Marking five years of beer and service at Volunteer Brewing CompanyAug 12, 2022 03:01PM ● By Tricia Hoadley
Five years ago, Kevin and Dawn Schatz were scrambling to get their first, precious batches of beer ready for the Middletown Peach Festival. Having gotten state approval for their brand-new business just two days before the festival, they weren’t sure what to expect. But, less than two hours after putting their first two beers on sale, they were sold out. There were sighs of relief, and a realization that Volunteer Brewing was going to succeed.
This year, Volunteer is marking its fifth anniversary with a new home, expanded brewing equipment, and a very different brewing scene in Middletown. Where once Volunteer stood alone in offering innovative craft beers on a very limited scale, today there are four breweries in the immediate area – Crooked Hammock, JAKL and First State Brewing in addition to Volunteer. Middletown is now a destination for beer lovers from Delaware and well beyond.
But it all started with a home-brew kit.
“I’m to blame,” Dawn said, smiling. “I bought him a kit for Christmas. I just thought he’d enjoy it. I had no idea.”
That was 12 years ago. “It was a lot of fun,” Kevin said. “I thought, ‘Maybe I could go a little bigger at home.’ And then I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if there was something like this in Middletown?’ We started looking at locations to rent. Back then, I was doing 10-gallon batches, which was not a lot.”
After considering other garage spaces, the couple eventually found a garage tucked away between Main Street and the firehouse, behind Wellbeing on Main, where there was just enough room to move in some small-batch brewing equipment and maybe a few guests. “We put a mention on social media and I was in the garage, working,” Kevin said. “I was getting all these notifications on my phone, and then some guy came to the door and said, ‘Is this the brewery I saw online?’”
“We’d tell people, ‘Look for us in the alley behind the fire hall,” Dawn said, laughing. Everything had to fit into the building – equipment, taps, a few tables and whoever turned up to sample the new brews. In the early days, Dawn and Kevin knew pretty much everyone who came through their door. Due to the size of the building, conversation was practically mandatory, so discussions were sparked and word of mouth fueled the business.
“What I didn’t know about Kevin when we got married in 2001 was what a great memory he has for people,” Dawn said. “People would come in the door and he would just know their names, he’d know things about them. He has this uncanny ability.”
From the beginning, the emphasis of the business was giving back to the community. It’s reflected in the name, and in the charitable philosophy of the Schatz family. “When we were starting out, we kept saying we wanted this to be community focused, about making connections, giving back,” Dawn said. There have been many tie-ins with local charities, benefits and community events in the last five years. It also helped that patrons could honestly tell their family, “I’m going to Volunteer,” and get no judgment. “People would tell them, ‘Wow! You volunteer a lot! On Friday nights, too!” Dawn added, laughing.
All through the two years of discussions with Middletown officials and the public, and the many hurdles for licensing and the initial opening, “the town has been great,” Kevin said. “They initially weren’t quite sure what to do with breweries. They had never had one, so they didn’t know what it meant for them.”
When Volunteer started, it was basically a one-man operation. Kevin had a day job and brewed at night. Today, there are 15 people on staff, with two brewers. Kevin is now full-time at Volunteer, although he’s not there every day. He and Dawn – who is still a therapist in the building next door to Volunteer – are busy with their three children and all their activities.
After getting up and running, it became clear that the garage limited growth. Kevin sometimes had to move the brewing equipment aside when a batch was finished so he had room for people to come in and sample it. The business needed to grow, but where?
“Six months after we opened, we were contacted by the owner of the house next door,” Kevin said. Jack and Tammy Pickett had lived in their home almost 50 years but were ready to move, and they wondered if Volunteer would be interested in their circa-1830s house, which had a large rear yard and two floors of space.
“Jack is a retired teacher, so when we opened in the garage, he went and got his server’s license, come over and help serve beer with us,” Dawn said. “He helped set the yard up. We have a picture of him and his daughter planting the tree that’s in the back yard now. They were all so supportive.”
In late 2018, Kevin and Dawn bought the home and set about designing their dream facility. There was over a year of gutting the old building while maintaining its original beams and fireplaces. “We were getting close in January 2020, and then Covid hit,” Kevin said. With a large mortgage and no possibility of opening for business, he and Dawn just put their heads down and kept working. After a full year of construction, the new site opened just as Covid restrictions were beginning to ease.
“This is better than we expected,” Kevin said of the inviting yard, which has a large shade tree. There are café tables, benches, a fire pit area, and room for entertainers. Inside, there’s a large bar with sofas and chairs for guests, as well as an upstairs that provides overflow seating and can be rented for special events.
“We wanted to retain the house feel,” Dawn said. “That was part of choosing the materials for the bar area, the white tile. We wanted it to look open and kitchen-like. Not dark, like a bar. We wanted people to come and play games and hang out.” The new space opened last July.
Kevin laughed and promised that there would, at last, be a sign on the front of the building facing Main Street by the time the 2022 Peach Festival arrives. People have simply gotten used to coming around to the back of the building.
Volunteer is still open only on the weekends, but “we want to do more events during the week,” Kevin said, thoughtfully. “We’ve talked about it. Maybe some themed Thursday nights?”
Newly purchased equipment will allow Volunteer to sell three times what they could sell before. “It will go up to maybe 150 barrels. But we’ll ease into it. It’s a big upgrade,” Kevin said. “It’s our last upgrade, I’d say, because we’ve pretty much maxed out the garage space.” The garage will now be used just for brewing, not for patrons.
“We’re still small,” he said. “Brewing takes about the same amount of time to do 50 gallons as it does to brew 150 gallons, so we want to make more of each variety we offer.”
“We started with two taps in the garage, and then gradually worked up to seven,” Dawn said. “Here we have 11 taps, with four upstairs and four outside.”
“We want it to be like hanging out in a friend’s backyard,” Kevin said of the relaxed outdoor space. We’re known for the yard. Kids can run around, there’s a fire pit, nice shade.”
Above all, officially marking five successful years – despite the upheaval of Covid lockdowns and a huge construction project – will be a relief.
Volunteer will have a food truck on site, with a party scheduled after the festival wraps up. “It’s a long day,” Dawn said of the Peach Festival. “But we haven’t had the festival in two years. We’ve got some celebrating to do!”
Slug: Volunteer Brewing
Upcoming events at Volunteer Brewing
Weekly Sunday jam sessions: Musicians of all levels are invited during open hours to bring their instruments and grab a spot in the Taphouse, on the front porch or in the yard to connect with others and jam. No purchase necessary.
Sat. Aug. 20: Opening at 9 a.m. for the Middletown Peach Festival with the Out of the Ordinary Mobile Food Truck. Volunteer Brewing’s 5th birthday celebration from 5 to 10 p.m. with live music from Middle 8, food by Koi on the Go, birthday cake, contests and more.
Sun. Sept. 11: 6 p.m. premiere of "The Canfather,” an independent local film at The Everett Theatre followed by post-screening party at Volunteer Brewing.
Sat. Oct. 1: From 7-11 p.m. a 1990s party. Following the enthusiasm at the summer 1980s party, now they are revisiting 1990s music, fashion and fun.
Sat. Oct. 15: Third annual MOT VOLUNTEER Resource Fair. Come meet representatives from local non-profit organizations and learn about volunteer opportunities.
Sat. Oct. 29: 5th annual "Boos & Brews” event from from 7 to 11 p.m. Halloween costume party and contest with live music by Middle 8.
Sun. Oct. 30: 2nd Annual "Howl-o-ween Paw-ty” from noon to 5 p.m. Dogs and their humans can have some costume fun and enter a costume contest. Opportunities to support local rescue groups and meet adoptable dogs.