First State Brewing Co., a sleek large-scale brewery and brewpub, opens in Middletown

Ryan Cormier
Delaware News Journal

For years, Middletown's Paul Hester worked to keep the biggest bank in the United State safe from cybercrime.

If he missed something as executive director of global technology for JPMorgan Chase, the result could be really bad, to say the least.

So it's no surprise that Hester's analytical mind and attention to detail are on full display at his just-opened 11,088-square-foot production brewery and brewpub in Middletown, one of the biggest in the state.

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It doesn't take much time once you're inside the industrial, yet comfortable First State Brewing Co., to see the six years of comprehensive planning that Hester put into the project.

If you were taking an leave of absence from a high-paying job like his to follow your dream, you'd want to dot your i's and cross your t's, as well. He's painstaking in everything he does. In preparation for his interview with Delaware Online/The News Journal, he sent over a 35-point list of details covering all aspects of the operation.

First Start Brewing Co.'s (from left) taproom manager Justin Faulkner, executive chef Nicholas Carr, quality manager Joe Spearot and founder and CEO Paul Hester stand in the brewery's atmospheric lighting.

During a tour of what amounts to an a large indoor beer garden, his fastidiousness shows — and not just due to his clean-shaven face, bucking the brewer beard stereotype.

The decibel levels and angles of the speakers were determined after plenty of research. Belgian glassware was specifically ordered and is polished daily. Bartenders had to prove to be big beer geeks like Hester & Co. before they were hired. And you don't even want to know how much energy was spent on the height and placement of the white lamps that resemble hops hanging above the 50-foot bar.

"Jokes aside, literally every square foot of this was thought out. I've gone over everything with a fine-tooth comb," he says. "We obsess over the guest experience."

Due to the pandemic, communal tables are now individual tables and the vintage arcade games that were going to be up against one wall are nowhere to be found. The live music that usually would fill the air is also on hiatus, as are the outdoor games of cornhole on the patio.

Once the weather is nicer, expect the brewery's two large garage doors to open, giving the spot an indoor, open-air vibe. Heaters have been purchased for outdoor seating on the enclosed patio until then.

The taproom of First State Brewing Co. in Middletown, which opened two weeks ago.

Hester hired Baltimore-based mural artist Marshall Adams to hand-paint all of of the brewery's exterior signage; interior logos; and focal wall, which frames the window looking into the kitchen. 

In short, it's got the feel of a big-city brewery, but it's based in a still-growing town.

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Upon opening, it immediately became Middletown's largest brewery, joining Crooked Hammock and the tiny Volunteer. (A fourth Middletown brewery, JAKL Beer Works, is slated to open in the winter of 2021, making the town a nice spot for beer fans looking to brewery-hop.)

"We had the 'go big or go home mentality,'" says Hester, 38, who opened his doors for the first time two weeks ago during the state's first snowstorm of the season. "We've hit the ground running."

Behind First State Brewing's beers

The production brewery at 109 Patriot Dr. takes up the most space, visible through a trio of large 10-by-5 windows and bathed in blue LED back lights when no one is brewing, giving it a spectacular glow that is more entrancing than the several televisions above them.

Hester, a certified cicerone (a beer-based version of a sommelier), is joined in the brewery by Joe Spearot, First State's quality manager. He is an advanced cicerone, of which there are fewer than 150 in the entire world. He is the only one in Delaware.

Along with Hester and Speaort, who has a master's degree in food science from Drexel University, the brewing team is rounded out by assistant brewer Chris Clendening, former assistant brewer at both Victory Brewing Co. in Downingtown, Pennsylvania, and Iron Hill Brewery in Newark.

Paul Hester with his wife Lauren, daughter Olivia and son Paul during a visit to First State Brewing Co. during construction.

Complete with a lab  — "A start-up brewery with a lab. Who does that?" the meticulous Hester asks rhetorically — First State will transform into a production brewery, and is still awaiting its canning line, which comes next week. By the first quarter of the new year, he hopes to have a Delaware distributor, sending his brews in kegs and cans to restaurants and store shelves across the state. (Thirty-two-ounce crowlers are currently available to-go at the brewery with cans coming soon.)

With all that knowledge and firepower behind them, the beers are a must-try.

Coming out the taps

The always-changing taproom beer menu is on digital visual display boards above the taps, offering a variety of traditional styles with a sour usually thrown in there. During a recent visit, the 26-tap system with a giant walk-in cooler was flowing with IPAs, double IPAs, porters, stouts, witbiers, Belgian tripels, goses and Belgian saisons.

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They stay fairly true to classic styles and techniques. You won't find any weird birthday cake or jelly doughnut beers here. The lone oddity on their beer menu are their unique beer cocktails, which are beer-infused, keg-conditioned cocktails made with spirits from Painted Stave Distillery in Smyrna ($7.30-$9.20). 

The taproom menu is made for both beer geeks and casual beer drinkers. For the nerds, Hester lists not only the alcohol by volume (ABV) and international bitterness units (IBU), but also the standard reference method (SRM), the original gravity (OG), final gravity (FG) and even the pH. Got all that?

First Styate Brewing Co.'s Cascading Reactions witbier is poured from the lengthy line of taps in Middletown.

For beer drinkers who don't know an IBU from a SRM — we'll go out on a limb and say that's most of us — there's also an easy-to-read intensity chart that tracks the strength of the tastes from hops, malts and yeast to help guide patrons.  

And just like the technology world he comes from, open sourcing can be found on the beer menu with Hester listing exactly which hops he and his team use in each beer. In addition to hops imported from around the world (Belgium, Germany, United Kingdom) to give their beers the just-right taste, they also use Proximity Malt based out of Laurel.

Flat markup makes for some cheap prices

Looking at First State beer prices, you'll notice that some seem quite cheap compared with what  you might find at other breweries. That's due to a flat markup on raw materials across the board.

For example, a 10-ounce pour of Tripel Beaming, their 8.8% ABV floral Belgian tripel, is only $4.10. That's because the cost of making the beer is what determines the price. If it's cheaper to make, they keep the price low.

"We could certainly charge more," Hester says. "People are like, 'Is that price right?!?'"

Word has spread pretty quickly about their beers and pricing.

First Start Brewing Co. is housed in an expansive space with combined production brewery, taproom and kitchen in Middletown.

On Christmas Eve, First State opened from noon to 5 p.m. for crowler and gift card sales. They made about 70 crowlers in advance, and after the line wrapped around the building at times, a total of 132 were sold, blowing away their expectations.

Cheese, scrapple, poutine & waffles

While the beer is obviously the star of the show, the scratch kitchen will certainly have its own devotees.

The two-page menu Hester created with First State executive chef Nicholas Carr is filled with unique items that go way beyond wings and burgers. You'll find things here that you simply cannot find on a menu anywhere else in Delaware.

Cheese, scrapple, poutine and imported Belgian Liège waffles dominate the offerings from Carr, the former executive chef at Big Oyster Brewery.

A cheese board ($19.60) with cheeses from around the world, tops the snacks list with cheese-and-beer pairings created by Carr and the brewers coming soon. Eventually, they expect to offer as many as 12 different cheeses.

First Start Brewing Co.-branded stickers and coasters are free to pick up at the new Middletown brewpub and brewery.

It's Carr who drives to Felton each week to Hughes Delaware Maid Scrapple for the good stuff, primarily used for their scrapple cheesesteak ($13.50). Yes, you read that right. It's made with Hughes scrapple bites on a toasted hoagie roll with witbier-braised onions, bell peppers and an in-house five-cheese sauce that will make you forget Cheez Whiz even existed.

There's an entire poutine ($10.90-$13.80) section, which grew out of Hester's work trips to the upper Midwest, where the regional dish of French fries, cheese curds and gravy is about as popular as it is back home in Canada where it originated. Their version features twice-fried pommes frites.

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You can go traditional with the "O Canada!" (Wisconsin cheese curds, beef and porter gravy), go local with "DELocal" (scrapple bites, sausage gravy) or go regional with "Philly Wiz Wit" (shaved ribeye, witbier-braised onions,five-cheese sauce). If you're feeling adventurous, the "Belgian Breakfast" poutine has waffle chunks, crumbled sausage, crumbled bacon, five-cheese sauce and a pair of runny fried eggs.

The waffles get their own section as well, with four varieties ($6.20-$6.70) to choose from including waffles topped with corn flake-encrusted bananas with caramel sauce and crème anglaise or one with Nutella ganache, marshmallow cream and candied pecans.

Since opening on Dec. 16, a few snackable favorites have emerged based on sales. They include chicken and waffle sliders with fried chicken breast, waffle, melted brie, bacon, Granny Smith apple and a maple balsamic glaze ($13.60) along with brisket eggrolls made with braised brisket, witbier-braised onions, bell peppers, brie and sauce andalouse ($10.70).

Beers made on site are available in 32-ounce crowlers at First Start Brewing Co. in Middletown.

Also on the menu: tacos, salads and nine different sandwiches ($13.80-$18.80) ranging from a three-cheese grilled cheese and hot fried chicken sandwich to po boys and cubanos. Hamburgers also are on there with either angus beef or Impossible plant-based patties.

Taproom ordering amid COVID-19

Overseeing the food and beer in the 3,500-square-foot taproom is taproom manager Justin Faulkner, who previously worked as bartender at Wilmington's Eclipse Bistro and served as general manager of Middletown's Tom Foolery's.

With only 30% capacity due to state restrictions to slow the spread of COVID-19, reservations are required for tables and usually fill up a day or two before, while the eight bar seats at the massive bar are available first come, first served. In normal times, the taproom can seat about 85. 

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There are QR codes on each table for ordering food during the pandemic, each tied to a specific table. Once you select what you want, the order is sent to the kitchen and appears at your table when it's ready. You can also choose from among their 16 different house-made dipping sauces straight from your phone.

Due to a need to check IDs, you still have to go up to the counter to get your alcohol for now.

The brewery is closed Mondays and Tuesdays. COVID-adjusted hours for the rest of the week are 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Wednesdays and Thursdays and noon to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Since First State is officially a microbrewery and not a brewpub, they must follow the same Sunday hours as liquor stores under state law, meaning open doors from noon to 8 p.m. 

An 'entrepreneurial itch'

Hester started putting pen to paper to begin his plans for the brewery in 2014, eventually gaining an investor to help.

Materials await construction in April 2019 at First State Brewing Co. in Middletown.

"I had the entrepreneurial itch," says Hester, who started as a home brewer. "I had a passion to build my own business, so I was either going to go into consulting for cyber security or do something that felt a little more meaningful at the end of the day.

"Sitting at a desk on Zoom meetings and calls for eight hours a day is not what I wanted to be doing."

While the brewery was initially expected to open nearly three years ago, he ran into several delays, which isn't a surprise since he built the brewery from the ground up. (They broke ground around the same time as Crooked Hammock Brewery, which opened in November 2019 a little more than a mile down the road.)

"To some extent, some things worked out better because I wouldn't have been able to recruit some of the team earlier," says Hester, who had the blessing of his wife, Lauren, for the "crazy adventure." They have two children, Olivia, 4, and Paul III, 2.

He already has plans for a food truck and another brick-and-mortar location could come down the road. Hester is focused on growth, which also may include expanding his First State brand into other areas, such as catering.

In a town drowning in chain restaurants, a new hometown brand with a Middletowner as the owner is part of the draw. When Hester tried to allow takeout, he got swamped with 16 orders in the first hour and had to close it down until the kitchen staffs up.

"People tell me this is just what Middletown needed," he says. "It's super-rewarding to see what we put on paper come to life and get the exact feedback we were going for."

Got a tip? Contact Ryan Cormier of The News Journal at rcormier@delawareonline.com or (302) 324-2863. Follow him on Facebook (@ryancormier), Twitter (@ryancormier) and Instagram (@ryancormier).