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The Hidden Brewery Redefining American Lambic

Philadelphia’s Fermentery Form is quietly making some of the country’s most idiosyncratic sour beers.

The only reason one might want to take a nighttime walk down the strip of cracked concrete, which leads to the dead-end alley off Palethorp Street in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood, is to examine a dim green light mounted above a set of handsome double wooden doors. No sign indicates what might await on the other side—only a painted-on vertical inscription reading, “F O R M 1 7 0 0.” Inside, three former homebrewers have transformed the 1,400-square-foot industrial space into Fermentery Form, an idiosyncratic shrine dedicated to making the beers they love—namely Belgian-style mixed fermentation and farmhouse ales. It’s a surprising spot for one of the most exciting and peculiar new breweries in America.

The trio behind Fermentery Form are Ethan Tripp, Scott Hatch and Matt Stone, friends of nearly 25 years who met while playing in punk rock bands in Philly’s underground music scene in the 1990s. They began homebrewing together about a decade ago, and decided to go professional last year, cobbling together and outfitting a space on the cheap to avoid taking on investors and potentially losing some creative control.

The raw space is decked out with artifacts and brewery memorabilia hinting at Fermentery Form’s primary inspirations: old wooden church pews one might find in, say, a monastery; empty Duvel and Allagash crates; and bottle after drained bottle of gueuze and lambic from Pajottenland producers like 3 Fonteinen, Brouwerij Boon, Cantillon and Oud Beersel. On a recent weekday night, as a small crowd gathered around Fermentery Form’s wooden bar with stemmed glassware in hand, the cozy, dim space reminded me more of Philly’s storied Monk’s Café than any new-fangled brewery I’ve visited.

In fact, Fermentery Form seems cut from a different cloth than most American breweries; it has more in common with esoteric European breweries like Brasserie Thiriez or Fantôme than anyone stateside. Unlike those breweries, however, one thing you won’t find inside Fermentery Form is an actual brewhouse for making beer.

“We’re following a model we saw outlined by [Colorado’s] Casey Brewing and Blending,” says Tripp, the head blender and only full-time Fermentery Form employee. (Hatch and Stone still maintain day jobs as a record label owner and operations manager at an audio-visual company, respectively.) “Basically, we decided to get a storehouse, partner with another brewery, have them make our recipes, and just grow it from there.”

Tripp works with nearby Saint Benjamin Brewing Company to create wort (unfermented beer) based on his own recipes. After the wort is made, he trucks it five blocks in a U-Haul back to Fermentery Form where it ferments for several weeks. After the initial fermentation, the beer follows one of Fermentery Form’s two tracks. One is a short-term aging loosely based on farmhouse ales; on this track, the beer is fermented in stainless steel tanks with oak staves, “not necessarily for woodiness,” says Tripp, “but to move microbes around. It’s a weird superstitious thing that I have.” Those fermentations last anywhere from three to six weeks after which the beer is bottled and conditioned for another six weeks before its release.

The second track produces Fermentery Form’s lambic-inspired beers. Towering near the center of the brewery are two pyramidal stacks of barrels, four-high, containing the same base recipe beer at different ages. The solera-like set up allows Tripp to blend beer for complex, nuanced character. “We stick to certain guidelines about blending, but I still reserve the right to take from any barrel,” he says. “It’s not all coming from the solera [the bottom, or most mature, row] because it’s all about creating balance and drinkability.”

A Look Inside Fermentery Form

Though the result is what Tripp calls “lambic-inspired,” he takes some major departures from how lambic is produced in Belgium when formulating his own beers. “We don’t do a turbid mash,” he says, referring to the traditional first step of lambic production in Belgium, “and we do not spontaneously inoculate.” Instead, the wort is pitched with a house mixed culture that Tripp has been propagating for nearly a decade now. “I was a pretty ambitious homebrewer and we’ve had multiple wine barrels going in multiple locations for several years,” he says, explaining how a year-old brewery has a decade-old culture.

“One of the nice things about making lambic-inspired beers, and not actual lambic, is that we don’t have to adhere to any of the supposed rules of making those styles,” says Tripp. “No one is looking over our shoulder calling this is ‘fake lambic’—it just doesn’t matter.”

Still, the results are nearly as complex as any lambic I’ve tasted. They hit all the right musty, funky and mineral-y notes while maintaining balance and drinkability that’s often lost in American attempts at the style. Tripp says his appreciation for approachability came from homebrewing some of the tartest, most sour beers possible and then pulling back and rediscovering classic beers like La Chouffe and even Duvel.

On a Fermentery Form bottle, which are made using exclusively green glass—“we like a little skunkiness,” says Tripp—you’re more likely to see something like “Barrel-aged Golden Ale” than any Dutch or Flemish words. And Tripp, a former graphic designer who creates the labels for all of his own beers, says he shuns any tasting notes or further explanations on the label. “I’m not into being very descriptive,” he says. “I feel like if people want to know, they can find out by talking to us. And if they pick it up at random and are curious, that’s fine. But if they don’t understand, then it’s probably not for them.”

Five Fermentery Form Beers To Try

Each of Fermentery Form’s beers is released just once a year on a rotating schedule. Most are available in bottles and on draft from the brewery and at a limited number of bars, bottle shops and restaurants in Philadelphia. Typically, two to three beers are available on draft in the tasting room as well a half a dozen or so bottles to stay or go.

Form to Table | 3.5 percent ABV
Fermentery Form’s flagship-esque table beer is a taut but nuanced bone-dry crusher with a delicate, lively body and a heady bouquet, which Tripp describes as smelling like “autumn leaf funk, lemon and lychee.”

Gestalt #8 | 5 percent ABV
One in a series of rotating dry-hopped farmhouse ales, this current iteration features floral Falconer’s Flight hop which lends big aromatics of tropical fruit, lemon and grapefruit to a supremely dry, refreshing base.

Formation | 5 percent ABV
This blend of beer aged via the solera method is inspired by the lambic traditions of Belgium’s Pajottenland and hits many of the same notes, with its bright acidity and oscillating funk and earthiness.

Pure Phase | 5 percent ABV
A collaboration with Philly’s Crime & Punishment Brewing Co., this hazy IPA-inspired farmhouse ale is dry-hopped with a new strain of Alsatian hops called Barbe Rouge, which give off big red fruit aromas of strawberry and cherry.

Formhouse | 6.5 percent ABV
This seemingly straightforward beer delivers on all the hopes and dreams beer geeks had for mid- to late-aughts American farmhouse ales that were summarily flushed away by a tide of sterile six-pack saisons. Dry and bitter with a pleasant acidity, it has big notes of lemon and dried orchard fruit.

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