The Mispillion River Brewing Company filled its first pints at the Milford brewery in November, just about the same time that Harvest Ridge Winery in Marydel uncorked its first bottles and Painted Stave Distillery in Smyrna mixed its first cocktails. This recent outpouring of craft alcohol makers in Kent County, which join Pizzadili Winery in Felton as well as Fordham and Dominion Brewing in Dover, should put central Delaware on the radar of people willing to travel for handcrafted wines, brews and spirits, says Cindy Small, executive director of the Kent County and Greater Dover Convention and Visitors Bureau. To help get the word out, the visitors bureau recently kicked off the self-guided Good Libations Tour website (GoodLibationsTour.com) and passport program, which makes visitors to all five of the alcohol-makers’ sites eligible for prizes.
Left: Eric and Megan Williams own Mispillion River Brewing in Milford.
When Eric Williams decided at age 40 to leave the corporate life and open a brewery, he charged full steam ahead, writing a business plan with his wife and business partner, Megan; attending Hop Union’s Hop and Brew School in Yakima, Wash.; seeking out investors; hiring an experienced, award-winning brewer; and networking with owners of other craft breweries, including Dogfish Head founder Sam Calagione, the first craft brewer in Delaware.
Mispillion River Brewing, which Williams calls “Milford’s brewery,” truly is homegrown and community-supported. A Facebook shout-out last May brought volunteers, both friends and strangers, to help shovel dirt, haul concrete and install the brewery’s floor drains. The local newspaper chronicled the company’s progress throughout its year-long set-up phase. And when the brewery opened its doors in November, 400 people showed up—so many that the brewery couldn’t keep up with demand.
Back then, Mispillion was still operating with a one-barrel pilot brewing system, but in less than two months it had grown to a 15-barrel system, making nine different beers every two weeks. IPAs, French-style Saison, Berliner Weiss, lagers, pilsners, brown ales—they’re all on tap. “We don’t want to get stuck in one area because we like them all,” Williams says. “We view brewing as an art, the same way as sculpting or painting or writing a song, and we have the same desire to maintain the quality and integrity of the product.”
Beer aficionados will love the vibe of the large tasting room/bar that fronts the brewery, which is located in a business park warehouse.
Harvest Ridge Winery in Marydel plans to release 21 varieties of wine by the end of the year.
Harvest Ridge Winery was the brainchild of Chuck Nunan, a longtime basement winemaker who decided that his farm in Marydel would be the perfect locale for a destination winery. Although made by experienced vintner Milan Mladjan, the style of the wines is very similar to those that Nunan has been making for years. Harvest Ridge currently has 12 acres of Chardonnay, Merlot, Viognier, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and other grape varieties with 3½ acres to be planted this spring and many more acres available for the future.
Harvest Ridge got its start with wines made from grapes bought from other farmers and custom-crushed to the winery’s specifications, but by this spring the winery expects to be releasing bottles made from its own grapes, says Nunan’s son, general manager Chip Nunan. The winery plans to release 21 varieties by the end of the year.
Left: Painted Stave Distilling in Smyrna currently makes gin and vodka, but plans to expand its line.
Painted Stave Distilling in the heart of downtown Smyrna is part of a growing nationwide movement toward craft distilleries that has seen the number of U.S. distilleries grow from a few dozen to as many as 600 over the past decade. Painted Stave owners Ron Gomes, a former scientist, and Mike Rasmussen, an educational policy wonk, introduced their line of spirits beginning with Silver Screen Vodka and Candy Manor Gin, a gin decidedly different from the London dry style most people are accustomed to.
It’s the goal of Gomes and Rasmussen to begin distilling all manner of liquors, from bourbon to brandy to aged whiskey. They plan to use as many local ingredients as they can, including herbs from a small farm in Townsend, coffee from Clayton roaster The Young Bean for espresso vodka, and pressed red grapes from Harvest Ridge for grappa.
“There are so many unique ways to build flavors and partnerships that we haven’t even thought of yet,” Rasmussen says. But they’re working on it in the lab behind their large brass-and-copper production still and a smaller still for test batches that they’ve nicknamed “Frankenstill.”
For now, Painted Stave products are available only at the distillery, located in an old movie theater in downtown Smyrna, but Rasmussen and Gomes hope they will soon be available at liquor stores throughout Delaware.
Pizzadili Vineyard and Winery lends a touch of Tuscany to Felton.
A tour of Kent County wineries and breweries would not be complete, of course, without stops at Pizzadili, which has been in operation since 2004, and Fordham and Dominion Brewing, which relocated its two lines of brews to Delaware in 2009.
Long before he and his late brother, Tony, started the winery, Pete Pizzadili was famous in Kent County for the family catering business. A winery and event space in the fertile farmlands of central Delaware was a natural complement to the catering business, he says.
The Pizzadili brothers had worked in the family vineyard and winery back in Tuscany before the family emigrated to the U.S., so they knew all the ins and outs of producing quality wines, Pizzadili says. The Felton vineyards even remind him of the Tuscan countryside.
Compared to the smaller craft producers in Kent, Fordham and Dominion is almost a big guy. Brewing 24,000 barrels in 2013, it’s ranked among the top 100 craft breweries in the U.S. The Fordham line, which started at the Ram’s Head in Annapolis in the mid-1990s, is an “easier drinking beer” that appeals to people crossing over into craft beers, says company spokeswoman Lauren Bigelow. Dominion brews, on the other hand, “are a more assertive type of beer” favored by those accustomed to the different tastes and stronger alcohol content of craft beers. Both lines can be sampled at the brewery.
“We’re hoping that those who go on the Good Libations tour will tell their friends and neighbors and come back again, and little by little we’ll put ourselves on the map,” Small says. “The website and passport are just the beginning. We see events related to the Good Vibrations tour building over time, perhaps with monthly events to keep it top of mind.”