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Iron Hill Brewery makes jump to retail stores

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After 24 years of serving beer exclusively in its restaurants, Iron Hill Brewery released five styles of beer for retail sale in November. Delaware was the first state it launched retail sales. | PHOTO COURTESY IRON HILL BREWERY & RESTAURANT

WILMINGTON — After blazing the trail for Delaware craft breweries, Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant has finally tapped into the one market it has yet to reach: retail stores.

In November, Iron Hill Brewery and N.K.S. Distributors partnered up to roll out Iron Hill’s award-winning beer to liquor stores across Delaware. Another deal with Penn Beer Sales & Service will stock the shelves in Pennsylvania stores in late November, and there will be plans to hit retail locations in New Jersey next.

Four-packs of 16-ounce cans include year-round styles like Sweet Leaf IPA, Hipster IPA, Philly Phavorite IPA, as well as rotating and seasonal styles like Kryptonite Double IPA and Reindeer’s Revenge. Prices start at about $11.99, but may vary by location and type.

“This is way more convenient to bring that local beer home, compared to driving up to Iron Hill on Main Street Newark to see if there’s cans in stock,” Mark Edelson, co-founder and director of brewery operations for Iron Hill, told Delaware Business Times. “This is a point of pride for not only the retailers, but for us.”

Launched in 1996, co-founders Edelson, Kevin Finn and Kevin Davies started the Iron Hill brand in downtown Newark at a time when craft beer was starting to emerge in the mainstream market. After earning $3 million in the first year of business, Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant flourished across the East Coast, with 17 locations in Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and South Carolina.

While the Iron Hill brand is rooted in the hospitality experience and has only sold canned beer in restaurants, Edelson said that watching the market shift over the past year sparked the desire to diversify its revenue. The COVID-19 pandemic only supercharged that decision, with each location seeing about 50% to 55% of revenues compared to 2019, depending on restrictions on each state.

“We were tripling cans out the door. We traditionally don’t sell a lot of cans, so it was pretty significant,” he said. “We’ve been watching the marketplace for the past 25 years and it gets pretty crowded. But COVID has really made sales explode, and it really showed the need to diversify.”

In the two weeks after the fall launch, Iron Hill hit roughly 100 liquor stores in Delaware, and Edelson credits the strong team at N.K.S. Distributors for getting it out to the market fast.

“We’re pretty impressed with N.K.S. and how professionally they run their operations. Clearly, they brought a lot to the table,” he said. “I’ll also say this: their excitement was pretty high, and that was pretty important to us. As someone who’s been around for 25 years, we put a value on our partnerships, and it’s got to be a two-way street.”

N.K.S. Distributors sells 4.5 million cases of beer on an annual basis, ranging from national, regional, and local brands, and is the sole Delaware distributor for Anheuser-Busch. But for N.K.S. Distributors President and Chief Operating Officer Paul Ruggiero, it was a point of pride to be able to get Iron Hill beer in stores.

“We’re so excited and thrilled by this. It’s a great American beer and right out of the gate, it’s already got a great legacy to it, compared to newer brands that you have to introduce to the market,” he said. “Iron Hill has a strong pedigree, and it’s a slam dunk. What we’ll really see is the reorders in the next couple of weeks to see how well it’s doing out there.”

None of N.K.S. Distributor’s involvement would be possible without John Leyh, the company’s brand manager of craft beer. Ruggerio credits Leyh with making the deal possible through his inroads in the beer community and helping build a case for N.K.S.

Ruggerio also credits a smaller detail with helping this latest deal along: his company members meeting Iron Hill representatives while wearing N.K.S.-branded shirts.

“To them, that showed that we believe in our brand and what it stands for,” he said. “The name has a value, just like Iron Hill does. To be the distributor for Iron Hill, it means that we’re a trusted partner in this business.”

Before the pandemic, Iron Hill Brewery was planning to open its next location in Exton, Pa., as its first full-scale production facility with an eventual eye for expansion. With the Exton facility still on track to open in December, Edeleson said it’s a natural fit to start offering Iron Hill beer in markets it’s already considered local.

“We started in Delaware, and we wanted to launch our beer in Delaware, because it’s important to us to keep true to our roots,” he said. “We need to take it one step at a time before we talk about going bigger, and get the brewery up and running first before ramping up production.”

By Katie Tabeling

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