by Alaina Mabaso
On the corner of Emlen Street and West Mt. Pleasant Avenue, a brand-new folding sign on the sidewalk announces, in preparation for Father’s Day, that dads like beer better than ties.
Inside Malt House Ltd., Mt. Airy’s newest corner store, you can still smell the paint. Founder and owner Scott Wikander, 40, who has just opened the neighborhood’s first home-brewers’ supply store, lives five blocks away. It’s a good thing the commute is so short, since Malt House Ltd is open seven days a week and so far, Wikander is the only employee.
“I’m the cashier, the janitor, the marketer,” he laughs. “I’m doing the ordering, and I’m stocking the shelves.”
Wikander, a 20-year veteran of the TV industry, had a full-time job just two months ago.
Over the years, his work for Channel 57 involved audio, production and video-editing. “I could spend a year researching this, or I could just jump in and do it,” he thought of starting his store. “The only way I can really learn is by doing.”
Wikander’s interest in beer began when he was a teenager, growing up in New Jersey. He studied German in high school and took a class trip to Germany. The travelers had to give a special permission slip to Mom and Dad – would they be permitted to drink during the trip, as their age would let them imbibe legally in Germany?
His parents signed it, but Wikander didn’t go to Germany planning to drink any beer.
“I thought beer was gross,” he said. He had only ever sampled America’s cheap, mass-produced beverages. But once the class arrived for dinner at their first German tavern, he decided he would try just one beer, to say that he had done it, and ordered the local house brew.
It was delicious.
“It was nothing like what I thought beer tasted like,” he says. He sampled a new beer in every town, and his appreciation grew.
Years later, his interest in gourmet beer led him to consider home-brewing, but he found the prospect intimidating. Brewing seemed like “a hard, complex thing” with its own highly technical language. But when a friend offered him some used equipment, he decided to take the plunge.
“I was shocked at how simple it was,” he says of completing his first five-gallon batch. He began brewing a new batch every few weeks, experimenting with different varieties. He soon noticed it was hard to get the ingredients he needed, like specialty malt and hops. He found himself battling downtown traffic, or driving 40 minutes into the suburbs, to reach home brewers’ supply stores. Since their hours mirrored his own working hours, he was lucky to be able to run in five minutes before closing.
He began to think how nice it would be to have a brewing shop in northwest Philadelphia with accessible hours, but the idea didn’t go further until and he and some fellow members of the Wissahickon Brewers Guild manned a demonstration table at last year’s Mt. Airy Village Fair.
All day, locals were full of questions about home-brewing and where to get the supplies. “That really triggered it in my head,” he says. “When I decide something, I jump right in. I love the Mt. Airy community, and I wanted to open a business here.”
He was ready for a career change. In February, he found the location for his store, and he quit his job in March. Friends, family and members of the Northwest’s enthusiastic brewing community helped him to prepare the rented space.
Since his official opening on May 5, “the response has been really positive,” he says.
The finished shop, with its wood flooring, custom-made wooden tables and shelves from real wine barrels which still bear their purple stain, is home-like and inviting. In addition to carrying a wide variety of ingredients, including yeasts, hops, a range of malts and sweeteners from corn sugar to orange blossom honey, Wikander offers a range of equipment, from testing and sterilizing needs to beakers, pots, bottle-caps and oak-aging barrels.
Other more whimsical products include a collection of vintage decorated German beer steins and dog collars made with recycled bike tires from a small Oregon-based company. Wikander carries the latter because they have a built-in bottle opener.
Today, contrary to some brewing enthusiasts, he appreciates beer more as a culinary art than a feat of chemistry or engineering. He enjoys the recent “explosion” of craft beer in America, with Philadelphia leading the way.
“Even the diviest of dive bars in Philadelphia has a good beer selection,” he says, something that can’t be taken for granted in other cities. “Not only do they have all these beers, people are drinking them.
“There’s good beer out there,” he says of shaking the frat-boy stigma of drinking beer, versus the respect that wine-drinkers enjoy. “You sip it, you don’t shot-gun it.”
Education is an important part of Wikander’s mission; he has just launched the Mt. Airy Learning Tree’s first home-brewing class, with enrollment available for sessions coming up in June. Locals can also catch him at upcoming Philly Beer Week festivities, offering a demonstration at the Trolley Car Diner’s Beer-BQ event from 2-5 p.m. on June 9.
“People used to call me a beer snob, but now everybody’s doing it,” he says of the rise of beer connoisseurs. “Why drink cheap bad beer when you could drink good, well-made beer?” Especially when you can invent your own.
For more information, visit www.malthouseltd.com or call 215-242-1700.