Tom Baker of Earth Bread + Brewery

Going Pro by | Mar 2011 | Issue #50

Tom Baker toils in the backyard of giants like Victory and Tröegs. Those guys know how to use their hops. And Baker is more than happy to let them do that work for him. At his environmentally conscious Philadelphia brewpub, Earth Bread + Brewery, guest taps outnumber Baker’s own beers by nearly two to one. That way, customers looking for an American IPA can drink somebody else’s, and Baker’s taps are free for his more unusual and experimental beers. “It sounds like a crappy business model,” he says. “Some of these beers aren’t going to sell as quickly, but I’m entirely fine with it.”

1. Feed creativity
Tom Baker always liked beer, but in the beginning, he never thought about brewing his own—even after he got a homebrew kit as a Christmas gift one year. It wasn’t until the following summer that he finally cracked that kit open and brewed his first batch. And then his second, and his third. He was looking for a way to escape his job as a computer programmer, and beer was it. “When it gets really mundane, you lose why you got into it,” Baker says. “Brewing has a lot of that creativity I was longing for.”

2. Learn from mistakes before making them
Baker took a four-month crash course at the American Brewers Guild, and then he fibbed his way into a head brewer’s job at a New York brewpub. The job gave him experience, but the pub’s business plan wasn’t solid, and it folded. A couple more short-lived brewpub stints followed. Better was a consultancy gig, traveling the country, and helping new pub owners install and learn their systems. “It was a lot of fun. I got to travel, and I got to see a lot of problems, and ultimately help [people] do [their] own thing.”

3. Do something different
At the time, in the mid-to-late ’90s, pub brewing wasn’t a satisfying outlet for Baker. “You had to do a lot of cookie cutters,” he says. “I saw that to do something different, I had to be my own boss.” So in 1999, Baker opened Heavyweight Brewing, a tiny operation in New Jersey. Beer drinkers tend to remember Heavyweight’s visionary big beers, Baker says, but he never set out to be an extreme brewer; instead, he wanted to put his own spin on European styles. Riffs on Baltic Porters, for example, were envelope pushing because the style barely existed on the East Coast.

4. Know when to fold ’em
Baker closed Heavyweight in 2006, rather than compromise the brewery’s vision. “Ultimately, we had to grow or close,” Baker says, “and I decided I didn’t want to change what it was—a place that could make whatever we wanted. Production is all about volume, and without volume, we were never going to make enough money to justify keeping it open. It made sense to shut down. We’d had a good run, and I was losing my way with it.”

5. Keep the spark
Immediately after shutting Heavyweight down, Baker began researching the business plan for his current operation, Earth Bread + Brewery, which opened in 2008. “At my heart, I’m a pub brewer,” he says. The craft beer market had flipped upside down since 1999: Pubs had become the industry’s primary outlets for experimentation. “Making whatever we want makes coming into the brewery interesting and exciting. We never lose that spark.” He settled on Philadelphia because the city had always devoured his Heavyweight brews—he’d shipped as much to the city as he did to the whole of New Jersey.

6. Welcome all comers
Earth Bread + Brewery operates as much as a neighborhood restaurant as it does a destination brewery. Baker had no restaurant experience, so he wanted to keep his pub’s menu simple. He got inspired by the success his friend, Paul Sayler, was having at American Flatbread and its in-house brewery, Zero Gravity, in Burlington, Vt. “It’s a simple concept, it’s appealing and it’s kid friendly,” Baker says. “Like beer, flatbread pizza has a simple recipe, simple ingredients, and it’s something you can get good at doing if you focus on it.”

7. Experiment every day
Earth Bread + Brewery’s little seven-barrel system has pumped out 88 different recipes since its opening. Baker hasn’t repeated one yet, and he doesn’t plan to. He’d rather have fun and brew something new. “Beer is beer,” he reasons. “It’s just trying to have fun with it.” When we spoke, Baker had a Rye Alt on tap, and he’d just brewed a pale-colored ale brewed with 25 percent oats and 5 pounds of Cheerios. “The thing I took away from Heavyweight is, don’t let it be a burden to go into the brewery. That doesn’t happen anymore.”

8. Add something new
Baker isn’t much of a hophead. He prefers to build his recipes around their malt bills. He mainly stocks German and English hops, varieties that contribute earthier flavors that complement complex malt flavors. He likes playing with Gruits because they are, by definition, malt monsters. Even then, he pushes the style in unexpected directions. He has done a version that’s a play on a Porter, and he has played with unusual additions, like ground ivy and tea. “Hops are on this Earth because they go so well with beer, so nothing against hops, but these herbs are incredible in beer,” he says.

9. Hide nothing
At Heavyweight, Baker brewed big beers because he could get unique flavors out of them. He approaches recipe development differently now that his customers have to drive home after a couple pints. “It’s a cool challenge, trying to make those 4 percent beers with all the flavor of an 8 percent beer.” The key is process. He’ll coax more residual sugars out of his mash, driving down yeast attenuation while building up the beer’s body. “The problem with taking a regular recipe and just using less is, you end up with a a 3.5 percent beer that tastes like nothing. Lighter beers are much harder to make. There’s less room for error. If you’re making a Mild and you mess up, you’re going to notice it.” 

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