Danya Henninger, For The Inquirer
Last updated: Wednesday, May 21, 2014, 9:35 AM
When distiller Sean Tracy and brewer Andrew Knechel cosigned for a lease on a warehouse in Bucks County, it was supposed to make starting their respective businesses easier.
Instead, the arrangement ended up taking them into a maze of bureaucracy that nearly derailed both projects.
The key to unlocking the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board licenses needed for the side-by-side craft brewery and distillery?
Construction of a 4-foot-high wall.
Sean Tracy first had the idea for Hewn Spirits about two years ago. He runs Bucks County TimberCraft, a construction firm that refits old barns into high-end homes, and as he ran across dense beams of rare and ancient woods – white oak, American chestnut, hickory, ash – he realized they’d be perfect for aging liquor.
A former home brewer, he spent some time tinkering with a still (a former Navy engineer, Tracy was always good with his hands), and persuaded his brother to invest in a craft distillery. He found a potential location in a semi-industrial park in Pipersville, and at the same time stumbled on a Craigslist ad from someone who was also looking for space in Bucks County. That someone was Andrew Knechel.
Knechel, whose day job is director of technology for Franklin Township High School in Somerset, N.J., was considering moving from home brewing into commercial beer-making. Friends and family always liked his beers, but he wasn’t sure he could afford to rent enough space for a production facility. When he and Tracy hit it off during a face-to-face meeting, they decided to go for it.
The pair formed a corporation for the sole purpose of renting the space, and set about getting the permits and licensing to launch their individual operations as separate businesses. It took a couple of months for Bucks County Brewery and Hewn Spirits to get zoning approval from Bedminster Township, after which they submitted applications to the state for distilling and brewing licenses.
Knechel and Tracy each took stock of their loans and investments, planned out expenses, and expected to be up and running in early 2013. Then they ran into a major speed bump.
Each needed a license from the state in order to produce alcohol, but their applications kept being rejected. Over the course of six months, Bucks County Brewery and Hewn Spirits were denied licenses multiple times. Responses from the LCB came mostly in the form of brush-offs (“You don’t meet the current code”) instead of an indication of what exactly was wrong.
Instead of getting discouraged, the pair dug in. “The deeper into it we got, the more determined we became,” Tracy says. “You get to the point where you’ve invested so much time and effort, it doesn’t make sense to turn back.”
Help finally arrived from the office of state Rep. Marguerite Quinn, in whose district the shared location falls. A staffer in her office discovered that Pennsylvania law – regulations that have stayed mostly the same since the end of Prohibition – did not allow the Liquor Control Board to issue two licenses with exactly the same address. The only thing required to create two distinct addresses? The promise to construct that 4-foot wall.
“The next time we sent in an application,” Tracy recalls, “I just drew a line down the middle of the room on our schematic, and designated one side 31a Appletree Lane and the other 31b Appletree Lane.” Hewn Spirits and Bucks County Brewery were awarded licenses less than a month later.
That dividing wall is now complete (it actually ended up being built 8 feet high instead of 4), and doors are open at tasting rooms on both sides.
The Hewn Spirits tasting room is clad in weathered wood and outfitted with a full bar, and visitors can order cocktails to enjoy at picnic tables outside the roll-up garage door. Moonshine and rum are also available by the bottle. Tracy isn’t planning to put them on State Store shelves just yet – more paperwork – so the tasting room is the only place to pick them up, as of now.
Right next door is the Bucks County Brewery taproom. So far, Knechel’s best sellers have been the Crab-a-Loupe, an English bitter made from local crab apples and cantaloupe juice, and the Saison du Lever du Soleil, which has a spicy finish thanks to jalapeños. Knechel will soon begin distributing his kegs to a few local beer bars.
On weekend evenings, area food trucks such as Bonjour Creperie, the Moo Truck, and Phoebe’s BBQ have been setting up outside the twin tasting rooms, giving Bucks County residents a new place to celebrate spring weather. Collaborations between brewery and distillery have also begun – Knechel is aging beer in Tracy’s used barrels, for example.
It was a long road to opening, but neither man holds a grudge against the system. They’re just happy to finally be able to pour their craft spirits and beer for people from Bucks and beyond.