By: Mike Madaio
When the next definitive list of America’s best beer cities inevitably arrives in the form of irresistible social media link bait, and our oft-maligned city has been once again slotted below Boston, Austin, or freaking Kansas City, consider this: perhaps Philadelphia’s curse when it comes to these unimportant, but nonetheless unnerving contests is the fact that our beloved beer scene is so complex, diverse and nuanced, that it cannot be succinctly summarized in some 100-word blurb written for the masses. And for this, my friends, we must give at least some credit to Tom Baker.
“I went to Seattle a couple of weeks ago,” says Scott Morrison, head brewer at Lafayette Hill’s Barren Hill Tavern & Brewery, “and it’s all IPAs. I was like, ‘Can’t I get a lager? How about a Belgian ale?’ It’s seriously all IPAs. It was so nice to come back here.”
“If you look at what everyone is doing in Philly, pushing the boundaries, experimenting,” he continued, “I think Tom really paved the way for this with what he did at Heavyweight, by encouraging both brewers and drinkers to think outside the box, try new and different ingredients, and you see that influence throughout the region.”
I meet Baker, now proprietor of Mt. Airy’s Earth Bread + Brewery, at Victory in Downingtown, where he’s collaborating on a Scotch ale. He appears a good 30 minutes after our scheduled time because he was “finishing up some stuff in the brewery,” the stereotypical artisan, minus the compulsory facial hair, rumpled Prima Pils tee, mussy salt & pepper hair, and decidedly casual air. “I’m not a big fan of collaborations, because they’re often not very collaborative” he tells me immediately, “but when I was given the opportunity to have some input on the recipe, I was thrilled.” It’s an early glimpse into the man’s psyche.
Like many in the industry, Baker started out as a homebrewer, finding time after his data processing day job in the early 90s. “It was the creative process that drew me to it,” he says. “That was the initial attraction, the ability to get a little wacky. The science, of course, is what makes the beer consistently good, and it’s that balance that translated from my old career as a programmer, but the art is what got me.”
Jon Defibaugh, a brewer at Tired Hands in Ardmore, who began his career apprenticing for Baker at Earth Bread, tells a different story, “What separates Tom from other brewers is his mastery of the process,” he says. “There’s a lot of emphasis these days on brewers as artists, but what we do is a very mechanical thing, and Tom understands the details, how it’s more than just coming up with some whimsical recipe. You have to know how to make it work, and that’s where Tom stands out.” It seems not everyone has the chops to be successful in data processing.
Data processing, however, was not for Tom Baker. In the mid-90s, he convinced wife Peggy that beer was his calling, and thus, began his quest. After a quick but intensive program at a brewing school in California (American Brewers Guild, which at the time was connected to UC Davis), and a gig at one of those ubiquitous brewpubs that wouldn’t see the millennium, Baker was ready to strike out on his own. In 1999, he bought some used equipment (“All those failed pubs worked out well for me,” he quips.) and launched Heavyweight Brewing Company in Monmouth County, NJ.
“Sure, the idea for Heavyweight was to make mostly big beers,” he sighs, immediately addressing the company’s legacy, “but it was also to make beers that people didn’t know and that weren’t made or readily available in the US. Rauchbier, for example, smoked beer brewed in Germany, or gruit, a traditional beer made with spices instead of hops. They weren’t always high in alcohol, but they were bold, flavorful beers.”
“It seems like everybody today is doing all kinds of different stuff, mashing styles, Bretts, wild yeasts, etc., but with Tom, if you ever go back and look at some of the beers he did at Heavyweight, he was way ahead of his time,” says Morrison. “I have a lot of respect for that. He wasn’t afraid to do it, and he pulled it off. He knew how to blend ingredients. Even today, who the hell is brewing gruit? But it was well-made. If you consider the time period (1999-2006), there just weren’t many other people doing what he was doing.”
Despite the dare-I-say unfortunate name he chose for his initial brewery, probably the one people will most remember him by, it’s undeniably evident, in even the briefest of conversations with Tom, that he’s most passionate about challenging his customers, introducing them to new and different ideas, regardless of weight. “The nice thing about the pub,” he notes, referring to Earth Bread, “is that if I make something that doesn’t sell well, our staff can give out tastings, expose people to stuff they may not know. People come to our place and want to try the house beer, and having only four on tap forces them to taste something they might not otherwise, maybe get turned on to something new.”
It was perhaps this lack of personal connection that sealed his decision to end the Heavyweight era. The alternative was to expand production, a path that many other successful local brewers were taking. “That would have changed who we were. I loved that we were a one man brewery, making what we could, selling where we could.” Baker comments about adding fermentation tanks, “I guess I am sort of a control freak. Honestly, one thing that bothered me about sending out the best beer I could make is that I never knew what somebody was going to do with it. A distributor could leave it on a warm dock, sitting in the sun or not rotate it, whatever, so I never really knew what would happen. At the pub, I taste my beer every day, and if there’s something wrong with it or I don’t like it, I pull it.”
In 2006, he closed Heavyweight, put the equipment into storage, and started writing a business plan for what would become Earth Bread + Brewery. “I didn’t know anything about restaurants, and it was a huge learning process, but writing that business plan was probably the best thing I ever did,” Baker recalls. He and Peggy eventually settled on Mt. Airy, where they found a large space for a wood-fired oven and a corner of the city that fit the green, sustainable ethos they were looking to incorporate into the new business.
“Even though we were all the way at the Shore, when we closed we were selling more beer in the Philly area than in all of Jersey,” Baker says of his adopted home. “Philly is just an amazing beer city. I don’t know why, but even ignoring the great beers brewed here, we have access to the best outside beer. When I was in Jersey, people weren’t drinking barleywines or Belgian golden ales. But in Philly, they knew La Chouffe, which Lunacy (Heavyweight’s golden ale) was based on, so there was an obvious fit for us.”
Friend and local beer writer Lew Bryson first introduced Baker to the Philly scene, after convincing him to brew a Baltic Porter– which became Perkuno’s Hammer, perhaps Heavyweight’s most famous ale. Bryson connected Baker with Ed Friedland, who at the time was distributing most of the craft beer in the city, as well as key Belgian brands like Chimay. “Ed was a champion for us,” Baker recalled. “I remember calling him up one time, and his message said, ‘Sorry, we’re not here, we’re at home drinking Heavyweight Old Salty (Baker’s barleywine).’ I couldn’t believe it.”
These initial forays into the city also helped pave the way for future bantamweights. “Through Heavyweight, a lot of bar owners in Philly had their eyes opened to these small batch producers,” says Defibaugh. “And now more bars are inclined to support the little guys.”
Despite Baker’s growing reputation, some–most notably his investors–thought he was crazy to open Earth Bread in 2008, amidst a not-so-stable financial environment. “We believed in it, and here we are, six years later, still successful,” he laughs. Although in many ways Earth is different–food is a priority, it features an evolving, innovative wine program, hosts several guest taps along with the four house brews–one might say it is actually a better version of Baker’s initial vision for Heavyweight. “At Earth, we’ve only made the same beer twice one time. We’re up to something like 250 recipes. That’s what really keeps it fresh for me, the ability to keep experimenting. If we were a production brewery, that would be really hard to do, and that’s what keeps me grounded,” Baker says with obvious enthusiasm.
“People actually sometimes tell me that I’ve abandoned my Heavyweight roots, but I don’t think so,” Baker protests, referring to the fact that Earth’s beers tend to be moderate in ABV. “I’ve always tried to make balanced beers that were drinkable. Now that I have a pub especially, I want people to have a couple. It just makes sense. And session beers are harder to make; getting the balance right is tough.”
“You can see now that there’s more refinement in what Tom is brewing,” says Defibaugh. “He’s still doing experimental stuff, but he’s also making a lot of milds and bitters, things like that, which are those subtle styles that are oft-overlooked and can showcase whether a brewer is good or not.”
I ask Baker if he ever feels cheated that he missed out on the current wave of wildly successful small, experimental brewers. As a smirk slowly creeps across his face, he replies, “What do you think?” After a beat, however, he continues. “People say that to me a lot actually, but I don’t worry about it much. I’m happy with what we did. Obviously, something like Heavyweight would probably be more successful today than it was then, but I wouldn’t want to do it again, because I already did it, you know?”
Baker seems a better fit in the role he’s in: the dissident, the bucker of trends. If he was 20 years younger today, would he be satisfied to follow the same path as a bunch of others? Surely not. It’s probably going too far to suggest that today’s crop of experimental brewers couldn’t exist without Baker’s groundwork, but there’s no doubt Tom belongs at the spot on the beer continuum where he sits. Call it ahead of his time, trailblazer, or just a man looking to do his own thing, he fits perfectly where he fits, and there’s no doubt his influence looms large.
“I feel like Tom was one of the first brewers in America to just say, ‘I’m brewing whatever the hell I want in terms of weird styles and off the wall stuff,’” suggests Defibaugh. “And there’s a lot to be said for that now that people seem to latch on to breweries who are doing that kind of thing, but the culture was totally different when Tom was doing it. Everyone didn’t know what an IPA was.”
“When I was consulting at Dock Street a few years ago, I was asked to brew a beer with mushrooms,” recalls Morrison. “My first thought was ‘no freaking way.’ But then I realized that Tom would probably try it, so I figured I could make it work. I ended up making an old ale with truffled mushrooms aged in pinot barrels that got great reviews. I probably couldn’t have done that if it wasn’t for Tom.”
Over at Earth, Baker continues to happily plug away, brewing to his whims about once a week. “I resist hoppy beers,” he tells me, and we momentarily bond over being rare malt heads in a sea of hop lovers. “I know that sounds like a silly business strategy, because they sell so well, but I like making things that will challenge people. We always have an IPA on our guest taps. It does drive my wife a little crazy. She’ll point out that I made an IPA that sold out in twelve days and ask me why I don’t make another one. I’ll just shrug and say, ‘I don’t know.'”
“I did recently make an IPA with a lot of residual sugar,” he continues, with a twinkle in his eye, “so where most brewers would make it really dry, I made it with low alcohol and a lot of malt. The hops were put in a little at the beginning and a lot late, so you got a ton of hop flavor and aroma, but not much bitterness, and so much malty body. So it was a weird thing for people to taste. It freaked them out.”
I ask Tom about the legacy of Heavyweight, and if he’s ever tempted to bring those favorites back, even though the answer seems evident. “People ask me all the time to make the old Heavyweight beers, but I don’t want to be that guy,” he says, suggesting perhaps that he doesn’t want to ride past success, like an aging rocker touring with nothing but former hits, but he goes on to clarify, “You know, making the same beers over and over again. How boring.”