Volunteer Brewing grows up
Apr 01, 2019 12:11PM
● By J. Chambless
Kevin and Dawn Schatz outside for former garage that holds Volunteer Brewing.
By John Chambless
Take one step inside Volunteer Brewing and you’ve seen the whole operation – all 500 square feet of it. Work your way through the boisterous, shoulder-to-shoulder crowd on most weekends, and behind the bar will be Kevin and Dawn Schatz, who own and run the Middletown business that puts the micro in microbrewery.
But that is about to change. This spring, demo and renovations will begin at a two-story home next door that will expand Volunteer’s space by about 500 percent, uniting the two back yards into an outdoor playground for beer lovers, and providing critical indoor space for those days when the weather is rainy or cold.
Not that the weather has stopped anyone so far. People find their way to the former garage behind 120 W. Main St., even though no sign indicates it’s there. They’re drawn by the beer – an exceptional range of varieties – by the food trucks providing constantly changing cuisine, and by the backyard party atmosphere. But in the coming year, Volunteer will have a front porch overlooking Main Street, a proper sign and a whole new connection to the community.
As for Kevin and Dawn, “We’re perhaps a little beyond our comfort zone,” Kevin said wryly in late February as he contemplated the financial plunge he has taken, as well as the construction work ahead of him. But both he and Dawn were smiling.
All of this started in 2011 with a Christmas gift. “He loved the craft beer scene,” Dawn said, so she bought Kevin a home brewing kit. “I started with extract, which is the easiest way to do it,” Kevin said. “It was fun, but it stunk up whole house.”
Those first batches went well, and friends and family were impressed, Kevin said. In 2012, he bought real equipment and started producing beers in batches of 10 to 15 gallons. To get the operation out of their Middletown home, they started looking for spaces to rent. With a 2-year-old and a 5-year-old at home, they wanted to start the kind of place where their friends could come for a night out and some good beer.
“We thought, ‘The town is growing, so why are there no breweries in Middletown?’” Dawn said. As a wellness practitioner, she found a home on West Main Street to expand her business, Wellbeing on Main, and behind it was a wood frame garage. It was, they both admitted, nothing fancy.
Month after month, Kevin rehabilitated the space into a functioning brewery. Now with three young children, the Schatz family had little time for brewing, but they managed to open the tiny space a few times, drawing an ever-growing crowd.
In 2016, they participated in the first Grapes and Grains Festival in Middletown, supplying their beer with no actual place for people to visit them. By 2017, they made their debut at the Middletown Peach Festival, offering a cream, and a peach cream beer that sold out in the first hour and a half. Volunteer Brewing was on the map, but had to close for a month and a half for more brewing, leaving customers wondering.
But about that name. “We wanted the brewery to be part of the community,” Kevin said. “I thought that if we named it Volunteer, we were going to have to make sure that everything we do is giving back, and being involved in non-profits. We put events out to our community and say, ‘Please pitch in, and afterward you can come over here and we’ll give you a beer.’”
“The idea was to incentivize volunteering,” Dawn said. “When we were brainstorming the name, we thought, ‘What word do you associate with giving back?’ We just kept coming back to Volunteer. We thought it would be cool to organize and sponsor volunteer events, and then afterward offer a free beer."
Since debuting, Volunteer’s army of devotees has contributed to Habitat for Humanity ReStore, Warriors Helping Warriors, Neighborhood House, the United Way, Relay for Life, and several other organizations. When Volunteer sells one of their Dead Poets Society IPAs, 10 percent of the proceeds benefit the Everett Theatre. All this good work in the community came from what is officially Delaware’s smallest brewery. Dogfish Head, of course, is the largest.
Volunteer is still just Kevin and Dawn, with a couple of servers when the business is open. They are volunteers, of course. Kevin works full-time in the field of healthcare insurance operations, and Dawn is busy with her own counseling practice, so Volunteer is open one day a week, giving Kevin time to brew at night twice a week. All the recipes are original.
“When we opened, we didn’t figure people would come here to drink,” Dawn said. “We thought it would be people grabbing their beer and going. That was one of the big surprises when we opened. People actually came and hung out here. People said it was cozy and intimate, and really different.” So live music, space heaters, yard games and seating were added.
“We have tanks that can do 50 or 60 gallons now,” Kevin said. So when a beer you love is announced, you had better get to Middletown quickly, because it may not ever return. The customers who are regulars are on a first-name basis with the owners, and proved their loyalty when Kevin offered stainless steel growlers that were numbered.
“It’s like Delawareans and license plates,” Dawn said, smiling. “When Kevin announced there would be a limited number of these growlers, there was a line of about 15 people by the time we opened.” The first 118 sold out, leading to an expanded run for a total of 130. Kevin still has the 000 numbered mug on display, but he’s a little concerned about it walking away with some rabid Volunteer fan.
The burgeoning craft beer scene in Delaware is expanding with a new Crooked Hammock location opening soon in Middletown, and First State Brewing Company coming to a location on Patriot Drive. The society of brewers is a friendly one, Kevin said, and Volunteer is regularly represented at beer competitions in the region. Beer makers support one another, since more beer equals better business for everyone. And towns such as Middletown can reap the benefits of all those extra visitors.
“We always tell people who come here to go see the downtown,” Kevin said. “People come to town and they stick around.” There is a vague plan to brew a beer in conjunction with Stumpy’s, the new hatchet-throwing business that just opened in Middletown.
For now, the Volunteer location lacks a dishwasher, so all beer glasses are taken home by Kevin and Dawn for cleaning. The cans and other supplies are stashed in every available space in their Middletown home, and in a storage unit. “This is like the infancy of the brewery,” Dawn said. “I think someday we’ll look back and say, ‘Remember how we used to wash the glasses at home?’”
The home next door at 116 W. Main that will be Volunteer’s new home belonged to Jack and Tammy Pickett, who supported the business from its earliest days. They have moved to Smyrna, and offered to sell the home to Kevin, allowing Volunteer to grow. Once renovations are complete, the original Volunteer garage space will be devoted to brewing, not holding customers, and visitors can wander between the two adjacent yards.
The new outdoor space, opening this spring, will have a fire pit, more space for bands, and eventually a second floor for use by local groups and charities, a rear rooftop deck, the porch overlooking Main Street, and an indoor seating area where customers can enjoy beer without frostbite or heatstroke, depending on the season. There will be space for a wider variety of food trucks as well.
But even with the expansion and adding full-time staff, Kevin said canning or bottling for wider distribution is not in the cards. “It would be nice to be in some local restaurants,” Kevin said, “But I don’t want to distribute. We don’t know where that would end up.”
Besides, if Volunteer gets too big, he would miss the camaraderie. When huge sacks of malted grain arrived recently from Laurel, Del., Volunteer customers stepped up to haul the bags inside and stack them up. That’s the kind of customer contact that would be lost in a bigger operation.
“You should be able to come here and enjoy the beer and the experience, but not outside of that,” Kevin said. “The idea is to try to keep low overhead so we don’t have to get to the point of relying on distribution. It should be all about Middletown.”
“It’s like family here. Like ‘Cheers,” Dawn said. “We never want to lose that.”
You can track the progress of renovations at Volunteer at www.VolunteerBrewing.com, or call 302-464-0822 for more information.
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email firstname.lastname@example.org.