Where family meets Philadelphia
Saturday 02 July 2022
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Sly Fox is a Pennsylvania institution; it’s 26 years old, with roots that run through generations of the Giannopoulos family, decades of Philadelphia’s history, and start with as good a coming-to-America story, as any I’ve heard. Sly Fox is so heavily based on narrative, on inspiration and influence, aspiration and the fulfilment of American dreams that are simple in concept and extravagant in execution. Bearing witness to its story over exceptional beer and fresh, hot, pretzel bites, feels both a pleasure and an overwhelming privilege.
“So my dad’s side of the family, we’re Greek - I know I don’t look Greek for shit, but I got my mom’s genes, she’s a WASP” says Peter Giannopoulos, Sly Box’s President of Brewery Operations and one of many next gen Giannopouloses who now oversee the running of the brewery, taproom and adjoining kitchen. His brother runs the kitchen in one of their other venues, and his cousin is the assistant GM there.
“My dad’s great grandfather settled here, then moved down to Philadelphia from New York. He was a very entrepreneurial guy, actually a lot of Greeks are, just in general; opening restaurants was a big thing that they tended to do when first coming to the country. He actually had two bars in Philly; one is a prominent craft beer bar called Varga bar, and the other one is a really cool dive bar called Lopes. My dad really admired his grandfather, and my grandmother, so I think the entrepreneurial spirit kind of got instilled and ingrained in him. My dad’s father, even while being a doctor, was always on the lookout for different businesses to get into. They’re crazy, but at the end of the day, if they weren’t crazy, we wouldn’t exist”.
Peter’s dad and his cousins started homebrewing in the early 90’s, and shortly before that had started drinking imports that proved better than the mainstream beer more widely available at the time. Peter remembers being a kid and smelling hops around the house, and seeing his dad brew on the stove. At the time, Peter’s dad and Uncle John worked in corporate sales, while his Uncle Harry was an accountant; but for all their success, they held onto this unrelenting inclination, an inherited dream, to open a restaurant. When the concept of micro breweries and brewpubs came along, “brewing their own beer and then selling it at a restaurant” was a no brainer.
“After that, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale was a huge influence on them, in terms of what flavour could be. That beer was probably the most influential beer in America, and the story behind it was just incredible; Ken Grossman had the idea for a beer flavour in his head, but the ingredients he’d need to make it, didn’t even exist yet. Eventually he fell upon the cascade hop, which is now characteristic of one of the most popular American styles, and from there people realised hops can have citrus and pine flavours!”. The romantic in me is infatuated with the idea that one brewery’s story could ignite and inspire a bunch of homebrewers to such an extent that they pursue the establishment of their own.
Peter was never asked to take on the responsibility he now holds, but growing up alongside a flourishing business, and around the ingredients that produced different beer styles, he organically developed a fascination with both beer and business. He also says he’s really enjoyed meeting all the people that work for Sly Fox; the original GM at their first location still works there, 26 years later, as does another employee, Corey, who was actually a customer on the first day they opened, decided he wanted to work for the brewery, and is still employed there today. Peter believes, above all else, that how you treat people is important.
And it would seem the strength and longevity of the team is proportional to the success of the brewery. It’s been 10 years since Sly Fox began operating out of the vast site I visit in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. In the brewhouse, I meet 12 fermenters, varying in sizes ranging from 40 barrels (nearly 47 hecs) to 160 barrels (nearly 188 hectolitres), the largest of which are too tall to fit in the brewery and so sit in a neat row, just outside it, across from towering grain silos that are also connected to the speciality malt and mill room through pipes and chutes.
The brewery is highly automated, and calibrated to be as efficient as possible because it has to be. For such a big operation, the brew team comprises just ten people - “relying on machinery helps us be precise, and make consistent beer, but also helps us be safe and takes a lot of the heavy lifting out of the work”, says Peter. “We’ve always made a point to invest in really good technology, and when you consider a brewery our size in comparison to what we invest in to improve brewing and air quality, we’re not very large”.
Sly Fox specialises in lagers, pilsners, and other light beers that Peter is keenly aware need careful eyes to execute; “with some beers, you can use ingredients to mask a mistake, but that’s not the case with the products we brew. I’ve thought about this a lot the last couple of years, and still often consider what the defining characteristics of the beer we make are. All of our beers are finished very clean, and are very easy to drink, regardless of size. Whether you’re having a stout, a hazy IPA or a pils, they all finish with this sort of signature clean.”
Peter chalks this down to the brewery’s yeast and fermentation management, which is somewhere between straightforward and very advanced. The fully fitted inhouse lab monitors microbes and the behaviour of in-house yeast very carefully, but for the time being, they don’t have a propagation lab just yet. All this really means is that the team have to manage and observe the yeast more closely than they would if it could propagate to always be on hand, in plentiful supply, and in possession of the exact characteristics desired at the moment it’s added to the tank. With yeast contamination being more of a risk here, the brewery doesn’t run any sour programmes that might generate a yeast that, if airborne, would infect their main supply. Peter says they’ll kettle sour on occasion, but that’s about it.
I ask Peter if Sly Fox’s clean, crisp and light signature has always been part of the brewery’s vision, or if its style has changed with the times - it has, after all, been on the go for over a quarter century. He tells me that as it happens, some of Sly Fox’s earliest master brewers specialised in the German styles characteristic of the brand today, but Peter also suggests that with the weight of German influence on so many aspects of Pennsylvania’s history and culture, the brewery is comfortable embracing all it has inherited from its home state. “We’re not interested in going national, or anything like that,” says Peter, “we know our bread is buttered in Pennsylvania. This is such a great beer drinking state, and there are lots of reasons for that”. What better an homage to history, than to live in its aspirations, and cater to its tastes?
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