The booming beer sceneAug 18, 2021 11:28AM ● By Tricia Hoadley
At the end of Patriot Drive in Middletown, with a sweeping view of working farmland, JAKL Beer Works staked its claim in May as a microbrewery for people who know what beers they like, but are willing to expand their horizons.
Andrew Kulp and Justin Lovuolo are more than just the co-owners of JAKL. They’re the management, brew master, promotional staff, cleanup crew and waitstaff. Just the two of them, with an occasional assist from family members when things get busy.
And the crowds have found JAKL in recent months, driving the two minutes from the huge flagship First State Brewing to the little guys at the end of the road. Word is getting out that JAKL is a laid-back place where customers can chat with the entire staff – both of them – while kids enjoy the large play area on the lawn or sip a juice box or two of their own.
Kulp and Lovuolo are longtime friends who grew up in Nazareth, Pa. After college, Kulp pursued a career as a nuclear engineer for about four years, but found that the job was more deskwork and less hands-on than he expected. “At one point, I was 28 and figured I hadn’t really done anything,” Kulp said. “My wife and I were living in Roanoke and had done some home brewing, which I enjoyed because there’s a technical nature to it, there’s a science part to it, and there’s a hands-on nature to it.”
Kulp toyed with the idea of becoming a professional brewer, but realized the financial risks. Fate took a hand when he was laid off, so he landed a job at Big Lick Brewing Company in Roanoke, learning the business from the inside out.
But the couple had a six-month-old child, so their time was limited. Kulp’s wife’s family is from Havre de Grace, so there was an early plan to open a microbrewery in quaint Chestertown, Md., “but I needed a partner,” Kulp said.
Kulp happened to meet Lovuolo at a small brewery near their home town. After high school, Lovuolo had become an astronautical engineer for the Air Force, but had recently separated and ended up back home. “So when he asked me to be his partner, I laughed at him at first,” Lovuolo said. “I told him I know how to drink beer, not make it. I thought he was crazy, but now, here we are.”
What Lovuolo offered was managerial skills and a shared love of beer. And they were both officially unemployed. The Chestertown deal eventually fell through, but the idea had been hatched. Then, in March 2020, Covid-19 shut down the world.
With dogged optimism, the two kept going, finding the Middletown space – a former dog kennel and onetime auto body shop – in May 2020. They took ownership in June, and then the real work began. Lovuolo had experience in construction and contracting, and he and Kulp “did about 90 percent of the work” in turning the bare concrete and metal space into a brewery.
The name JAKL is a blend of the two men’s initials, and that led to their mascot, the jackal seen on their T-shirts and merchandise.
While the beer scene in Middletown has exploded in the past year, there’s no sign that there can be too many breweries. And it’s not the kind of industry where people are out to sabotage each other. “The beer community is small but very close and accepting,” Lovuolo said. “We ask customers how they heard about us, and I would say half of them tell us the bartender at some local brewery told them to come this way. Not just from Middletown, either. I’ve had people say that places in Wilmington told them about us.”
JAKL is “number 28 or 30” on the list of breweries in Delaware, Lovuolo guessed, and he agreed that more beer means more visitors for everyone. “We know most, if not all, of the local brewers,” he said. “They’ve all been super supportive.”
But the regulations that have to be met when opening a brewery are convoluted, and meeting all the requirements – and doing a lot of the heavy work themselves – meant delays. Banks also became reluctant to help startup businesses in the depths of the pandemic. “By late December or early January, I didn’t know if we were going to make it to opening the doors,” Lovuolo said. “I was really scared we wouldn’t have enough funds.”
But they had come too far to back out, and kept pursuing the goal.
There are some big startup costs in opening a microbrewery. The huge tanks and necessary machinery have to be purchased with a lot of faith that things will work out. With the gradual easing of lockdowns, Kulp and Lovuolo pegged March as their opening date. It turned out to be May 22. With family and friends around them, the pair got going with social media, and word of mouth is spreading.
“We have capacity to do 120 barrels per year here,” Lovuolo said. “That’s with just the two big fermenters. Those are five-barrel tanks. That’s 155 gallons each. But I designed the space so we can eventually have six of those fermenters, along with equipment to support that. At that point, maybe three years from now, we could be doing around 400 barrels a year.” For now, JAKL sells beers by the glass, sells crowlers to go, and will fill growlers for customers.
Kulp is the brew master, so he comes up with which beers will be created and served on JAKL’s 12 taps. The two discuss what to add and who to target next.
“We try to have something for everyone,” Kulp said. “Our Cack-a-lacky Cream Ale is a light-drinking, crisp beer that you can drink on a sunny summer day.” That is, the kind of light and refreshing beer that will attract people who commonly drink Bud Light. “But it’s our gateway beer,” Kulp said, laughing. “That’s our goal. They’re pleased with that, and then we reel them in. We always want to have a couple of IPAs on tap.”
For those interested in expanding their palates, there’s a changing lineup of interesting brews. And interesting names, which are the creations of Kulp as well. “I tend to be a bit of a wordsmith,” he said.
There’s Sabrosito (“pretty tasty” in Spanish), a Neipa with notes of citrus; Atavistic Aversion (a resistance to revert to a more primitive form), an IPA with a hint of malt, grapefruit and piney hops; and Fortis Fortuna Adiuvat, (“fortune favors the bold” in Latin), of which the tap menu notes, “We weren’t 100 percent sure what this beer would end up like. To our delight we got a little bit of funk and sourness and a lot of fruity character reminiscent of pineapple.”
The sly wit and the willingness to push the boundaries make JAKL a lot of fun. Lovuolo mentioned that they see dozens of frogs at dusk around the brewery, so there might be a beer name playing off that idea at some point. Why not?
“We like to experiment. Andrew has never had an English mild beer, and neither have I. So he made one,” Lovuolo said. “And we have it on tap now. It’s a very good beer. But that’s the cool thing. We get to try new things because we’re small and agile. And we want to be affordable,” he added. “I want somebody like my dad to come in and enjoy the place.”
“Right now, one of us is here seven days a week,” Lovuolo said. “I’m more focused on the taproom. I’m the sales guy. I call myself co-founder/taproom manager. Andrew is more of the traditional head brewer. Andrew has a 4-year-old. I’m single, I don’t have a family, so he does his stuff during the day and I arrive to be the bartender. He’s the heart and soul of the brewery, and I’m the bookends that keep it together – hence our name, JAKL.”
While the business is finding its feet as a draw for local families, both partners have a big plan for expansion, with the addition of an outdoor stage, covered patio, fire pit and expanded play area someday. With nothing but open fields nearby, the spot is perfect for some nightly concerts. There’s a chance for customers to join the expansion effort, with details posted at the bar, on Facebook and at www.jaklbeerworks.com.