percent, with reasonable expectations, and make sure your whole staff knows about it and is out there selling it, too. If you’re being true to yourselves, the customers will see that. And over time maybe you’ll get people switching over to the style. It’s like with lagers. There’s a trend toward them now with craft breweries. We’ve been doing them the whole time; it’s just that people notice now. Maybe that will happen with other styles.”
The beers that Root Down produces have their own distinct mark but still follow the traditions set forth by previous generations of brewers. Bischoff had originally thought about being a chef, and although he’s changed careers, he still approaches each batch of beer in a personal way, making sure that the standard operating procedures put in place are always followed, that each step of the brewing process is given undivided attention, and that by the time the beer is ready to be sold to the public, it’s the best representation that it can be.
Creating an Awarding-Winning American IPA
Steve Bischoff of Root Down Brewing Co. (Phoenixville, Pennsylvania) talks about what went into creating Bine, his gold medal–winning American IPA.
“The American IPA has always been my favorite style. I wanted to make a sessionable IPA without it being a session IPA. That’s what I always worked on as a homebrewer. There’s no crystal malt in the recipe. I use dextrose to thin it out, and I concentrate a lot on how I use my hops and where I use my hops. I don’t just overload them and say more is better.
I do a small bittering addition because you want to have some in the boil in the beginning, but I don’t want to develop all my bitterness at that point. So I work backward.
I figure out my aroma additions and then how many more IBUs I need and make that up in the bittering addition. I’m sure a lot of people do the same thing. But the varieties that you use make a difference as well. For some, I don’t like the bitterness they offer, so those are zero-minute or whirlpool additions. I’ve played around with different timings and settled on seven. I just like 7 minutes, and it works for me.
For Bine, we use Warrior for bittering. It’s a very clean bittering hop and doesn’t have an overly resinous or grassy character. Then there’s Centennial, Mosaic, Amarillo, and Citra. They are great hops, and you get huge aromas from them.
I use gypsum for the American IPA. We have a good water source, so why mess with it unless you need to? We just run it through our carbon filter and then it’s just standard dry yeast, Chico.”
Photos: Courtesy Root Down Brewing Co.