20 Years, 20 Stories: Dock Street Brewery

Sep 05, 2017 2 months ago

Selecting just one story to tell about Rosemarie Certo, the charismatic woman behind Dock Street Brewery, wasn’t easy. We could have told the story of an immigrant whose widowed mother left behind everything she knew in Sicily to settle in America. Rosemarie's story could have been about a woman earning widespread acclaim with a hugely successful brand in an industry traditionally dominated by men. But when we sit down to chat about the history of Dock Street, at first Rosemarie wants to talk only about beer.

“Next week we’re celebrating our tenth anniversary with an updated version of our West of Center Ale,” Rosemarie begins, referring to a golden ale they first introduced about five years ago. For their tenth anniversary (celebrated on August 31st) Rosemary explains, “We’ve updated it with all local malts from a local maltster. We’ve really stepped up the whole production on the West of Center. For us it represents the real backbone to who we are, which is the same backbone as West Philadelphia.”

Decades before Dock Street became a West Philly institution and garnered worldwide attention both for the quality of their beer and their inventive promotions, Rosemarie Certo was making beers at home with Jeffrey Ware, her former business partner.

“I was a foodie and a gourmet cook,” Rosemarie explains. “We all had good taste and wanted to make something really good. At the time, the US was a vast sea of bland beers. We were home brewers. We’d make dinners for 20 or 30 people, and then we started introducing the homemade beer. People loved it.”

“We could tell what we were making was better than what was out there. My first instinct was to sell it. That’s would you would do in Sicily [where Rosemarie lived until she was 10]. You make something and then you sell it.” Undeterred by a lack of business experience, Rosemarie forged onward, deciding they’d figure it out along the way. “If we’d known how difficult it was going to be, we may not have done it, but we had the passion and the drive that saw us through all of that. 

She and Ware opened the original Dock Street Brewpub in 1985 at 18th and Cherry, a location Rosemarie describes as a “very high end, very expensive space.” The first location featured a French brasserie menu to go along with their original craft beer, the Dock Street Amber. “We were trying to elevate the status of beer, because no one was buying craft beer.” She says they were competing against imports, because they had more flavor than American beers, but also against the American psyche at the time. “People would say, ‘Why am I going to pay $20 for a case of American beer when I can get a case of Heineken for $20?”

Dock Street’s second beer, their Bohemian Pilsner, garnered the attention of acclaimed beer writer Michael Jackson. Jackson declared it “One of the finest Pilsners in the United States...as aromatic and soft as the best from Bohemia.” This attention helped legitimize Dock Street’s approach to one of the most difficult beers to make. “To me the perfect beer is a pilsner,” Rosemarie says. “It is all about balance, and it's the nexus of beer and beermaking. It’s about a balance of enough malt, and enough hops creating a perfect marriage.”

By 1996, Dock Street had become the 26th largest microbrewery in the country. It produced over 25,000 barrels of beer a year, earned medals in some of the world’s most prestigious beer competitions, and was being distributed to 24 states. In 2000 Dock Street was sold and the brewpub was closed, and the company was reacquired in 2002 by Rosemarie. When Rosemarie decided she wanted to open a brewpub again, she began to consider an old firehouse that she was told would be a “wonderful space” located at 50th and Baltimore in West Philadelphia.  

Even as a risk-taker, Rosemarie initially worried that 50th and Baltimore might have been a little too far out. She visited the location, and says she knew it would be a fit right away. “After five minutes of standing outside and looking at the building, and seeing the diversity of people walking around, people who had been there forever, younger people, students, and everything in between in terms of race, creed, and culture--it was just so beautiful, and it felt really, really good.” 

It may be hard to believe given its present-day success, but Dock Street faced opposition when they first sought to convert the old firehouse at 701 S. 50th Street into a brew pub. A local church did not want the business to move in, worrying that the sale of alcohol would lead to violence in the community. 

“Everyone tried to tell them that’s not what Dock Street is about, that we were not people who were going to sell cheap beer,” Rosemarie remembers. “They didn’t believe us.”

People from the neighborhood, Cedar Park Neighbors, and University City District lent their support to Dock Street. “We’d go to neighborhood meetings and the zoning meetings. We were turned down once. I guess I was a little naive because I couldn’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t want us. I figured we’d make our case, and they knew our history--it’s not like we were newcomers.” The second time Dock Street went before the zoning commission, they did so with the help of a local attorney. Once again, they were denied. 

After being turned down yet again, Rosemarie was ready to walk away. “We had spent a year trying to convince people that they should let us come and be here. It was really heartbreaking.” Rosemarie started looking elsewhere, and came so close to moving into South Philadelphia that she wrote to the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board and instructed them to close the application on the 50th and Baltimore location.    

“That was that,” she says. 

Except it wasn’t. 

“I got a call,” Rosemarie says. “I forget who called, but they said, ‘In an unprecedented move the city zoning committee has reversed its decision, and you can go to 50th and Baltimore.’” Rosemarie was shocked. She came to learn a group of influential West Philadelphians had worked behind the scenes to make Dock Street’s case. 

Still, she wasn’t convinced. She had made progress on the South Philadelphia location, and wasn’t able to forget the sting of the neighborhood opposition. All that changed one night with a fateful visit. 

“I was in the kitchen cooking some chicken cutlets,” Rosemarie recalls. “There was a knock at my door and two UCD employees (former UCD staff members Carolyn Blackwell-Hewson and Gail Fisher) have a cake and a card and they say, ‘We want you!’ The card had a dog carrying a note in its mouth that read ‘Come back.’ I just started to cry.”

“After they left I sat down, had a glass of wine, and thought to myself, ‘Maybe it can work.’” The next morning Rosemarie made phone calls to UCD and Cedar Park Neighbors and said they were in. “The cake was really, really good,” she explains with a laugh. 

To say Dock Street succeeded at 50th and Baltimore is like saying beer is a somewhat popular beverage. Dock has become an anchor at 50th and Baltimore, and attracted more businesses around it every year. They renovated the old firehouse and installed a bar, a dining area, and the massive brewing operation in the back. Pulling from her Italian heritage, Rosemarie installed a wood burning oven, and Dock Street’s pizzas and beers quickly became a neighborhood favorite. 

“I always say West Philadelphia should be a utopian model for the way the rest of the world lives,” Rosemarie says of Dock Street’s home. “We have an environment and a neighborhood where everyone contributes, whether it’s dialogue or the food or the way they think. It’s a really broad-minded, utopian model, a place that can embrace every culture, every idea, and leave room for more things to happen. It’s exciting. It’s energizing.”

Rosemarie was thrilled to serve the West of Center beer at the 10th anniversary celebration, as a way of praising and thanking the neighborhood that has embraced them. At the event, 27 people proved their love for the brewery with permanent Dock Street tattoos by a local tattoo artist. If you missed a chance to try the West of Center beer, it will also be served at the September 7th Baltimore Avenue Dollar Stroll, where Dock Street is one of the most popular vendors. 

This year, the company opened the Dock Street Cannery + Lounge at 705 S. 50th Street, a converted garage that’s houses a cocktail bar and a new beer canning operation. UCD assisted Dock Street with their expansion through our Small Business Services, a program that helps businesses looking to open, grow, or relocate in University City. We assisted Dock Street in accessing grant funding to partially fund the machinery that makes the canning possible, and also helped them obtain a zoning change to make their status permanent, meaning Dock Street is here to stay.  

“We developed a very symbiotic relationship with the neighborhood and couldn’t have asked for a better home,” Rosemarie says. “It’s where we belong.”

Add new comment

Filtered HTML

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.