A hippopotamus is a “river horse.” So said the ancient Greeks.
Carl Linnaeus, the 18th-century father of modern taxonomy, decided the ancient name, “hippopotamus,” derived from the Greek, was a perfectly good name for the large herbivore that was found in great numbers swimming and chewing through river grass in Africa. If you are of a certain age, you also know from Saturday morning television that while these mighty creatures disappear under water from time to time, they always come back up — and when they do they mean business.
After occupying a spot along the Delaware River in the City of Lambertville for many years, River Horse Brewing Co. resurfaced over the summer a few miles south in Ewing in a building that is more than double the size of its former two-story brick home, and with plans to increase beer production 30 percent and improve marketing in a distribution area that covers four states.
Chris Walsh and Glenn Bernabeo bought River Horse in 2007 after working at Berwind Corp., the Philadelphia financial management company, where they specialized in mergers and acquisitions. Walsh and Bernabeo started their own company after Berwind divested that part of their operations, but soon they both were looking for something different and potentially lucrative.
“Glenn was looking to do something else, and I was about a week behind him,” Walsh says. “We started looking for other things to do. We didn’t say, ‘Let’s go buy a brewery.’ We wanted to buy a company where we understood the product. Nothing techie. We also didn’t want a fat company where we had to come in and fire a bunch of people. We wanted a company that was going in the right direction, but maybe needed some capital. It turned out that River Horse was available.”
River Horse had been part of Lambertville’s charm since 1996 — a micro-brewery in a river town operating in the quaint old building where Trenton Oyster Crackers had once been manufactured. By the time Walsh and Bernabeo decided to buy the brewery, it was clear they would need to find a new production location.
“It was on the radar from the beginning,” Walsh says. “If we had done it out of the gate it would have failed because we needed to stabilize things.
“The old building did not have the physical attributes that we needed. We operated on two floors in four different rooms. Our malt would get delivered and we had to forklift it upstairs to the second floor. We could never get around that in Lambertville. Also, we were paying rent on office space. Office space rent is not industrial space rent. It was sort of something that was inherent in the transaction.”
In summer, 2012, Walsh says, they decided on the new location on Grahics Drive, which they are leasing from the owners of Mega Group, the marketing consulting firm, which had moved to Hamilton. They began renovating last December, installing new drainage in the floor and constructing a new mill room. Production shut down in Lambertville this past June and resumed in the new building in July.
“It’s a great location,” Walsh says. “It’s right next to I-95. You can get to Philadelphia and New York pretty easily. Logistically it works out great.”
The physical difference between the two facilities is dramatic. A tour of the entire brewing process at the new River Horse location takes place in one cavernous production room. There are new stainless steel fermenters and plans to add more as the need for capacity increases. Dozens of kegs awaited filling, the bottling machine was operating, and pallets of River Horse “Hipp-O-Lantern” imperial pumpkin ale appeared ready to ship.
“We’re packaging beer every single day,” Walsh says. “We would have down days in Lambertville because of equipment reasons and all sorts of things. The sources of our problems have been eliminated. With 100-degree heat we would have trouble keeping the beer cold. We don’t have that issue anymore. We have a glycol chiller, which basically is a tank within a tank so we can control the temperature. It’s right-sized and it’s new. There are a lot of technical things, operational efficiencies that we picked up by being able to design our own brewery.
“The fun part is coming back,” Walsh says. “The move was tough — a lot of moving parts and you never felt you were in it. But now things are stabilized and I can focus on product lines and producing beer. That takes a lot out of you. It was daunting, but it’s getting to be fun again.”
Walsh, 44, does the day-to-day heavy lifting of running River Horse. A native of Wilmington, Delaware, he grew up in Buffalo before his family returned to Chester County, Pennsylvania. He went to the University of Delaware and now commutes from Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his two sons — one in college and one in high school. His father works for DuPont and his mother stayed at home while raising Walsh, his two brothers, and a sister.
Bernabeo, who grew up in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, and lives in Wayne, Pennsylvania, handles the financial and compliance issues and collaborates with Walsh on strategic business planning.
Despite the advantages that the new location offers, there are no plans for expanding into new territory, which already extends from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and part of Connecticut.
“I’d say hopefully not,” Walsh says. “When we bought the company our brand was a mile wide and an inch deep. I want our brand to be a mile deep and an inch wide. If I look at our territory, we have the largest city in the country on one end and on the other end we have the fourth largest city and a tremendous beer culture. In between we have 8 million people. I look at that and ask, ‘Do we need to go beyond that?’ I hope not. I want to put all the beer we have inside that radius.
The company currently produces 9,000 barrels per year, and the increased capacity will allow River Horse to resume production of its unfiltered lager, which has to spend twice as long — up to 30 days — in fermentation tanks. Originally there were 10 150-barrel fermenters; now there are 13 with an ability to expand to 20.
“One of the things that excites us is that we brought on a 30 percent increase in capacity,” Walsh says. “We’re bringing the lager back, and the next brewer’s reserve we do might be in the lager family. We tried to do that last year but we shelved it because there were just too many moving parts with the move. Down the road we’ve been talking a lot about doing a straight IPA (India Pale Ale). We’re talking about what we’re going to be when we grow up. The guys like to develop new beers and it helps develop the brand and give the sales reps something new to sell. Looking at the lineup overall we’re feeling pretty good.
“This building is spec-ed out where we’ll never have to move again. We could sell all the beer we could make in Lambertville. Now we have a lot more capacity so we have to do a lot more with sales and marketing than we did before. It’s changed the dynamic of the company.”
Walsh admits that River Horse was a “work in progress.” He declines to give dollar figures for the original purchase price for the brewery or for how much money has been invested since the move from Lambertville. No additional employees have been hired, and River Horse will be looking at increasing automation, possibly to put products like the Summer Blonde ale in 12-ounce cans. Construction is under way on the area set aside for the gift shop, a tasting room, and a “growler” station for selling beer to the public during tours.
“We have much more square footage dedicated to that,” he says. “Lambertville was a tough place to grow the business, but now we have much more space to hold events; sort of come in on a Saturday night from 7 to 10 and there would be a theme. We just haven’t gotten to it yet.”
Walsh is aware of the competition. According to the Garden State Craft Brewers Guild, there are 21 breweries and restaurants making and selling their own beer in New Jersey.
“For a state the size of New Jersey, that’s incredibly small,” he says. “In population we are in the top five maybe, but in beer production it’s in the 40s. The laws have changed in the last couple of years and a lot of new breweries have opened.”
In September, 2012, the state revised regulations to allow breweries to sell more beer to tourists and other customers. “I think it’s done a couple of things. It’s made New Jersey breweries a force to be reckoned with,” Walsh says. “A lot of the breweries are small and don’t want to be huge. But it’s a good story, how the breweries have worked together with the legislators. It’s sort of like a rising tide lifts all boats. I’m not political, by the way. I just like it when things go my way. The process worked.”
Walsh says tours and other public events could get under way at River Horse by the end of the month. He says he has been focusing on the consumer experience from the beginning. The graphics used on the packaging comprised one of the first changes with a graphic artist from Philadelphia hired to develop a new look for the hippo that appears on every case and six-pack. The “river horse” appears to have more of a sense of humor, if not an attitude.
The hippo theme is celebrated on the River Horse Facebook page, too, with photos of hippos in the wild, videos of hippos in zoos, videos of hippos making rude noises, and hippos painted on railroad tankers, among other depictions.
Walsh is all for it: “You’ve got to embrace the mascot, you know.”
River Horse Brewing Company, 2 Graphics Drive, Ewing 08628. 609-883-0890. Chris Walsh and Glenn Bernabeo, owners. www.riverhorse.com.