JARED’S NOTE: Part two of our visit to Mispillion River — a Q&A with owner Eric Williams and head brewer Ryan Maloney — will be posted later today.
“Ask him if he thinks he is an artist or a scientist. What do you think he says?”
Eric Williams nods at me as if I should shout across the brewery floor to his head brewer, Ryan Maloney, who is filling 22 oz. bombers by hand.
“Probably a little of both,” I answered.
Williams clears his throat and yells, “Ryan. Are you an artist or a scientist?” Maloney, who has heard this question before, smiles and goes back to work.
“He says it’s all science, but there is some art to what he is doing, Williams said.”
Eric Williams is living the dream.
To hear him tell the story, it’s more tale than historical account, but Williams says that he woke up on the morning of his 40th birthday in 2011 and declared that he was going to open a brewery in Milford, Del.
“It went something like that,” Williams said from behind the bar in the tasting room at Mispillion River Brewing Company, the 15-barrel brewery located adjacent to Milford’s city office building in an office park.
Williams had become beaten by the corporate grind from years of toiling in sales and management positions. “I started to really get worn out from the corporate world and resenting going into work,” he said. “I decided I didn’t want to live my life like this. I didn’t want my eulogy to say he spent 40 years at one company.”
Four years after making his declaration, Williams’ brewery produces 1,800 barrels of beer with his sights on hitting the 5,000-barrel barrier in 2016.
A patron from the evening before entered the taproom at Mispillion River and was greeted by laughter from Williams. The regular from last night was back that day to claim a laptop he left on a table at the rear of the taproom.
Many craft breweries have very sterile serving areas with self-promotional material on the walls and the sound barking forth from the televisions or speakers being the only personality within earshot. Not so at Mispillion River. Williams’ taproom looks like it could be his own basement bar. A button-activated zombie sits atop a ledge, overlooking the room, and rocking and growling on command. A lifesize cutout of Fabio sensually sneers at guests that want to look at the available merch.
“Our decorating style is like our beer calculated randomness; organic,” Williams joked.
The tap room, which has 10 draught lines, was not the focal point when Williams started building his business. The beer came before the place to sample it. “We built this room like a lot of breweries out there,” Williams said. “You don’t have a lot of money so you do it yourself. It was fun building the place, but it’s a lot more fun enjoying the place.”
My arrival gave Williams a brief respite from his morning activity of calculating his Maryland beer taxes, the less-than-sexy part of brewing. Delaware drinkers are the heart of Williams’ business, but cans are now available throughout Maryland’s Eastern Shore, as far north as Elkton, Md. and neighboring Harford County, as far south as Ocean City, Md., and counting everything in between as Mispillion River territory. Distribution is ramping up to get as far north as Philadelphia. Beach Bum Joe, a Belgian-style IPA, is served by the can at Wilmington Blue Rocks minor league baseball games, while the Pickled Pig Pub in Rehoboth Beach almost always has one tap dedicated to Mispillion River.
Head Brewer Ryan Maloney and his assistant were bottling special edition beers for the brewery’s Christmas in July event. Three different beers — Chipped Tooth Imperial Stout, Spawn of Praetor Imperial Porter and Happier Ending chocolate-cherry stout — are bottled into bombers each year for the July event with the purpose of letting them bottle age until Christmas. The English-style stout has a huge roasted malt smell with notes of coffee and molasses. There’s not a lot of carbonation or body to the beer, but it’s not necessarily intended for summertime enjoyment. These are beers that go to the cellar for 5 to 6 months of aging and conditioning. The body and complexities of the brew should broaden by then.
Mispillion River is busting at the seams and that’s both a good and bad thing. Good, because demand is high and Williams cannot acquire tanks quickly enough. Bad, because there’s nowhere for the tanks to go in this 5,000-square foot space. The main brewing floor is dominated by a cluster of three 15-barrel fermenting tanks. Across the room are 30-barrel fermenters and a 30-barrel conditioning tank. The original 1-barrel system sits in the warehouse, where it still brews most of the one-offs and seasonal beers. Three more tanks are on their way to keep up with demand, though where they will is still up in the air.
“Once we get them here, we’re going to be doing some tricky stuff to get them setup,” Williams said.
Space also leaves Williams without room for his own canning line. Instead, River City Cannery from Arlington, Va. comes in three to four times with one of its mobile units to package the beer heading for distribution.
“We’re getting to the point this summer where it’s not making much sense to have them come in four times a month,” Williams said. “The money we spend on that will more than pay for your own canning line. But like anyone’s problem, where do you put it, especially when you’re adding three more tanks. Our goal, ultimately, would be to move down by the (Mispillion) river. We searched for a space there when we were looking for real estate but we couldn’t find anything downtown on the river that had the structure and bones of this building, that had three bays, electric, good water, solar panels, good flow.”
Early in 2013, Williams was looking to raise a little capital and decided to auction off the naming rights to one of their fermenters. The result was one of his proudest achievements as a brewer.
Georgetown (Del.) police officer Chad Spicer and his partner were on patrol on the evening of Sept. 1, 2009, when they attempted to stop a vehicle involved in a shooting earlier that evening. The suspect’s vehicle stopped short and the patrol car stopped next to it. Patrolmen Spicer was fatally shot in the face by someone in the other car; bullet fragments ricocheted and hit Spicer’s partner in the neck. Spicer left behind a fiancé, daughter, parents and three siblings.
Spicer’s friends and fellow police officers wanted to create a lasting tribute to their fallen comrade, so they pitched in $1,000 for the naming rights on one of Mispillion River’s 30-barrel fermenters. As part of the deal, they also got to design the first beer to come out of the tank. Short and Stout, a tribute to Spicer’s physical build, was brewed in his memory. The whiskey-barrel aged stout was said to have a tobacco flavor, marrying two flavors that Spicer enjoyed.
Mispillion River hosted the release party in February 2015, beginning with a private ceremony for Spicer’s family and friends to see the dedicated brewing tank, followed by a party and auction for the 100-bottle limited release.
“Ryan and I each kicked in a couple of hundred bucks and we figured we could get the first bottle,” Williams said. “It went for $800.
“The second one went for $500,” Williams said.
The third bottle was presented to Spicer’s parents, as the officer’s badge number was 3. The remaining bottles from the first 10 went for more than $500 each. By the time the remaining 90 bottles sold and the proceeds from the 50/50 raffle were totaled, the brewery had raised $8,000 for the National Criminal Enforcement Association’s Officer in Distress Fund.
The fundraiser and beer will be an annual event for the brewery.
Mispillion River Brewing Company is located at 255 Mullet Run St in Milford, Del. in the Greater Milford Business Complex, about 35 minutes from Rehoboth Beach, Del. The taproom is open daily and tours are available on Saturday from Noon to 4 p.m.