Burning, and brewing, the Midnight Oil
Apr 30, 2019 02:48PM
By J. Chambless
Joe Stickel, TJ McGrath and Mike Dunlap of the Midnight Oil Brewing Company.
By Richard L. Gaw
Forgive the flipping of the narrative, but the telling of any story is made sweeter when the best parts come first, so the story of the Midnight Oil Brewing Company starts now – on the day you read this – at a brewpub and brewery that’s housed in a 15,000 square-foot space in an industrial park on Pencader Drive that was first opened on Feb. 3, 2018 – yes, the same day that the Philadelphia Eagles became Super Bowl champions -- a debut that was so successful the brewery nearly ran out of beer.
With its cushy couches and large-screen TVs, the 110-seat pub owns a comfy, slightly man-cavey feel that’s become a popular and slightly off-the-beaten-path bungalow for men and women looking to share beer and conversation, all in adequate distance from the noisy brew pub crawl of Main Street.
While food trucks parked outside feed the patronage, the bar serves up crisp and cold glasses of what Dunlap's talents now yield: Smash Belma, Retroactive Kombucha, Cataclysm, Impulse IPA and an ever-changing varietal of brews with scientific-sounding names, each of which is given its own colorful plaque that dots the “Available Beers” wall behind the bar.
The brewery features a 90-barrel system, and uses many ingredients that are provided locally. That allows the company to put out its varieties to the public and experiment with the development of new beers. There’s fundraisers, guest bartender nights, MObeer Mondays, yoga nights, comedy nights and a roster of bands who plug in and play out.
And then there are the comments, posted on social media, from a growing list of friends and supporters, who have become the word-of-mouth saviors of the Midnight Oil Brewing Company:
“Love it! Always excited to see new additions to beer list. Chatting with staff is just BONUS!”
“Extraordinary brews, great space, artwork to enjoy and a food truck that had fantastic food! Totally recommend visiting this unique brewery..!”
“Been going here every couple weeks for the past 6 months, and I love it. Great beer, welcoming atmosphere, and knowledgeable staff that are also great to talk to!”
Now, a little more than a year removed from its opening, the Midnight Oil Brewing Company has carved a considerable notch in the Delaware brewing industry, with a successful location, a collaboration with Downtime Refreshment to install a kitchen at the brew pub, and a commitment to broaden their regional distribution, which now includes more than 50 restaurants and brewpubs throughout Delaware.
To best comprehend the story of the Midnight Oil Brewing Company got this far in so little time, it is important to state that it’s taken more than a decade, on what began as a courageous roll of the dice by two friends, TJ McGrath and Mike Dunlap. Back in 2008, Dunlap was just another home-brew hobbyist turning out home batches is his kitchen and then in his garage in Wilmington, until the word got out that what he was whipping up in near secrecy could not remain a secret forever.
“At the time, Mike and I were enthusiastic craft beer lovers, and were buying a lot of craft beer with our friends on the weekends,” McGrath said. “Mike found out that home brewing was becoming popular, so he began to do it and quickly got very good at it.
“People would arrive at Mike’s house, drink all of his home-crafted batches, and leave all of their craft beer at his home, so Mike then had his friends put a couple of dollars in a jar at every get together, and something clicked.”
Then came The Nudge.
“One night, I told Mike, 'This is sort of becoming a business,'” McGrath said. “That led to a few more nudges, and then we decided to take a crack at something larger.”
McGrath and Dunlap spent evenings and weekends hammering out business plans. They read every piece of literature about how to operate a brewing company that they could find. They thought about how they could pull this off and at the same time mitigate risk. They toured breweries and brewing companies and asked owners a small mountain of questions.
“We asked them, 'If you could do anything over, what would you do if you could?’” McGrath said. “That helped give us clarity to avoid the mistakes before we went forth on our plan – to put the gravel on the road before the paving went down.”
McGrath was constantly upgrading the business plans whenever he had a break from his job. Dunlap was working his day job and perfecting his craft at night, and after a late night of brewing, he thought to himself, 'I am burning the midnight oil.'
The business idea that was launched in Dunlap’s kitchen now had a new name.
So at this point in the story of what became the Midnight Oil Brewing Company, there was the Talent (Dunlap), the Project Manager (McGrath) and a very cool name, but in order to launch any successful business, a Visionary is needed to complete the bill. Enter Joe Stickel, a co-worker of Dunlap’s at a start-up company in Newark, who tasted what all the fuss was about, and was so convinced that the business concept would work that he signed on as the third partner.
From the start, Stickel had big plans. Think larger. Find a larger space. Get a bigger brewing system. Eventually, working through a real estate agent, the partners found that is now the home of the Midnight Oil Brewing Company.
“Whenever I evaluate an opportunity or project, I ask, 'What will it take for us to get to our goals?'” Stickel said. “If we were to really approach our goals, we would have to move nearly a dozen times in order to get there. It just seems that all of those projected moves would have been costly and interrupt our service and our customers. It didn’t make sense to go through all of those iterations at the beginning.”
“Our first-year model was all about the beer,” Stickel said. “Our second year is to determine what daytime traffic can do for our business. The genius of having our location in this industrial park is that there are 5,000 people who work here and nearby at Siemens Healthcare Diagnostics. That’s several thousand captive audience members here nearly every day of the week.
“Eventually, we want to be able to be their on-campus lunch break and their after-work brewpub.”
While the story of the Midnight Oil Brewing Company is still in its first few chapters, it is very likely that its last pages are far from being told. For the moment, McGrath, Dunlap and Stickel are planning to hold the course with where the last year has taken them.
“I could see us taking many paths, and right now, I don’t know which path we’re going to take,” Stickel said. “I don’t think it’s necessarily going to come down to us saying, 'We absolutely have to go there, or we must go here.' It's going to more like, 'Let's keep doing the fun things we’re doing, and it will make that decision for us.”
More than a growing menu of hand-crafted beers and more than the faithful following of hundreds of supporters that write glowing reviews on the company’s social media pages, there is a larger purpose of Midnight Oil Brewing Company. Since their beginning, Stickel, Dunlap and McGrath have been committed to partnerships with local organizations like Easter Seals Delaware, Children and Families First, Miracles for Molly Dunn, Buddy for Life, the Food Bank of Delaware and Sirens & Shields.
It’s an idea that goes back to Dunlap’s kitchen.
“When Mike and I were sitting on his kitchen floor talking about the idea of starting this brewing company – before any of this started -- the issue of stewardship and camaraderie came up in conversation,” McGrath said. “The idea that we can become a successful business and also be able to impact the community in some way, has always been important to us. Every one of us is constantly coming up with new ideas and bringing them into the fold, with a simple desire to leave the community better than the way we found it.”
To learn more about the Midnight Oil Brewing Company, visit www.midnightoilbrewing.com, visit them on Facebook, or call 302-286-7641. The brewery is located at 674 Pencader Drive, Newark, Del. 19702.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].