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Interviews

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3/4/04: Brian O'Reilly, Sly Fox: 

I recently interviewed Brian OíReilly, the brewer at Sly Fox in Phoenixville, PA. Brianís been a great addition to our local brewing scene with his fiercely discriminating palate (often seen in the company of a gift for plain speaking that would have made Harry Truman proud), Irish good looks (donít get my wife started), and his excellent range of malt beverages. I apologize for the delay between interview and transcription Ė the Amarillo IPA is already out and gone Ė but thereís plenty to glean here; details on the upcoming second Sly Fox in Royersford, for instance.

Lew: Will the new place also be called Sly Fox?

Brian: Itís going to be called Sly Fox. I donít know if weíre just going to call it Sly Fox Brewery...itís going to have a pub. This is going to retain the name Brewhouse and Eatery, and weíre not going to go with numbers, like I and II. Theyíre still discussing that. It will be called Sly Fox.

Compare the new place in size to what you have now: how much bigger?

The kitchenís going to be double the size; the pubís going to be a little bigger.

A little bit bigger?

Right. But weíre also going to have a game room, with pool tables, and the last I knew, shuffleboard was still in the room. I like shuffleboard. A lot. The other thing that makes it confusing is that weíre looking at the option of opening some of it in portions. Itís also going to have a room weíll be able to separate to hold two parties of 40 or one bigger party.

How much seating do you have in Phoenixville, with the upstairs room?

Itís tight at 50 upstairs, downstairs is a funny count. Itís about 100, with the patio on itís another 40. We have a couple hundred seats here, Royersford will be about 300.

What about the difference in the breweries?

The brewery will be able to produce probably 7 to 10 times the amount we produce here. They call this one a 15 bbl. brewhouse, but itís really a glorified 10 bbl. system. The new system is a 20 bbl. Beraplan brewhouse, and weíve got a lot of double-batch fermenters.

Actually, I was asking about square footage; youíre pretty shoehorned in there at Phoenixville.

Itís a lot more. The breweryís going to take up the back portion of the building. Weíll have our own entrance, a loading dock and all that good stuff, like most people who do real work.

What kind of differences can we expect in beer, food, vibe, whatever?

Weíre going to try to make the menu a little bit smaller than this one. Weíve got a guy working on that, so I donít want to speak for him, but I think it might be a bit more eclectic Ė the most overworked word in restaurant lingo lately. Itís going to be two different menus (at the two places) for now. Weíre making a menu change, but just like we always would, seasonally. Weíll look at tweaking (Phoenixvilleís) menu down the road. We want to continue to improve quality here, but we donít really want to change anything, especially not until we get rolling with the other place. At that point we may have some feedback from things weíre doing there that we may apply here.

We are going to have a liquor license at that location.

Well, thatís different. Do you see that as competition?

I think it only becomes competition if the management and staff donít really support the idea of pushing the beer. Weíve had a good enough example here on how much we can impact sales that it will be fine. It may take away from some of the beer sales, but the appealís bigger and weíll pull in more people.

Different kind of population out there?

Thereís a lot of new housing in Royersford. Itís really close to Rt. 422, itís right off the highway. Well, itís about two miles, but you just turn left and go two miles, and itís right there, so it will be easy to find. Weíre just trying to build a pubby restaurant and get a place where we can pump out some more beer.

Youíre going to have two places and youíre going to have a bottling line to deal with: one more hire? Two?

Initially thereís going to one hire. Weíre negotiating that now. (Tim Ohst of Flying Fish) will be starting here in a couple weeks. We donít want to get in over our heads and hire a huge staff. Iím going to get one key guy, and I have a feeling that with a few months of that place opening weíre going to have another position.

Why expand, whatís the reason for building a second brewery? Because you could?

Well, weíre having a lot of success with the outside sales here, but even with the small amount weíre doing thereís a constant challenge between having seven beers on draft here, or have ten, and still sell some outside... We just think thereís a market for it. Owning a brewery is kind of like being in a rock band; youíre either on the way up or the way down. Youíre either moving up to be the next Beatles, or youíre moving down and playing clubs.

Weíre very happy with the product, weíre proud of it, weíre getting great response and want to supply more. The first phase is definitely going to be the draft. Weíve purchased the bottling line and weíre going to pop it in place and probably not going to deal with it until we get things rolling with the draft. If the draft sales are busier than we expect, we may put the bottling on hold for a little bit until we get caught up on that.

How are you figuring on selling the draft? Self-distribution?

No. Right now I take one day out of my week to go deliver beer. Itís great to have that personal contact, but Iíd be much better served to take one day of the week and do sales. Itís tough. Weíre going to get a cargo van and do a lot of distribution in the two counties where we have accounts. Weíll probably keep the counties we have. But there are a lot of opportunities we donít get because we self-distribute, like the Drafting Room up in Springhouse; they expressed some interest and theyíre willing to take two kegs at a time, but itís just really out of the way; everything I do is around here or in the city. Things like that weíll be able to pick up. The guy who owns the All Star Cafť, up near Limerick, lives in Phoenixville and he actually picks up the beer on his way to work. That works, but it would be nice for him to just be able to place an order with his distributor. Itís impossible for us to service all that. Weíd have to hire a full-time delivery guy, and I think our time is better spent making it. Weíre going to be moving beer back and forth between the two places enough as it is.

Moving it between the two places because youíll be making different beers at both places?

Right. Stage two for this place, and Iím not sure when that will happen, is to start a cask ale program here. When we replaced the draft system here we freed up two trunk lines under the floor. One of them is going to be replaced with a housing for a triple hand-pump. My plan is to do a British-style pale as a house beer, that will always be on hand-pump. The other two would be used for, oh, Friday night we throw on a firkin of porter that Iíd pulled off (the tank), or maybe for a specialty that had come and gone, or isnít on yet, throw that up there. Iím not sure when weíll get that rolling. Weíve had a lot of success with Ė replacing the draft system has paid off big-time. The (Giannopoulos family) is more and more open to spending money on things like that. Weíve got a promotion this month where weíre really pushing growlers, now that weíre able to fill them efficiently. So far everythingís really paid off.

The cask ale: how CAMRA-anal are you? Will it be done to the specifications of the Campaign for Real Ale?

Itís going to be 100% CAMRA-approved here. The biggest thing is to buy enough firkins to have inventory. I want to do a batch of beer for cask ale. I can tweak it, design it for cask. I donít like the idea of "Would you like that cold? Or cask?" Itís a horrible question. Iíd rather just say "Thatís the beer. Itís cask-conditioned. Joeís British Pale Ale. Thatís how you get it." Thatís how Iíve had success with it. Otherwise the server will, inevitably, no matter what you tell them...the customer will get the message of "oneís cold, and oneís something Iíve never heard of." So they always go with cold. Thatís the plan here.

I donít think weíre going to do a lot of cask ale up in Royersford. If thereís a demand, we may look at it later, but I think thatís going to be a niche for here. The breweryís here. Itís smaller, we can do smaller batches, and with the coldbox set up the way it is, I can hang some plastic up and have a 50į space back here for the casks. Up there, weíll be busy enough with the other stuff. Iíd rather push it at one place. And...if youíre a beer guy and youíre coming to Pennsylvania, Iíd rather give you a reason to have to stop by both places. I have a feeling that the other place might be a bigger draw because the breweryís bigger, and the place is on a bit more of a grand scale, but this place will have its niche with the cask beer. Weíll see.

Youíve put a lot of though into this, and been heavily involved since the get-go. Do you have a piece of the action on this one?

Theyíre going to share the profits with me very generously, weíll put it that way. Theyíve found someone who... they like the beer I make, and they like my business model or approach to it...

God knows youíre easy to get along with.

They might beg to differ. (laughter) And I think Iíve found some people who appreciate what I do.

For myself, Iím very glad youíre happy. For reasons of friendship, but also for purely selfish ones; I like having your beer nearby!

Hey, I donít blame you! Whenever you do a new project like this, itís obviously a big step. My job is to make sure itís profitable, their job is to make sure Iím happy after that. Weíre definitely set up to do that, weíll see what happens. Itís a lot of changes. So far, so good. I came in here and did what I said Iíd do, and theyíve been generous with me. I donít see why that would change.

Anything new coming up?

I was just filling some casks with our first varietal IPA. Not that theyíre all going to be varietal. Decemberís our ninth anniversary, and weíre going to have a party with nine different IPAs. This is what I realized. Local breweries have had great response with their IPAs. But I donít like to drink them all the time. Itís just not my kind of beer: itís too strong, it makes me drunk real quick, itís really hoppy and kills my palate for anything else. But I realize that when something comes out, and itís seasonal Ė for example, Victoryís Hop Wallop Ė I felt like I had to drink it! I enjoyed drinking it, and the fact that you canít get it all the time made me drink IPA all night.

So I thought, why not do nine of them? Because every time I make Rt. 113 IPA itís here and itís gone, I canít keep up. I get bored of just making 113, and it doesnít yield a lot because thereís a lot of trub from the hops. Itís not like making something like Helles, where I get a lot more out of each batch. I get frustrated with that, but this way I figure, hey, Iíll just blow through nine as quickly as I can.

Are you going to be releasing them before December?

Iím going to save a keg of each for the party, and that night weíll release the ninth one, which will be a double IPA.

Oh my God. What night are you doing it?

I donít know, I gotta pick a date.

Um, you know...the ninth leaps out. Nine beers, nine IPAs, nine years...

Is it on a Friday?

I donít know, but it is my anniversary!

Is that good or bad? Hey, itís a Thursday. That could be interesting. The idea is that the following year would be the tenth anniversary, and weíll do ten beers.

Be careful what you get locked into, could get crazy!

But thatís what this breweryís going to be used for. Iíve got a lot of ideas. If itís really successful, I might even try to market a draft tap of rotating IPAs. This first one is made exclusively with Amarillo hops.

Is that the only thing youíre going to change? Theyíre all going to be single-hopped?

No, not all of them. Many of them, but not all. For instance, 113 is basically my ultimate IPA, a mix of British and American hops. Iím going to do a traditional British one, the next one will be all Cascades, and quite a few varietals: definitely the Cascade, the Amarillo, East Kent Goldings and Styrian Goldings. But I think, Iím getting a lot of pressure to recreate Ballantine IPA, and that might get in there. Iím starting to grab research and if I can...I donít have a memory of tasting the beer. Itís tough to re-create the beer otherwise. That might be in there or not. Does anyone really remember what it tastes like? People saying things like Sierra Nevadaís not so hoppy anymore...it depends on what youíve been drinking for the last two years!

I look at the success of IPAs recently, and like I said, itís not my favorite style, I think itís way over the top...but I figure if youíre going to go over the top, you might as well dive in.

Oh, hell yes.

I figure, do nine, do more than everyone else is, instead of just doing one double IPA for our anniversary, letís just do nine. I love the idea of coming here and thinking, a sampler will get me f**ked up. Nine different 5 oz. pours will get me shitty! Of course, my goalís not to get people shitty, but the idea is that thereís too many IPAs. Our regulars will probably just pick the one they loved the most, thatís no longer available, and have one or two pints of those. Itís just pretty cool that itís that over the top. It should be fun. Iím going to have to arrange a driver for that, because itís going to be the last time Iím tasting some of these.

What is your favorite beer to make, to brew?

I dunno. I really enjoy brewing the Helles. I get to do it frequently, itís one of my favorite styles of beer, and I think Iíve slowly made some small changes to it over the past year that have just connected. Iíve made fairly big changes to it over the past 15 months. After I went to Germany last year, I tasted the helles over there again, and thought, you know what, Iím close, but... So Iím really happy with that, happy to work with a lager yeast and make that work. Besides that, all the different seasonal beers.

Whatís your favorite to drink as a session?

Helles and stout, two of the lower alcohol beers. Iím enjoying the pale ale lately, too. I drink Ďem all. People are funny. I love weissbier, but I donít usually have a craving for it at night. But on a summer afternoon, out on the patio, a big tall glass of weiss...oh man, if I didnít have so much work to do... Outside, I donít know, itís just the beer for me.

Thanks, Brian. Hope to join you for an outdoor hefe session sometime soon.

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Revised: April 02, 2004