Dreaming big pays offOct 08, 2021 11:18AM ● By Tricia Hoadley
When they were young adults, Jimmy Vennard and his younger brother, Dan, spent untold afternoons climbing a sheer rock face in south-central Pennsylvania, hanging out and talking about the future. Today, that climbing spot, Autumn Arch, has become the name of the flourishing brewery they opened in Newark in 2019.
There’s a spirit of optimism and big dreams at Autumn Arch Beer Project, a name that was designed to keep the business forward-thinking, with a goal of producing a new beer every week. The sleek, welcoming bar and seating area is routinely packed with beer lovers, beer novices and, on Sundays, a few dogs who are welcome to stop by.
Jimmy and his wife Kathryn, along with Dan, are the founders of Autumn Arch, and their collective vision keeps the business moving and innovating while making sure that there’s still plenty of fun involved.
Their niche is sour beers – a trend that has only recently swept the American independent brewing scene, but is rooted deeply in tradition. “They’ve been in Europe forever,” Jimmy said. “It’s likely that all beers were once sours. Now folks can cultivate a specific yeast and bacteria that actually make a beer sour on purpose.”
The vast range of sours and ales appeals to Kathryn, whose MBA experience complements the engineering skills of Jimmy and Dan. All three are engineers at Gore Associates.
Like most businesses, Autumn Arch began as a hobby.
“Dan and I started home-brewing together on the back patio around 2014,” Jimmy said. “We were making beer, hanging out for a few hours, and there’s something you can enjoy afterwards. There’s a picture we have of us for our first brew together. We have all this stuff with us, there’s a computer there, the recipe and everything. We kept getting more serious about the hobby, learning the nuances.”
“We’re also engineers,” Dan added. “So our process got more and more developed, and the system grew.”
When Jimmy and Kathryn visited Asheville, N.C., the city’s massive beer scene (around 100 breweries and brewpubs) inspired them. “We loved the vibe, and the quality of the beer was really high,” Jimmy said. “In that environment, if you’re not making good beer, you’re not sticking around very long. I remember saying, ‘I wish this scene was where we live.’ And that kind of kicked off the idea. About a month later, I asked Dan, ‘What do you think about starting a business?’
“I was all in,” Dan said, laughing. “I didn’t take any convincing. I traveled a lot for work, and in places like the West Coast, beer has more of a social aspect, where in Delaware it always felt more like a restaurant emphasis. But the taproom model is nice because you’re there to socialize. Delaware didn’t have much of that, so I was all for it.”
There followed two years of planning and research, including talking with the owners of other small breweries in Delaware and elsewhere. “The brewery scene is very open,” Dan said. “People are very willing to talk, share their stories. It’s very collaborative.”
No brewery in the area was focusing on sours, so Autumn Arch decided to fill that niche, while also having plenty for other tastes. “When sour beers became what we wanted to focus on, that’s a lot of risk because it takes nine to 12 months of just sitting in barrels before that inventory is actually salable,” Kathryn said.
“And there’s historically a lower yield for sours, compared to a standard beer,” Dan added. “It’s risky to go that route. You’re waiting a long time, making a big investment, and it’s a lower yield at the end.”
Selecting a location for Autumn Arch was as carefully researched as everything else, and the space at 810 Pencader Drive had everything the team was looking for – the right size, zoning, plenty of parking, and a nearby busy road for visibility. They took over the huge, empty space in September 2018, and opened Autumn Arch in April 2019.
There’s an exhaustive construction and inspection process for opening a brewery, but the brothers stepped in to do as much of the building as they could. “There was a lot of DIY,” Dan said. “We built all the tables, I built the entire bar. Anything welded, I did that.”
There’s always something happening at Autumn Arch – live music every Friday, special events, an annual run, “Sour Wednesdays” with behind-the-scenes tours and tastings of new brews – anything that will draw longtime customers and newcomers.
“With sour beers, you hope they’re all going to turn out great,” Jimmy said, smiling. “But the reality is that sometimes you put a beer in the tank and it doesn’t do well, for whatever reason. We’ve had failures. For one of the first Sour Wednesdays we did, we were going to share this one particular sour, but it was not very good. But everyone in the group was like, ‘But we want to try it!’ It didn’t taste good, but they got to share in the experience.”
Just as the business was reaching its one-year anniversary, Covid-19 shut down the world. “We were just starting to plan our one-year anniversary party,” Kathryn said. “And then that didn’t happen,” she added, laughing.
“For two months, no one could sit in here,” Jimmy said. “However, we were lucky that takeout was allowed. We had a big enough name at that point so people knew about us. We had just started canning, and we had purchased a crowler machine.”
Dan added, “Right before the state shut down, we had just canned all of our supply. So we were sitting on a huge can inventory, ready to go.”
There are about 13 people who make Autumn Arch run, “plus, one of us is probably here more than half the weekends,” Kathryn said of the three founders. They’re available to talk about what they sell, and take suggestions for what they should offer in the future.
“We want people to ask questions,” Dan said. “We want to communicate with them. We’re part of the community.”
As one of an ever-expanding number of breweries in Delaware, Autumn Arch sees plenty of crossover traffic, some from people who are on a quest to visit every one of the taprooms in the state. And there are generally more educated consumers.
“This area has certainly stepped up its beer game in the last couple of years, in a really positive way,” Kathryn said.
Dan said Autumn Arch always has a crisp, approachable lager on tap for those who are just starting their beer exploration. “We try to expand their boundaries if they want to,” he said.
“That’s what makes the whole beer industry fun,” Kathryn added. “You can show up at a place like ours and think, ‘I know what I like, and there’s probably going to be something on tap that fits that.’ But there’s also a whole lot of variety that you can try and step outside your comfort zone.”
With a flavor profile that goes from mild and crisp to tart and surprising, there are any number of incremental steps customers can take. There’s also a holiday triple IPA that will be returning this season that Jimmy is looking forward to. “It’s called Pixel Intensity,” he said. “We brewed it here, and when one of the first cans was coming off the line, I tasted it and said, ‘Wow! That is really good!’ We can it in November and release it in the winter. But it’s a winter beer because it’s like 11 percent alcohol. You want to hang out wherever you are and enjoy one.”
There’s also a collaborative beer on the way, produced in conjunction with Revelation Brewing Company in southern Delaware. Called Path of the Sun, it’s an imperial stout that’s been sitting in bourbon barrels for months and will be just right for winter celebrating in December.
But expanding the offerings is a driving force behind Autumn Arch. “The Beer Project part of the name means we’re always doing the next experiment. We’re always growing. Everything’s a project. We take that engineering approach,” Dan said. “It’s never finished. That’s what keeps it fun, too.”
For Jimmy, the satisfaction of putting in all the work “is being here on a busy Friday night when it’s packed and thinking, ‘Wow! I played a big part in creating this cool space where people are having a lot of fun, hanging out.’”
Dan said he’s gratified when customers post Autumn Arch cans on their social media feeds “or put them on their personal pages,” he said. “It’s pretty cool. We put a lot of thought into the designs, and we’re very proud.”
Kathryn added that, “It’s a small thing, but I love being out in the community and seeing someone wearing an Autumn Arch shirt. We created something that means enough to someone that they’re wearing our shirt. That’s a pretty cool feeling. We started something out of nothing. We’re leaving our own little mark on this community.”
For more information, visit www.autumnarch.com.