By Christine Facciolo
Special to Delaware Business Times
Craig Wensell was fascinated by the rundown hacienda-style building that stood at the northern edge of Wilmington, a stone’s throw from the city line. Every time he drove past, it tugged at his imagination.
“I don’t’ think there’s anyone who’s driven past that property who hasn’t said something like ‘Man, wouldn’t it be really cool if dot. dot. dot. went in there,” he said. “And for me that was a brewery.”
That site—the old Harper-Thiel Electroplating Co.—is now home to Wilmington Brew Works, which Wensell opened in August. It’s one of two dozen or so breweries operating up and down the state. But Wensell’s operation has the distinction of being the first production brewery to operate in the city of Wilmington since 1954 when Diamond State Brewery closed.
Wensell has also taken the unorthodox—and somewhat risky — decision to locate in the city’s Old Ninth Ward neighborhood, far from go-to night spots of Trolley Square or the revitalized Market Street Corridor.
“My gut feeling is that it doesn’t matter why nobody else is here,” he said. “What matters is we’ve got a really great neighborhood that supports us and we’re adjacent to the Triangle and Brandywine Hills. I see people walking across Haynes Park to the brewery.”
Reinvigorating neglected areas of the city remains a priority of the administration of Mayor Michael S. Purzycki.
“You have to spread the wealth around the city,” said Herb Inden, planning director for the city of Wilmington. “This will help show you can put things up there and it will do well.”
Inden learned home brewing from Wensell when he operated the Bellefonte Brewing Co. and was impressed with his enthusiasm and knowledge. So when city officials heard that he was looking to set up shop in Wilmington, Inden put him in contact with Ralph and Rose Pepe, who purchased the Miller Road property back in 2015.
The 2.5-acre site is a brownfield which was remediated by the Delaware Department of Natural Resources, making it commercially viable. That process included excavating 3,600 tons of contaminated soil and removing about 100 barrels of chemicals dumped during its electroplating days.
That contamination required Ralph Pepe to hire specialized workers and provide on-site monitors to ensure safety. Pepe said he didn’t run into any further contamination while digging to install a new drainage system, but he did hit massive boulders, which needed to be broken up. (The remains have been skillfully incorporated into the landscaping.)
It was that time and effort that discouraged other developers from rehabbing the property. Pepe said the result made it all worthwhile. “It’s a thousand times better than having something vacant,” he said. “I think it’s going to encourage the other businesses to take their buildings to another standard and that’s going to enhance the value of those buildings.”
Mayor Purzycki agrees. “They did a wonderful job on that building,” he said. “What was almost a drain on our economy is just so vibrant. It’s really a credit to that whole part of the city.”
Wensell likes to say that making beer is something that’s programmed into his DNA. “My uncle taught the rest of the family how to do this back in the mid-1980s,” said the 42-year-old Oklahoma native. “I was too young to drink but old enough to stir a brew kettle while the adults played in the pool.”
Wensell has taken a circuitious route back to his roots. He’s been a college music professor, a freelance double bass player and a licensed aircraft mechanic. He also served in Afghanistan as a Blackhawk crew chief. After his tour of duty, he settled into a corporate job in the aircraft industry but chafed under the mounds of paperwork.
Wensell says being a production brewery rather than a brewpub gives him a lot of leeway to ply his trade and develop a unique product. “Brewpubs are tied to their cuisine and they don’t have the space I have to step out of the beer-pairing world and create beers that stand on their own,” he said. “I’m able to create everything from a farmhouse where the focus is on wild brett fermentation in oak barrels to wild fermented American beers.”
Wensell also offers non-alcoholic beverages and gluten-free cider. Patrons can purchase grub from one of the food trucks stationed at the back of the brewery or they can bring their own.
That’s welcome news to Domenico DeCicco, owner of the Hot Spot, a casual Italian eatery in the strip mall adjacent to the brewery. “It’s good that they’re here,” he said. “They’re very friendly. They let me put my menu in the bar.”
Wensell sees the brewery as a work-in-progress. “If you don’t move forward, you move backwards,” he said. “You’re never just standing still.”
An upcoming expansion will double the current output of 500 barrels annually. In three or four years, Wensell would like to see that number increase to somewhere between five and ten thousand barrels per year. Wensell would like to see his product distributed in the neighboring states of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia in addition to Delaware.
Space is now being readied in the 11,000-square-foot main building for the arrival of the Italian pizzeria Café Riviera. Wensell also has plans to set up a cafe and offer light snacks. He’s also looking at acoustic bands to provide live music.
Wensell would like to see more bicyclists pedal in from the nearby Northern Delaware Greenway Trail. He even plans to add to his merchandise line a beer growler that will fit inside a bicycle’s water bottle holder.
Meanwhile, Inden says the city is working with New Castle County to create a bicycle/pedestrian path from an underpass that links the area just beyond the railroad tracks to the brewery.
Wensell also wants to keep up the building’s tradition of discovery. Constructed in 1916 by Francis Irenee du Pont, the building was registered under the name The Delaware Engineering Co. and functioned as an R&D facility.
“That’s the direction our brewery is taking,” said Wensell. “I’m trying to create an atmosphere of experimentation.”