STORY WRITTEN BY JEREMY GERRARD
For Digital First Media
POTTSTOWN >> It’s a Wednesday afternoon inside the tasting room at Sly Fox Brewery, and John Giannopoulos’ parents sit down with their son for lunch — a ritual they repeat every week.
“It’s the weekly board meeting,” jokes Brian O’Reilly, head brewmaster of the Pottstown-based brewery tucked away off Circle of Progress Drive.
Nearly 20 years after the first kegs were tapped, the brewery remains a family business.
The Sly Fox story began in Phoenixville in 1995 when brothers John and Peter Giannopoulos — then only homebrewers — opened a family run brewhouse and eatery in the heart of the borough.
John still remembers his first attempt at crafting a beer. It was an India Pale Ale, and “not very good, either,” he added.
“What we thought we were creating 20 years ago isn’t what it is today,” he said. “It was just a small brewpub in Phoenixville.”
And for the first six years or so, that’s what it was.
Things changed in 2002 when O’Reilly joined the team.
Soon they were brewing more beers and increasing production. News of the brewery spread through their customers, but it took a real enterprising effort from the staff to get things moving.
Each week, O’Reilly would load up his small pickup truck with beer and drive into the Philadelphia area to try and sell beer to local bars. While this wasn’t long ago, getting beer on tap back then was much harder than it is today.
“Believe it or not, it was revolutionary to have the courage to just pour local beers,” O’Reilly said.
Sly Fox respects these early purchasers who believed in craft beer and took a chance on a then-unknown brand.
So what is a Sly Fox? According to O’Reilly, the name pays homage to the brewery’s Chester County roots — the history of foxes and fox hunts in the area.
“We should have a cuter story,” O’Reilly teased.
O’Reilly didn’t always see beer in his future. In college he studied philosophy and literature, though admittedly, some beer was consumed. Instead, his path to becoming a brewmaster began with homebrewing before volunteering at a brewery. That job led to an internship which turned into a job and led to an apprenticeship.
Out of the brewpub in Phoenixville, Sly Fox moved some operations to Royersford in 2004. When they outgrew that facility, Sly Fox found its current home in Pottstown; its beers have been brewed there for the past three-and-a-half years.
“I guess the move to Pottstown for us has been a game changer,” John said, adding they enjoy a great relationship with the borough. “It allowed us to grow significantly and also grow the culture of Sly Fox, who we are.”
The Royersford location is no longer operational, but the Phoenixville brewpub still serves customers daily, in addition to brewing some specialty beers and small batches.
When O’Reilly came in 2002, Sly Fox was producing 500 barrels of beer a year, or about 1,000 kegs. Last year the brewery hit 22,000 barrels, and they are on target to produce 28,000 this year that will distribute to six mid-Atlantic states and Washington D.C.
There is no current plan to expand shipping out west.
“We don’t want to spread ourselves too thin, and there are so many people between Boston and Charlotte it would be crazy to not concentrate there,” O’Reilly said.
Right now Sly Fox is happy focusing on what it does best — brewing craft beer. Since its inception, Sly Fox has dabbled with many styles of beer; though, at first, they just “brewed what made sense,” O’Reilly said.
Since then the brewery has put together a canon of beers it has perfected over time. Recipes include some O’Reilly originals in addition to variations of ideas he picked up throughout his years of experience. Some other beers have undergone transformations. The original amber IPA being brewed was eventually reformulated into the Phoenix Pale Ale, joining other stables in the Sly Fox Portfolio such as Pikeland Pils, Helles Golden Lager and Odyssey Imperial IPA.
If you had to pin Sly Fox beer down to a specialty, their lagers are a good place to start. The style has become somewhat of a specialty for Pennsylvania breweries that put in the extra effort and time to make this brew, unlike other parts of the country.
But O’Reilly doesn’t care too much for this description.
“I think that’s unfair to say that’s our specialty because I think our Belgian ales are unparalleled as well, and I think our American ales are brilliant,” O’Reilly said sipping from a pint of SRT Ale, that is, Schuylkill River Trail Ale.
SRT Ale debuted on Earth Day weekend and it is a tribute to the 130-mile, multi-use trail in Southeastern Pennsylvania running along the Schuylkill River that when complete, will connect Pottsville with Philadelphia. Currently more than 60 miles of trail are finished, including a 26-mile stretch from Phoenixville to Philadelphia.
“It’s really a gem we have that is still being completed,” O’Reilly said. “We realized so many of our employees and friends spent so much time on the trail we wanted to do something, so we brewed the beer with the intention of making a beer people could enjoy, but also wouldn’t slow them down if they were getting back on the trail.”
At 4.6 percent ABV, SRT is a golden, hop-forward American Pale Ale that will be a seasonal release for the brewery. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of the beer are kicked back to benefit the completion of the trail through the Schuylkill River Heritage Area.
While SRT is one of Sly Fox’s latest offerings, its beers have been making waves for years.
The brewery’s Pikeland Pils, Helles Lager, Instigator Doppelbock, Rauchbier and Oktoberfest have all won awards at the Great American Beer Festival. The gold medal awarded to Pikeland Pils in 2007 was the first time a GABF medal had been given to a canned craft beer.
Recently Sly Fox’s Grisette Working Class Ale — a Belgian style summer ale lighter than a Saison — won a silver medal at the 2013 GABF and followed up with a gold medal last year in the French and Belgian specialty category.
Delivering the goods
But it’s more than their beers that make Sly Fox unique.
The brewery separated itself from the pack early on as the first craft brewery east of the Mississippi River to can its beer when contemporaries were sticking to bottles.
After the brewery expanded to its Royersford location, brewers knew the logical next step meant expanding availability for consumers to enjoy a beer outside of tapping a keg or grabbing a seat at the local bar. At first Sly Fox filled 750 ml bottles with an old bottling line the brewery purchased from the Dogfish Head Brewery, but a need for the industry standard 12-ounce package still existed.
“When we looked at 12-ounce bottles, it was going to be a lot of money to invest,” O’Reilly said. “At the same time, there were some lower price can fillers that had just become available.”
The availability of cans combined with a better price point made it an easy decision for Sly Fox. Not simply a gimmick or niche, for Sly Fox, the benefits of the can outweigh the cost of bottles.
Today, the tide has shifted with many craft breweries opting for cans, and O’Reilly sees that trend continuing. According to the recent Beverage Packaging Market Assessment, conducted by PMMI, the Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies, sales of aluminum cans in the microbrew category is experiencing substantial growth. PMMI says brewers are preferring cans for cost savings on shipping and materials because labels are no longer needed. Cans also provide better light protection and allow for the consumption of beer in places where glass would be inappropriate.
In addition, the portability of a can makes it easier to store either standing up or on its side — in a crisper for example. While they may dent, cans do not shatter and are 100 percent recyclable. Producing a new bottle still needs some virgin glass, whereas a can will produce another can.
And yes, there’s “also the cool factor to having a pale ale in a can versus a bottle,” O’Reilly said.
However, as far as O’Reilly is concerned, the biggest difference is in terms of quality. While cans do have a liner to keep the aluminum from rusting, a double seam on the lid creates a better seal than a single crimped crown cap on traditional bottles.
“You get a seal that keeps out oxygen much more effectively,” O’Reilly said. “It produces a much more stable product.
Sly Fox continues to push can innovation to the next level. In August, the brewery will add a new canning system — a bigger, faster filler that O’Reilly says will further increase the quality of the product.
On two of its beers, Sly Fox uses something known as the 360 end. Instead of lifting a tab that punches through a pre-designed opening on the can’s lid, the 360 end tab is lifted and pulled up to remove the entire top section of the can. O’Reilly said the technology was developed for the 2014 FIFA World Cup and they thought it would be a great addition to their product.
“It’s more like a cup,” O’Reilly said. “You can smell the aroma of the beer and it allowed us to have one less waste stream as well.”
Crafting an identity
Now almost 20 years after its first pint was poured, Sly Fox’s beer and style have carved out its identity, which is a good thing. Now more than ever before, breweries are popping up all over the country. According to the Brewers Association, the craft beer market grew to $19.6 billion in 2014, a 22 percent dollar sales growth. In Pennsylvania alone, more than 200 breweries exist, skyrocketing from the 88 the association registered in 2011.
In many ways, craft beer has gone mainstream. To O’Reilly, this exposure is both a positive and a negative.
“I certainly think people are more used to craft breweries, banks are more used to craft breweries there is more precedence for sure. So in some ways things are clearer, in a negative way more formulaic,” he said. “It’s easier because people understand what you are trying to do. It’s harder because they have expectations of quality.”
With more exposure, comes more scrutiny. During this year’s Super Bowl, Anheuser-Busch — despite owning craft brewery Goose Island — ran an ad critical of craft beer, arguing beer shouldn’t be something people dissect or fuss over; rather, those who drink their beer enjoy beer “brewed the hard way.” Similarly, the cover of an issue of the New Yorker last year depicted a hipster-looking waiter in flannel serving a bottle of craft beer to similarly alternatively dressed, pretentious looking diners feasting on burgers. It was high-dining, in the most unsuspecting of places. These are cheeky jabs at the sub-culture of craft beer, but they strike a chord.
O’Reilly said he didn’t see the Super Bowl ad when it ran originally, but he wasn’t surprised.
“I think some of it is true,” he said. “I mean there is a level of exploration in craft beer that’s wonderful. But in some ways I think sometimes craft beer can fail when it takes itself too seriously; in other ways we can fail if we don’t take it seriously enough.”
Still, not everyone is impressed with craft beer, though O’Reilly isn’t sure that person exists, arguing that the perfect time and situation could merge for that one moment where a person opens up. With a little education, a lot of things can change he says.
And what better way to convince that craft beer skeptic than take them to a beer event? Thankfully, Sly Fox has a few to choose from. The brewery just held its Taps, Tunes & Trucks event in May and will host its annual Can Jam music festival on the last weekend in September. But the big Sly Fox event is its annual Bock Fest and Goat Race, which draws thousands on the first Sunday of May every year, and yes, there really is a goat race. Held in Phoenixville for more than a decade, the event moved to Pottstown for 2015.
“The goat race has become such a big deal, it’s like Oktoberfest in Munich,” O’Reilly said. “I really enjoy Can Jam, but if you have never been to the goat race, you kind of have to go.”
For those who don’t like crowds, there are always tours of the brewery, the brewpub in Phoenixville and the tasting room attached to the brewery in Pottstown open Wednesday through Sunday, beginning at 11:30 a.m.
Complete with farm table-style seating and plenty of windows, the tasting room offers a full view of the brewing floor, and serves up some respectable pizza and barbecue to pair well with a few beers.
Very much a family atmosphere, it’s here where John dines with his parents every week sharing stories and talking business with the very same people that helped set this company in motion nearly 20 years ago.