To say that Sam Masotto is passionate about beer is a gross understatement. He and his wife, Gina, are co-founders of the Bonn Place Brewing Company which opened its doors for the first time on July 31st of 2016. Bonn Place is nestled in a cozy, compact-yet-impressively-efficient former garage on the corner of Taylor and Mechanic Streets in the heart of south Bethlehem, PA. The space exudes a harmonious blend of rustic warmth with industrial modernity, and Sam’s eye for unique and historic decor makes the place feel as comforting as your grandad’s living room – that is, if your grandad had massive oak-clad tanks of beer in his home. Everywhere you look reveals something exquisite and often personal, from a chandelier made from wooden wheels dating back to the 1860s, to the red Bethlehem Steel I-Beam spanning the ceiling, to the growler on display paying homage to Newburgh Brewing Company, where Sam honed his craft as an assistant brewer for three years. Sam’s discerning eye and meticulous refinement of his brewing space reflects his goal for guests to not only feel welcomed into the brewery, but to also “see what goes into” brewing beer, as he sees the brewery setting as a reflection of the craft as a whole.
Mike and I were thrilled to see another local brewery open its doors only a mere ten minutes from our home, so we emailed Sam and Gina right away to find time to sit down with them and try their beer. Sam immediately called Mike and invited us to come down the following day to meet him and his wife, check out the brewery, and of course drink some beer. He and Gina were incredibly welcoming from the start, with their love for connecting with other beer geeks palpable even during that first phone call. Bonn Place was hosting an album release party for Phillipsburg-based comedian (and friend of Sam and Gina’s) Glen Tickle that night, so we were able to stick around after for some laughs and more beer as Glen and a group of fellow comedians entertained a crowd of friends, family, and fans at the brewery.
Sam and Gina poured us an impressive selection of beers to sample. The offerings at Bonn Place lean more toward English-style beers which are traditionally more malt-forward compared with their hop-centric American counterparts. Sam noted that the water in the area lends well to English-style ales due to its low minerality and similarly low pH level; however, hoppy beers are in the works but require an addition of gypsum to alter the water’s minerality for a more hoppy flavor.
The first beer we sampled was the Mooey Pub Ale, a classic English bitter at 4.8% ABV, which Sam told us about like a proud father. He noted that this beer came out as close to ideal as possible, highlighting its incredible clarity in both appearance and taste. Indeed, the Mooey was remarkably drinkable with a smooth malt-forward body and clean finish. The Mooey earned some bonus points with us when we learned that it’s named after “Big Fat Moo,” an oversized polydactyl Maine Coon cat belonging to Gina’s family. We have a similar giant Maine Coon ourselves, so we were of course excited to hear about Mooey and her impressive girth.
As we later sipped on the Opus Amber, a 5.8% ABV American amber ale named after the brewery mascot, a French Bulldog who lived near Sam and Gina on Bonn Place in Weehawkin, New Jersey, we learned more about Sam and Gina’s journey to Bethlehem. Though neither are Lehigh Valley natives, they fell in love with Bethlehem when working as actors in the hit play Tony ‘n Tina’s Wedding, which was performed around the country, including five times at Bethlehem’s Steel Stacks. Sam has been homebrewing beer since 2008, a passion which was nurtured through working at The Pony Bar in NYC and subsequent internships at Chelsea Brewing, New Jersey Beer Company, and Newburgh Brewing Company. He had dreams of opening his own brewery for years, and he and his wife had originally set their sights on a farmhouse in southern New Jersey for their new brewery. However, they faced numerous challenges with the farmhouse which resulted in revisiting their love for Bethlehem as a potential home for Bonn Place. It wasn’t long before they were notified of the building available at 310 Taylor Street, and despite its drab drop ceilings and stark white walls, they took the plunge and began construction in April of 2015. Sam spoke of many nights spent in the building with his Subaru parked inside, a small cot on the floor to sleep on, and meals of liverwurst and Genesee Cream Ale while he worked to transform the space. Discovering beautiful brick walls beneath the Sheetrock and the red steel I-Beam hidden above the drop ceiling helped him visualize the impossible – turning this former garage/Pizza Hut/dojo/plumbing supply company into Bonn Place.
Fifteen months later, the Masottos opened the doors of Bonn Place, just in time for MusikFest 2016. Although the Mooey has so far been the biggest seller, other draft gems have gained attention as well. We tried the Pig Tale Pale Ale, both in its traditional form as well as on Nitro. At 6.2% ABV, the pale ale still has a strong malt backbone but laced with a slightly more bitter and citrusy bite. The nitro edition smoothed out the edges of the pale ale, adding an almost creamy texture to the mouthfeel. We also tried the Scottish Breakfast, which is a “wee-wee heavy” featuring 6.8% ABV. Sam noted that the Breakfast has caught the eye of beer enthusiasts more than his other draft offerings due to its rich flavor profile featuring notes of warm caramel and coffee. He shared an exciting collaboration beer in the works – the Scottish Brunch – which will feature local coffee from the Monacacy Coffee Company. Sam spoke passionately about the importance of being a member of the local community, both in terms of connecting with other Southside Bethlehem businesses as well as the larger community of local brewers. He shared that the local brewers meet monthly to offer one another support, noting that the competitiveness that often comes with brewing beer hasn’t been a part of his experience in Bethlehem so far.
Sam took us behind the scenes to check out the brewing equipment. Despite the small space for the operation, the Masottos have clearly made the most of what they have to work with. Bonn Place has a number of tanks, with some gorgeously clad in oak to exemplify the English style. The real show-stopper is a 1,000 liter 100% French oak foudre, which is typically seen at wineries and distilleries. Foudres have been popping up in breweries more often due to their use for wood-aged beer, especially sour ales. Sam was currently brewing a fiesty wood-aged wild ale in the foudre when we visited, and he gave us some samples of the beer despite it not being fully complete. The beer had a lot of personality with a very sweet nose of overripe peach and Romano cheese, but a tart, bright and somewhat biting fruity flavor profile. We also sampled a double IPA that is still in the works. The double IPA had been hit with one dose of dry hopping, though may get a second prior to being served. It had a delicious fruit-forward flavor of mango and apricot, and Mike and I both voted for one more round of hopping before it hits the floor to bring out some more bitterness.
Sam and Gina’s interest in experimenting with beer left us with a lot of excitement for what is to come at Bonn Place. In fact, if Sam himself was a beer, he stated that he would be a “spicy chipotle brown ale” because he loves spicy food, is loud, slightly crabby, and dark due to his Italian roots. Would he ever brew this “Sam Ale?” Believe it or not, he has already made a batch of it back in his home-brewing days. We’ll have to keep an eye out for the “Sam Ale” to pop up at Bonn Place!
Bonn Place is a brewery not to be missed. Sam and Gina’s vivacious personalities and unrelenting tenacity are reflected in every ounce of beer they serve and every inch of their brewing space. “It’s us,” stated Gina, reflecting on their journey to open Bonn Place. Casting a glance at Sam across the bar, she stated, “I’ve never seen someone push so hard for what they wanted.”
Visit Bonn Place for yourself and let us know what you think!
Bethany & Mike