Iron Tug Brewing has an unassuming physical location. If my friend and I had blinked, we might have driven by it entirely. It feels like a small beer hall or public meeting place inside the colored brick building — in fact, the space was formerly a firehouse, and looking up at the ceiling, I could see where the fireman's pole once was. Photographs of tug boats line the interior wall as a kind of informal art gallery, and the white brick of the opposite wall is unadorned.
These details were telling when it came to the ethos of Iron Tug Brewing: this is a no-frills microbrewery that focuses on the simple craft behind its beer.
Iron Tug Brewing opened on August 6, but brewing is by no means a new endeavor for owner Keith Owens. He's been at it for five years with an "intense" affinity for brewing, he says. But Owens does more than run his own business. He's also a Merchant Marine Officer who works on a tugboat in Philadelphia as second mate three weeks at a time.
"That can kind of speak for how truly passionate my brother is," says Kurt Owens, who takes care of Iron Tug while Keith is away. "Opening this isn't something, by any means, he needed to do. He wasn't backed into a corner, like 'I need to make some moves.' It was purely passion."
At the time of my visit, there were only five beers on tap. But that was enough. As Iron Tug's strongest offering, the pumpkin-style beer broke the mold: this was a beer you could enjoy long after Halloween. All of the focus was on the spices — cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg — along with subtle pumpkin notes. The balance between slight hoppiness and smooth maltiness was spot-on, and at 6.3 percent alcohol by volume, it was somewhere between a session beer and a boozy treat. I tried all the beers on tap in 5-ounce samples, but the pumpkin beer was the one I returned to for a full pint.
American IPAs often succumb to a bitter, over-hopped aftertaste that assaults the palate. Thankfully, Iron Tug Brewing's IPA didn't have that problem. There was the expected scent and taste of citrus and hops, but the usual IPA hoppiness quickly dissolved into smoothness. And at 8.3 percent ABV, it was delicious enough to be dangerous.
"It's almost like it's science, where your technique at it really plays out a huge deal," Keith Owens says. This especially makes sense when you consider that Iron Tug's signature beer is its Irish stout, an American take on the original Guinness stout in Dublin, which isn't at all like the version of Guinness served here in the United States.
The difference in a Dublin Guinness and an Iron Tug Irish stout is all about the use of nitrogen in the brewing process, as opposed to using carbon dioxide. Using nitro produces a smoother and creamier taste — more like a milkshake and less like a typical carbonated beer.
Iron Tug's stout is a manageable 5 percent ABV. Those expecting a stout with hints of coffee won't find them; instead its silken, milky quality has prominent notes of chocolate.
"I love stouts and I wanted to create something that's unique to me," Keith says. "So it's more about the feeling of having that local beer that I love."
Iron Tug also has new beers on the horizon, such as a New England-style IPA that combines the signature characteristics of an IPA with a balanced, understated sweetness.
There are other plans for expansion at the brewery's location that go beyond the beer itself. Keith hopes to add wine to the menu plus four more beer taps in the future. His mother, Margaret, will eventually prepare personal pizzas (plans for installing the oven are in the works) in addition to the food that's already available — salted peanuts and bar specials, like three-bean chili, tacos, and mac-and-cheese.