Visitors of the Percent Tap House, Harrisburg’s first brewery, are given the same warning the first time they mosey on up to the bar: Don’t get too attached to any one particular beer because, once a keg is kicked, it might be gone for good.
It might seem a strange business strategy to some, considering that the brewery boasts an impressive 30 taps, and always offers an assortment of canned craft beers. But prior to opening their doors in the Harrisburg Town Center in late 2018, the culmination of nearly two years of planning and, in the case of head craft brewer Neil Grassi, plenty of convincing, the four partners — Carl-Jay Castaneda, Zach Hinschberger and Alec Barnes round out the quartet – agreed that they would offer a constantly evolving selection of high-quality small batch brews.
In addition to Mr. Grassi’s small batch creations, which always command at least six, and often up to eight of their taps, Percent Tap House rounds out its impressive selection by offering an eclectic assortment of beers, everything from ciders and sours to stouts and IPAs, made by other smaller and, oftentimes, local breweries.
Therefore, Citrus Is the New Black IPA – one of Percent Tap House’s most popular beers, which is finished with candied orange and lemon peels – can be found on the same digital board as McGill Avenue IPA, a New England-style beer produced by the High Branch Brewing Company of Concord. And those two recently shared the board with The Bluprint IPA, a double dry-hopped beer brewed with guava puree and crafted by Birds Fly South Ale Project of Greenville, South Carolina, and The Realm of Absolute Nothingness, a stout made by Burial Brewing Company out of Asheville, North Carolina, and aged with “massive doses” of French Broad Chocolate cocoa nibs, Madagascar vanilla bean and macaroon coconut, and, incidentally, tipping the alcohol content scale at an eye-popping 13 percent.
“Honestly, with the tap room side of things, our customers are used to that,” Mr. Grassi says, referring to its constantly revolving door of offerings.
Percent Tap House has served more than 400 varieties of beer in its first seven months of operation, not counting the 13 or 14 brews he’s crafted himself either on-site in a 31-gallon barrel, or on larger fermenting equipment that’s available to him at other local breweries.
“But we tell our customers, we give them that warning,” Mr. Grassi continued. “We’ve produced certain things and sometimes it will come back, and sometimes it won’t. We’re a small batch brewery, and we want to continue to experiment.”
“What we like to say is, ‘Don’t fall in love with anything,’” adds Mr. Castaneda, Percent Tap House’s self-proclaimed “Concierge of Craft.”
That approach continues to spur speculation and interest inside the tap room which, despite its modest 1,600 square feet, dominates a prominent corner of the town complex.
A Leap Of Faith
Before becoming part-owners of their own tap room, the four friends first had to convince themselves to step away from their respective corporate careers with Publix. Mr. Grassi was the last to commit, a fact that he openly acknowledges, as he turned down his dream job with the supermarket chain just prior to handing in his resignation letter to pursue his true passion: brewing.
He worked for Publix for five years, accepting a step backward in seniority and a pay cut, knowing that his sacrifice would be rewarded with a chance for career advancement, pointing to the supermarket’s stellar reputation. The opportunity for promotion to retail improvement specialist, his ideal position, was put on the table at the same time that Mr. Hinschberger attempted one last time to convince him to leave the chain and join the others in opening their own tap room.
“Obviously, it wasn’t an easy decision. It was a $20,000 raise. And a company car. All that good stuff,” Mr. Grassi recalled. “Honestly, the whole goal at Publix was to eventually retire and do something like this.
“So, we’re already here,” he continued. “So, either work hard to make the money to do it later in life, or just do it now. So we decided to do it now.”
The decision to move on from Publix wasn’t an easy one for any of them, explains Mr. Castaneda, who is also married and has two young daughters. But he had prior experience managing restaurants and, like his head brewer, grew tired of finding reasons to dissuade Mr. Hinschberger, whom both credit as the main catalyst behind the endeavor.
Ironically, he did not know that much about locally craft beers until Mr. Castaneda invited him to tag along when he went to visit a few bottle shops and breweries in Charlotte. He notes that sampling one of Mr. Grassi’s home-brewed beers, a pale ale that is now a fixture on their menu and called What’s Your EPA?, sealed the deal for Mr. Hinschberger. He would spend the next several months attempting to convince his fellow Publix coworkers to take a leap of faith.
“We give Zach credit for staying persistent,” Mr. Castaneda says. “He kept bringing it up and bringing it up. By that time I was doing my own research on different areas, on different models, and seeing what’s actually realistic for guys like us.”
An Obvious Choice
Mr. Castaneda keeps an important image saved on his iPhone. It shows the high concentration of breweries and bottle shops in and around Charlotte, and others in nearby Concord, circa mid-2017. It also reveals the dearth of such businesses in Harrisburg at the time.
“Harrisburg was an underserved area,” says Mr. Castaneda, who lives in Concord but has visited the town many times, attending the annual holiday tree lightings and Fourth of July parades. “That means that everyone in the area has to drive 15, 20 or 30 minutes just to get a pint of beer.”
They signed a lease for the space at 4250 Main Street, Suite #109, in late 2018, after visiting several potential spots in the area and falling in love with the town center. The clincher was the outdoor seating area that sits just outside the main entrance and is now occupied by several tables.
“It doesn’t have a back door, and there isn’t a ton of space to brew beer,” he says. “But being on the corner if fantastic. We fell in love with the space and said we got to have that.”
Their business name, meanwhile, is a tip of the cap to the large number of breweries and tap rooms in both Charlotte and the surrounding areas, with Mr. Castaneda explaining that they recognize that they represent a small fraction of a rapidly growing industry — and they’re OK with that.
Support & Service
As for their immediate success, Mr. Castaneda credits town officials for their support, explaining that they were pouring beer at a Harrisburg Business Alliance event months before they officially opened their doors in December 2018. He also credits their growing base of customers for their continued patronage, a response that the partners had hoped for before opening for business.
“We wanted this place to be an absolute community hub,” Mr. Castaneda says. “Where folks can come and almost treat it like a coffee shop.”
To help convey that message, the tap room’s walls are lined with original artwork, all created by an artist who gets to display his or her works for an entire month before making way for the next aspiring artist. And the owners recently rolled out the first offering in their Homebrewer Series in which they invite local home brewers to mix a batch of their specialty alongside Mr. Grassi, and then dedicate a tap to the product.
Joel Bunn of Charlotte was the first to have a crack and his IPA – Joe’s New Zealand Hop-It – is now on tap at the tap room. His beer follows the recipe of a standard IPA but relies on four different types of hops that are exclusively grown in New Zealand, according to Mr. Grassi. The result is a beer with a unique earthy tone, unlike traditional IPAs that tend to be more fruity or citrusy in flavor.
“There are a lot of great homebrewers out there, but they don’t have the opportunities that we have,” says Mr. Castaneda, adding that the plan is to invite a new homebrewer every few months.
Pointing to their Publix backgrounds, the partners also understand the importance of customer service. It is that commitment to service that lets Percent Tap House stand out in a field that is growing more crowded with each passing month.
“You might beat us in certain things, but from day one our focus has been you’re not going to beat us in our service,” Mr. Castaneda says.
For an up-to-date menu of beer offerings, and a list of upcoming events, please visit www.percenttaphouse.com.
PERCENT TAP HOUSE
- Address: 4250 Main Street, Suite #109
- Website: www.percenttaphouse.com
- Facebook: Percent Tap House
- Instagram: @percenttaphouse
Hours of Operation
- Monday-Thursday: 2 to 10 p.m.
- Friday & Saturday: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
- Sunday: 1 to 10 p.m.