How Music Brought Brian O'Reilly to Craft Beer
written by Dave Miniaci
Brian O’Reilly is a bit of a Renaissance Man.
Sure, he brews award-winning suds as the brewmaster for Sly Fox Brewing Company, but he has also played in a band, traveled Europe, been a teacher and worked in a recording studio, just to name a few things. Oh, and he knows a thing or two about goat races.
The most interesting man in Phoenixville and Pottstown? Maybe that’s a stretch, but there’s more than meets the eye for O’Reilly, who is tall and strong with long black hair.
His early beer-ginnings involve a trip to Europe while studying philosophy and literature at Franciscan University, a small Catholic School in Steubenville, Ohio. The school has a campus in Austria, where O’Reilly studied abroad. There, he journeyed to places such as France and Germany—fine places for drinking. And it was in beer gardens, such as those at Hofbräu and Paulaner, where he really took an interest in different kinds of beer.
“I remember the first time I had a Weisse beer, I thought there was something wrong with it,” O’Reilly chuckles, looking back. “I didn’t know what I was drinking and actually gave it to a friend to finish.”
The trip opened his eyes to different styles of beer. He noted that every region in Germany and Austria has a certain style. When he returned to the USA, O’Reilly took up homebrewing in college with his friends, though he admits they didn’t really know what they were doing.
After college, he moved to Boston, where he wore several different hats. He volunteered at a brewery, worked as a substitute teacher, and played guitar in his band, Scrap Apple.
He bounced around several breweries, including John Harvard’s in Boston, Long Island and Cleveland, New Road Brewhouse in Collegeville and even a brief stint working in packaging at Victory, before landing at Sly Fox in 2002.
His deep love for music has helped him even after the band called it quits. He played at the Philly Beer Scene Battle of the Brewers, and he helps plan Sly Fox’s free music festival. The festival, which takes place every September, is called Can Jam. The event features local artists, food trucks and, of course, beer. There is also a tournament with the game Kan Jam. Last year’s event featured Hoots and Hellmouth. This year’s lineup includes singer-songwriter Michael Tiernan, who was in Scrap Apple with O’Reilly.
The name for the festival works for more than just the game. If Sly Fox is famous for anything other than beer, it’s their packaging. The brewery distributes and sells its beer in cans, other than a few bottle-conditioned beers. That’s something O’Reilly pushed from the beginning for a number of reasons.
The green factor played a big role, O’Reilly said. Cans are more easily compostable than glass. Also, the cost to can was roughly the same price as bottling, and cans are more portable. O’Reilly pointed out how easy it is to bring a case of cans to a tailgate.
Sly Fox also had some help in planning a canning line—from Oskar Blues.
“We actually flew out to Oskar Blues [in Colorado] and [Oskar Blues founder] Dale Katechis was a completely great host and we got to see their can fillers and talk about cans and it really helped our decision.”
It wasn’t an easy sell for others at first, though.
“Of the things I’m proudest of, I’d say probably pioneering craft beer in a can,” said Corey Reid, the brewery’s sales manager, or as O’Reilly calls him, the Beer Ambassador. “It was very risky and difficult. Everyone wanted bottles and there was this stigma about cans. And it was difficult for me as the only sales guy trying to convince people to buy into it. Brian encouraged that from the beginning. We took that jump. I’d argue it’s better than the bottle.”
It’s not all about music and beer, though. O’Reilly also enjoys backpacking, rock climbing, hiking and spending time with his family—his wife Whitney, his 8-year-old daughter, Patience, and his 3-year-old son, Paolo. He also used to ski a lot, however, he doesn’t as much anymore.
“What happens is you’re a good skier and then you have kids and you ski less and less and get fat and slow. Then you teach them to ski and they get better and better…And then one day, they ski faster than you and leave you behind and they’ve made you decrepit,” he laughs.
O’Reilly has a lot to gloat about, but what about goats?
Sly Fox puts on its well-known Bock Fest & Goat Race in May every year, and O’Reilly was the brains of that operation.
When O’Reilly worked at John Harvard’s in Cleveland, the assistant brewer owned a goat and brought it to a bock beer festival they were hosting. Though they didn’t race the goat, the idea stuck in O’Reilly’s head. When he moved to New Road Brewhouse, he wanted to host a German-based event and asked a local farmer to bring his goats to race them.
“There were maybe eight people to show up in the parking lot there,” O’Reilly said. “But it was a good time. And then it grew.”
When O’Reilly was hired by Sly Fox, Reid, who was one of the original attendees at the New Road event, approached him about continuing the tradition. That tradition has grown into a large event with several thousand attendees. O’Reilly and his crew brew special bock beers for the festival, which also features food, live German music and, of course, racing of local goats. The brewery features a Hall of Fame on its website dedicated to the winning goats, including last year’s winner, Jixxer.
“It was not hugely attended but it was a really quirky fun event,” Reid said, recalling the event when it was held at New Road. “I approached him about doing that because I thought it would be really fun. I pushed him into doing that again. We got caught off guard by the size of the crowd that first year here. We didn’t expect it to take off like it did.
“Being such a small community pub, it’s easy to get people to come out and rally support around a local event. And being around all these farms in Chester County, it’s easy to wrangle up goats.”
Goats and guitars aside, it does all come down to beer for O’Reilly. He has made an impact since joining the Sly Fox team, whether it’s brewing new beers or helping perfect gold standards—he is particularly proud of the Pikeland Pils for its taste, hard work and the awards it’s won. He passes the accomplishments around to others, too, thanking his crew of brewers and the owners, John and Peter Giannopoulos.
But he knows the effect he’s had on the brewery, even if he doesn’t get to stop and reflect.
“I think this biggest accomplishment since I got here is just growing the brewery, even if that sounds generic,” O’Reilly said. “But you also never feel like you’re done. We’ve got a great team here. Building the vibe that is Sly Fox is something I’m very proud of. You want to look back and say, ‘Geez, can you believe what we’ve done?’ but you can’t because you keep working and every time you do something else, it’s another ball to drop.”