Follow the Green Light to Philadelphia’s Clandestine Fermentery Form

February 19, 2019

By Mike Greger, February 19, 2019

Down an alley in the middle of what used to be one of Philly’s most neglected neighborhoods, a lonely rat staggers toward a pile of used wort. He sniffs it and disappears out of the green glow and into the darkness. Then, a man from the nearby distillery shouts, “Are you looking for Fermentery Form?”

At Fermentery Form, an urban farmhouse-style tasting room in the city’s rapidly gentrifying Kensington neighborhood, there is no address. They don’t need or want one. Instead, a green light bulb hangs loosely above a splintered door, beckoning guests to turn the knob and come inside.

“Getting here isn’t normal, with the whole weird alley thing, we know that,” says co-owner and head blender Ethan Tripp. “And we’re not prettying it up anytime soon. I love the idea that you are transported to a different place when you walk in.”

Tripp, along with business partners Matt Stone and Scott Hatch, have hit on a simple (and traditionally European) concept: If the green light is on, the taps are open. Beer nerds have been pilgrimaging here since 2017, mostly by word of mouth and social media stalking, to entrance their taste buds with some of the funkiest ales on the East Coast.

“I don’t know that we’ll ever become a destination,” says Tripp. “Philly isn’t that kind of town. We’re not that hip or trendy. And we don’t want to be.”

They might not want to label their place as a destination, but it has defiantly become one. Tripp relays the story of a group he recently hosted from Japan, who were on a quest to experience some of the most hyped breweries in the United States. After making the rounds in New York, they drove down to Philadelphia and hit a few places recommended to them by industry friends. They emailed Tripp months in advance to make sure they could schedule their trip when the green light was on.

Stephen Lyford

Inside evokes Belgium more than anything stateside and serves as the perfect backdrop for day-drinking millennials playing Battleship, Jenga, and Connect Four. “It’s small, I guess you could say cozy,” says Tripp. “It’s totally different than walking into a huge, high-ceilinged, industrial-looking space—not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

Trust the Process

Fermentery Form produces 20 sixtels of everything they make, keeping only three styles on draft, with a curated selection of large-format bottles available for in-house consumption and a different assortment available for takeout. Tripp says they have 12 to 15 unique labels and regular beers stay on draft for two to three months, depending on popularity.

The heavily fruited stuff—lambics and “anything colored pink or purple”—are the hottest sellers. Fooz, a wheated sour aged for three months and zinged with 250 pounds of Pennsylvania peaches from Three Springs Fruit Farm, has become a crowd pleaser. The beer is borderline tart, barely sour, and tastes like biting into a ripe peach.

“We have guests ask us all the time, ‘Is this a sour beer?’” Tripp says. “I like talking about acidity in beer better than how sour it is because you’re talking about a range, a spectrum. It’s closer to what winemakers do.”

Stephen Lyford

Credit the vast Solera System, a dizzying pyramid of 50 neatly stacked oak barrels that serves as Mission Control at Fermentery Form. It’s an old wine maker’s practice for fractional blending, during which beer that has already been sitting in the barrels is blended with fresh beer allowing the entire batch to gradually take on the quality of the original brew. The method ensures acidity levels are varied, and means no two beers, including the same style, may ever taste exactly the same. They’ll be close, very close.

“Think of this way,” says Tripp. “Your friend gets a haircut, it’s still the same thing, looks basically the same. Our beers are pretty consistent considering how primitive the process is.”

It’s All In The Terminology

One local newspaper referred to the tasting room as a “speakeasy brewery,” but that is misleading. While it is located off the beaten path and possesses a certain in-the-know vibe, Fermentery Form isn’t trying to keep anyone out. It just gets really crowded, with a max capacity of 50 people. That, and a genius marketing plan.

When they opened in 2017, they adhered to a rigid one-day-a-week schedule: every Saturday, from 2 p.m. until 8 p.m. Now, they have added random weekday hours, usually Wednesday or Thursday afternoons. But, in true Fermentery Form, the only way to know is by checking Instagram—it’s a trick they borrowed from a local pizza concept called Pizza Gutt.

“We always give people 24 hours notice on social media,” Tripp says. “People have been showing up on Wednesdays expecting us to be open and sometimes we’re not. We’ve become part of the whole underground scene, that foodie crowd, popular with the supper clubs and pop-ups.”

Stephen Lyford

Another reason why the “speakeasy brewery” concept doesn’t apply is Fermentery Form isn’t an actual brewery. No beer is brewed there. It is a mixed fermentation laboratory where blenders experiment with different weird and funky yeast strains. These distilled concoctions are aged in wine barrels, allowing them to ferment for several months with oak staves and fresh fruits.

With no mashing done on site, they never needed to invest in a full brewery installation system. Instead, they use wort (unfermented beer) from their friends down the street, Saint Benjamin Brewing. “We came to the realization pretty early on that if we wanted to focus on that style, we could skip a step,” says Tripp. “We pay for their employee’s time and they get to experiment by working on different styles and processes.”

A typical brew day will start at eight in the morning at Saint Benjamin, with Tripp meeting the brewer and getting the ingredients ready. He’ll hang around all day, including during the mash-in, and they will discuss specific temperatures and ph levels. After that, he takes the wort back to Fermentery Form where it is extracted and either placed in stainless steel or wine barrels.

That leaves Tripp more time to manage his tasting room, where he usually keeps watch in the back left corner of the bar, which is inside the front door, a few paces past the green light.

He’ll probably be drinking a Gueze. “If it was my one daily drink, I’d be very happy,” he says while looking out onto Front Street in Kensington. Some Philadelphians compare it to Belgium, with one regular liken it to “if Cantillon was on Front Street.”

Tripp won’t go that far. Instead, he attributes that Belgian familiarity more to the overall beer culture flowing through the city’s taverns and breweries.  “Philly has a broader diversity of beer, much more than hype,” he says. “I can go down to my local pizza place and find a 750-ml of Westmalle sitting on the shelf. I love that and hope that never changes.”

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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