PITTSTON — Before he was old enough to open a bar tab, Joe Percoco was sipping suds.
In the bedroom inside his childhood home in Mount Pocono, an 18-year-old Percoco had a stocked mini-fridge and the OK from his mom and dad to sample craft beer — responsibly — under their roof. Taste-tests were frequent. That, he said, was the beginning.
Percoco, who, at the time, was a budding chef with aspirations of culinary school, recalled this week he was drawn to the complex aromas, diverse tastes and contrasting styles of craft beer. He began homebrewing after graduating high school at 17 and became a professional brewer a year later.
Now 25, Percoco founded “forward thinking” brewing company Søle Artisan Ales last year after gigs at Barley Creek Brew Company in Tannersville, Easton-based Weyerbacher Brewing and Funk Brewing Company in Emmaus, where he lives with his wife, Laura.
Because the beer “comes from the artist himself,” Percoco dubbed it Søle Artisan Ales. Also hidden within the moniker is the Scandinavian word for beer, “øl.” That region provided the “gypsy brewer” term: Someone who brews out of someone else’s facility, Percoco explained.
“We wanted to create beer that challenges the taste buds and is a unique, truly one-of-a-kind experience,” Percoco said.
Søle currently features a lineup of Juicebox, an India pale ale (IPA) brewed with Mandarin orange zest and a combination of Simcoe and Azacca hops. Artistry and Alchemy, Søle’s cold-weather beer, is an Imperial Stout brewed with Vermont maple syrup, oatmeal and roasted malts.
Green Life IPA and easy-drinking golden pale ale, Clink!, round out the foursome. Fans can expect a double IPA soon, Percoco said.
Brewed at Susquehanna Brewing Company (SBC) in Pittston in what Percoco called “one of the most killer brewing systems on the entire East Coast,” recipes for Søle beer are plugged into the brewery’s computer and brewed automatically, the same way each time, Percoco said.
Percoco said some people might think that’s not very “hand-crafted,” but he’d rather have peace of mind knowing his customers get what they’re expecting instead of sporting a bitter-beer face when a batch is slightly off.
There’s no room for that anymore in the beer industry, Percoco said.
“If I drink a beer from a reputable brewery and it’s off and it’s not right, I’m not going back because there’s too many options out there now,” he said.
Pennsylvania is no different. The state ranks first in barrels of craft beer produced annually, with over four million sold in 2014, according to data from the Brewers Association, a national organization of brewers with over 45,000 members.
The state, as of 2014, also had 136 breweries, good for seventh in the nation, the data says.
Given the current landscape of the industry, Percoco, who distributes to hundreds of wholesale accounts throughout the state, said quality is key.
“I’m not messing around and nobody should be messing around these days,” Percoco said of brewing craft beer in 2016. “You’ve got to bring your A-game.”
So Percoco sought out the minds behind SBC, who felt he brought to the table all the qualities their company looks for in a contract brewer.
“He has his finger on the cutting edge,” said Fred Maier, SBC co-owner.
The Pittston-based brewery has contracts with five beer companies that brew out of their 4-year-old facility on South Main Street, including Søle, Lancaster and Dock Street brewing companies, Maier said.
When it comes to contracting with a brewer, Maier said SBC wants a game plan.
“If you have a barroom scheme you drew up on a napkin with your buddies over some beers, that won’t work.” he said. “We look for people that know what they’re getting into.”
Percoco fit that bill, he said.
“He’s really what makes craft brewing fun,” Maier said.