Brewer Scott Morrison is something of an institution around these parts—he’s been crafting award-winning beers for Philly-area brewpubs longer than many local drinkers have been of legal age, and his innovative brews helped create the scene that has allowed so many new boundary-pushing breweries to flourish. In his latest venture, he is taking the reins at Barren Hill Tavern and Brewery in Lafayette Hill. The new business, owned by Erin Wallace of Devil’s Den and Old Eagle Tavern fame, will be a welcomed replacement for the long-mothballed former General Lafayette Inn & Brewery, whose 18th century building has too long been vacant.
Although he grew up in the region, Morrison’s industry roots go beyond Philly, and he didn’t set out to become a beer pioneer; in fact, he was quite happily owning and running a successful Connecticut coffee shop in the late 1980s when he crossed paths with Phil Markowski. While Markowski is now the much-heralded brewmaster at the Two Roads Brewery and a renowned expert on Belgian farmhouse ales, at the time he was a young brewer at the New England Brewing Company—then only the 50th brewery in America. It was a fortuitous meeting; Morrison, already a keen homebrewer, remembers those early days:
“…at the time, there were no good ingredients except ‘hopped’ malt extract cans. We really were trying to figure out how to make good beer, and it was a difficult start, no good ingredients, and really not many books on brewing. I was able to get fresh malts, real hops and good yeast from Phil [Markowski], and that was really when the passion started (and the beer got better!).”
From the early-to-mid 1990s, Morrison helped out around New England Brewing with all the usual grunt work now expected from apprentice brewers—filtering, bottling, kegging and getting the opportunity to brew the odd batch himself. The yeoman’s work there also garnered Morrison his nickname of ‘The Dude,’ thanks to Markowski and Ron Page, now of City Steam Brewery. Contrary to occasional rumor, it predates The Big Lebowski by a number of years, and, as Morrison points out, “I’m not a fan of White Russians!” But the name has stuck, as any quick internet search or discussion with a local beer nut will quickly reveal.
In 1995, he got a call out of the blue from the rival New Haven Brewing Company, asking if he’d like to be their assistant brewer, though he modestly suggests that the fact that there were so few experienced people in the industry at the time may have had something to do with it. After a few days of thought, he accepted, and that was the end of his ‘day’ job—he sold the coffee shop to a customer, and within a year, Morrison was the head brewer at New Haven.
He remained friends with Phil Markowski, who in the early 2000s asked him to accompany him to Belgium when he began to research his book, Farmhouse Ales, a title now found on the bookshelves of most self-respecting (or at least reasonably ambitious) homebrewers. At the time, neither man thought the subject would have wide appeal—after all, who in the US had heard of them, or was drinking them? Given their popularity today, it’s easy to forget that just a few short years ago, they were very rare indeed, even among the nascent beer nerd community.
The beer industry was still finding its feet at that point, as was Morrison; New Haven closed in 1998, and he took some time to work on a few other small start-up breweries (with another stint in coffee in the mix) before coming back to the Philly area in 2001 to work on a brewpub startup: McKenzie Brew House. While the partnership would end in some drama— more on that in a moment—it worked well at the start. The first brewpub was a success, and Morrison helped get the Malvern location up and running. In addition to the regular lineup of ‘standard’ ales and lagers, he began to experiment with the aforementioned Belgian farmhouse styles, creating limited bottled releases. The awards began to roll in—Morrison racked up six Great American Beer Festival medals and a World Beer Cup nod, all told.
But it was not the direction the McKenzie owners wanted to travel, and the relationship began to fray. Despite his dismissal just before Christmas in 2006 (the subject of much local press, as many will recall), Morrison is diplomatic. “[A]t the end of the day, it just wasn’t a good fit for me or them. I’m really glad that Ryan Michaels [current brewmaster at McKenzie] and Gerald Olson [now a co-owner/brewer at Forest & Main] took what I was doing, and kept it alive there, as it was truly my passion making Belgian ales, before they really became what they are today.”
After the dust settled, Morrison was invited to oversee brewing at West Philly’s Dock Street Brewing Company in its second incarnation, and (with a few consulting gigs here and there), kept things shipshape there until leaving earlier this year to start planning for Barren Hill’s late summer opening.
“I’m really excited that I found a home at Barren Hill, as Erin and I both have the same ideas, and that’s exciting, as I think we’ll really make some fun beers,” says Morrison about the new venture. He also jokes that he hopes that the old building’s rumored ghosts will make good brewing assistants. With six ever-changing house taps (as well as space at Devil’s Den and Old Eagle Tavern), Morrison finally has ample opportunity to let his imagination—and years of experience—run wild. Collaborations will also be on tap down the line, with potential brewing partners identified in the US as well as further afield, though specifics are still under development—watch this space!
Given the twists and turns of his career, it’s easy to understand Scott Morrison’s excitement about his Barren Hill role: “Being able to have no barriers and being able to look at everything is every brewers dream.”