The Boys of Iron Hill
The secret to the brewery’s success is simple yet complicated—kind of like good beer.
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In the mid-1990s, all were in a race to open Delaware’s first brewpub. Dogfish bellied up to the bar first. Stewart’s Brewing Co. and the Brandywine Brewing Co. also beat Iron Hill, whose frustrated partners couldn’t find the right location. They eventually moved their sights from Wilmington to Newark.
Delaware’s brewpubs were in good company. Between 1995 and 1997, 600 brewpubs and 300 microbreweries debuted, and production of craft beer soared 50 percent each year. But in 1997, industry growth skidded to 4 percent. “We opened just as it started to go down,” Edelson says of the market. Remember Rockford Brewery, Blue Hen Beer Co., and John Harvard Brew House on Route 202? All gone.
Iron Hill, however, was on a roll, opening a West Chester location in 1998 in an old Woolworth’s building and a Media site in 2000 in an old A&P supermarket. Wilmington, Phoenixville, Lancaster, North Wales and Maple Shade, N.J., followed. The industry shakedown and Iron Hill’s continued success demonstrates that it’s not enough for a brewpub to make beer. It should be good beer. And it’s not enough for a brewpub to serve food. It has to be good food.
That’s where Davies comes in. The restaurant veteran was also considering a brewpub business in the 1990s. Mutual friend Xavier Teixido suggested he join Finn and Edelson. “They weren’t restaurant guys, and I didn’t know anything about beer,” says Davies, a self-professed “wine guy,” who’s learned to love a good brew.
Like the beer, Iron Hill’s menu has experienced fine-tuning. A revamp that took the menu from 50 to nearly 100 selections necessitated kitchen remodeling. Now the list is down to a more manageable 80 items. Offerings include the expected: loaded nachos, wings, burgers, fish and chips, and pizzas. It also has the unexpected: a salmon BLT burger, vegetarian black bean cake, Mediterranean lamb meatballs and pecan-chicken salad sandwich. You’ll find plenty of Asian, Cajun and Southwest influences. Those cuisines pair well with beer, Davies explains. Well, of course they do.
The locations share the same menu. Lancaster, however, gets hot rolls. (“They don’t understand the concept of cold rolls,” Edelson confides.) Chefs at each location choose daily specials from an approved list. Longtime chefs, such as David Anderson in Media and Dan Bethard in West Chester, have earned the right to devise their own specials sans approval.
Davies spends much of his time at the West Chester site, where the chefs test new recipes. There are menu changes in fall and spring, but you can’t mess with some dishes, such as the best-selling turkey burger, a fat patty topped with guacamole, bacon, tomato and pepper-jack cheese served on a springy roll slathered with ancho-honey mayo. It was so big, I took half home and so tasty, I ate it cold.
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