Something is brewing in Kensington.
And no, it’s not another squabble over turf or a zoning dispute over some vacant land.
Instead, two longtime customers of Barry’s Homebrew — South Philly’s iconic wine- and beer-making supply shop — took over the business and pulled up roots.
Now, they have placed the new location in the shadows of Kensington’s disappeared breweries along North American Street.
They’re selling nearly double the amount of beer-making equipment than the shop sold when it was located in a compact little corner store at Front Street and Snyder Avenue. That equates to plenty of batches of homemade beer fermenting away in the homes of surrounding neighborhoods, with each brew as distinct as its creator.
Their wine business isn’t hurting, either.
For co-owners Nick Less and Jimmy McMillan, that realization is a fulfilling one.
Protégés of Barry Mulherin, who founded the shop almost 15 years ago, the pair said they took over in part because it would have been too painful to watch the business fold after so many good times.
Today, the former Front Street brew shop is home to a Metro PCS location.
“I had been brewing with Barry for eight years,” said Less, 33. “I didn’t want to see the store close, so Jimmy and I decided to take over.”
He and McMillan, 34, were regulars at the weekly South Philly Ale Makers (SPAM) meeting at the shop, and both ended up working part-time in the home-brew supply store.
“Barry was having some health issues, and I guess he had a few beers, but he basically whispered to us that if anything happened to him, he wanted us to take over the store,” recalled McMillan.
That put the idea in their heads, and when Mulherin decided to sell earlier this year, Less persuaded McMillan to join him in taking over Barry’s.
Like McMillan, Less bought his first home-brewing kit at Barry’s. The hobby turned into a profession on Sept. 27 when the two men opened the new store at 1444 American St.
“My first kit was a German Oktoberfest, and it turned out to be one of the best beers I ever made because I was so nervous making it that I just did everything right,” recalled Less.
Memories like that made it easy for the pair to decide to keep the shop, and its name, alive.
“It’s paying homage to Barry, and we wanted to recognize the tradition behind a store where some customers have been coming for fifteen years,” said Less. “And Barry was my mentor.”
McMillan brewed his first batch of beer when he was just 17, working in a kitchen in North Carolina.
“It was horrible,” recalled the former sous chef.
To him, brewing always has been an extension of the culinary arts.
ldquo;Even that first batch, it wasn’t just some attempt to make hooch and avoid buying beer from some homeless guy,” said McMillan.
He rekindled his brewing interest when he walked into Barry’s Homebrew in 1999 and bought a kit. It became a hobby, and soon he was making a few cases of beer a month.
“But come 2003, I was single and I had nothing better to do, so I started brewing beer a lot,” said McMillan.
Those brewing endeavors included the Friday night SPAM meetings, where he befriended Less.
And while the beer-making business has been taking off in the microbrew-rich neighborhood, many of the wine enthusiasts from Front and Snyder followed them north.
For the last few years, they’ve been fermenting about 600 gallons of wine in a space near Frankford Avenue and Dauphin Street, where Less lives.
While they buy grapes from wholesalers, Barry’s provides all the supplies — from fermenting vessels and yeast to the bottles the wine ages in — and McMillan now heads the store’s wine club.
Both said the active beer scene in Fishtown, Northern Liberties and parts of Kensington creates a built-in customer base. It helps that there are many creative do-it-yourself people living nearby.
ldquo;Philadelphia is considered one of the biggest beer cities on the East Coast,” Less said. “We also have a lot of artists, so you bring those things together, and it’s definitely a natural sort of DIY thing going on. We had a big wine base down there, but we’re seeing a big increase in beer sales. It’s nice.”
McMillan likes that the neighborhood also has a long history in brewing.
“This is kind of like a Brewerytown in itself, said McMillan, gesturing to the ruins of nearby historic breweries like the Gretz complex on Germantown Avenue and the very active Philadelphia Brewing Co. just up the street. “Bringing a home-brewing shop here just seemed like a logical, useful addition.” ••