Neil Grassi’s first name is literally the “N” in “CANZ” over at the Percent Tap House.
He and his co-owners – Carl-Jay Castaneda, the “C”, Alec Barnes, the “A” and Zach Hinschberger, the “Z” – complete the catchy and appropriate acronym bestowed upon them by their customers.
So, for many, it would be hard to imagine the Percent Tap House without its critical N, especially since Mr. Grassi also happens to hold the title of Head Craft Brewer at Harrisburg’s first brewery.
But that was almost the case.
Citing his responsibilities as a husband, and a pending promotion as his former employer that he worked five years to attain, Mr. Grassi was the last of four to sign off on their entrepreneurial endeavor even though, at least in terms of bloodlines, he was the most logical fit to pursue such a dream.
Their roots firmly planted in Pennsylvania, his grandfather, uncle and even his brother brewed different types of alcohol, including homemade beers and wines, with Mr. Grassi observing and, in most instances, assisting with the process even though he was too young to enjoy the fruits of his labor.
As it turns out, it was one of Mr. Grassi’s custom-made recipes – an English pale ale that’s now regularly offered at the tap room under the name What’s Your EPA? – that caught the attention of Mr. Hinschberger, and convinced him that they all needed to enter the small craft brewing business together.
As Mr. Grassi tells the story, Mr. Hinschberger was eavesdropping on a conversation he was having with a coworker at the grand opening of the Publix in Statesville in which he offered her some of his homemade English pale ale. He then convinced his coworker to share a sample with him.
“Zach overheard that and later on he approached me and talked about his idea,” Mr. Grassi recalled. “He shared that he’s already spoken with Carl.
“We had a meeting. We sat down at Seaboard Brewing [in Matthews], and we talked numbers,” he continued. “This is our real first sit-down … and the numbers are very, very scary. So, that was my point to say, ‘No thank you.’ I pretty much walked away for a little bit.”
A Family Calling
But his family calling would not let him walk away completely, though it would take several more months for Mr. Grassi to fully commit to the undertaking. He explains that the appeal of making his own spirits, a love that he says was instilled by his Uncle Joe Shook, was too much to ignore.
“It was creating things with your hands, creating something out of nothing,” says Mr. Grassi, who lives in Pineville. “Creating things that don’t really make sense, and how you would tweak certain things to make them different.
“I’ve always been good with my hands. I’m very good at building things. I do other things at home, like making my own beer jerky,” he added. “Creating homemade brew was probably what I’m set up to do the best, so I enjoy doing that the most.”
So, how long does it take to turn around one of his recipes?
Roughly two weeks, if he’s making a fairly basic IPA. The more complex ones can take upwards of five weeks, and that’s a very long time considering that they’re a single-barrel operation, meaning he can only make 31 gallons of a particular brew at one time. Mr. Grassi has gotten around that obstacle by making some of his beers at neighboring breweries.
“Kölsch is a German-style ale that needs to go through a lagering process,” he explains. “A beer might be done fermenting in two weeks, but it won’t taste finished until it sits in a cold temperature over a long period of time. High alcohol beers also take a longer time, and Belgiums take a little longer as well. It’s usually pretty quick turnarounds with IPAs.”
And that does not include the time he spends researching and fine-tuning his recipes, tweaking them in a manner that makes them his own without sacrificing their respective histories.
“I probably spend over 10 hours on each recipe just researching and writing them,” Mr. Grassi says. “What I like to do is I start with a very, very traditional taste. Where did this beer come from, why is it brewed the way it is, and then I go and I tweak it to what I like, or what I think is going to be good.”
For example, their coffee Kölsch recipe, which was called Coterie, or German for “Community,” relies on traditional German yeast, and follows that country’s traditional brewing styles. But Mr. Grassi tweaked it by adding whole coffee beans that were hand-picked by Dave Damone, owner of the nearby Rocky River Coffee Company, to give it its unusual flavor profile.
“What I thought would be unique is we added whole coffee beans into the beer after it was finished and let that lager for a couple of weeks,” Mr. Grassi said. “And it actually added a really good twist. It was actually one of our fastest-selling beers when we had it on tap.
“We don’t have it on tap right now. We made it once. The only reason we have not done it again is the beer takes five weeks in the fermenter. And I can literally produce two beers in that time. But we do have plans to do it again.”
A Brewing Philosophy
Mr. Grassi follows a simple rule when devising new recipes: if foods work well together on a plate, then they’ll probably gel effortlessly when blended together in a craft beer.
“We have a raspberry lime zest gose on tap right now,” he said during a recent interview. “That is a recipe collaboration that we did with Pharr Mill Brewing down the street. We got together and talked about what we wanted to do. The mellow sweetness of the raspberries and the floral bitterness of a lime came to mind, so we created that.”
The result was a sour gose called Hey There Neighbor that utilized 100 pounds of red raspberries, and was dry-hopped with the zest of 200 limes.
“We’ve got our Man-O-Man! Porter on tap, which is a mandarin orange and vanilla porter,” he added. “The porter is kind of chocolatey roasty , so chocolate, orange and vanilla all go together really well, and complement each other. And that’s been a very big success.
He later added: “Anything that goes together on a plate is actually going to taste good in a beer.”
So, what’s the most popular beer that he’s brewed for Percent Tap House?
Mr. Grassi says it depends on the day.
“One day the Heterologic, our dark lager, outsells everything completely. And the next day, Citrus Is the New Black IPA, which seems to be the most popular of all, catches back up. And then Jejune Peach all of a sudden comes out of nowhere and we sell double of that.
“But they all have those days, those days when the outsell each other. We have confidence in all of our beers. It wouldn’t be on our board with our name on it if we weren’t confident in it.”