Raising the Bar
Manatawny Still Works and Crooked Eye Brewery are among the many exalted brewers and distillers elevating the suburbs’ high-spirited culture.
by Bill Donahue

Max Pfeffer could have enjoyed a fine career as a chemical engineer. But he says there’s something people might not expect about chemical engineering, which he studied at Penn State: “It’s incredibly boring.”

So when it came time to determine what to do with his life and career, his thoughts turned to a subject that busies the minds of many college-age students: beer. Rather than simply drink it, however, he wanted to have a hand in its creation.
Having already started to brew at home, he took his education to the next level by enrolling in a master brewers program at the University of California, Davis. When he returned to the Philadelphia area, he earned a job with Victory Brewing Co. in Downingtown—“an awesome place to cut my teeth; they make beer the right way,” he says.
A few years later, the desire for a “change of scenery” led him to Sly Fox Brewing Co. in Pottstown, where he eventually worked his way into the position of head brewer. His career took an unexpected turn when a member of the leadership team, John Giannopoulos, called Pfeffer into his office.
“John can be an intimating guy, but I remember thinking: I can’t be in trouble; yields are up, and the beer is tasting good,” he recalls. “I also remember thinking: Please don’t make me close the door, because as long as the door stays open, I know I’m OK. The door stays open, I sit down, and he doesn’t mince words. He says, ‘I’m starting a distillery. Want to do it for me?’ I said, ‘Yes, but I don’t know how to distill.’ He said, ‘You’ll learn.’”
And learn Pfeffer did. He took a class at Moonshine University in Kentucky, through which he connected with industry veterans who helped him create a blueprint for the distillery he would soon bring to life: Manatawny Still Works in Pottstown.
Manatawny, which will soon celebrate its 10-year anniversary, has blossomed into an enterprise with four tasting rooms—Pottstown (home to the distillery), Ardmore, and two in the Philadelphia neighborhoods of Fishtown and East Passyunk—as well as a growing lineup of American whiskey, gin, and vodka, among other spirits.
“A good whiskey comes from having quality ingredients and knowing what you’re doing,” Pfeffer says. “The whiskey I made in the first couple of years wasn’t that great. Pretty bad, actually. By learning on the job, I took all that experience and figured out ways to get better. It has gotten better every single year.”
Pfeffer’s passion and devotion to his craft should come as no surprise. The Philadelphia area abounds with brewers and distillers who use skill and ingenuity to create distinctive handcrafted spirits, beers, and other libations that would rival, if not exceed, those considered the industry’s best.
“As a former brewer, I wanted to make brewer’s whiskey, something that is malt based,” he says. “I wanted to emulate Stranahan’s out in Colorado, which is one of the first companies that had success with American single malt.”
Last year Pfeffer was promoted to president and director of operations for Manatawny Still Works. That means he now oversees the entire company, including production, and he also spends more time behind the computer. That said, he’s never too far removed from the nuts and bolts of the business. There are still days when he’s working with other team members to bottle, distill, or clean tanks. He even helps to deliver product from time to time.
Pfeffer has less involvement in the day-to-day operations of the four Manatawny tasting rooms. Each location is a study in understated elegance, where guests can learn about whiskey and other spirits, and have some well-made cocktails in the process.
“It’s a down-to-earth experience,” he says of the tasting rooms. “We don’t take ourselves too seriously. We make simple, spirit-forward cocktails with fresh ingredients; you’re not going to get a cocktail with 10 ingredients and not know what any of them are.”
Just as others struggle to find a work-life balance, Pfeffer admits it’s sometimes been a challenge to balance work demands with his role as a husband and father of two. He also has to make time for his “best friend” Piper, a rescue dog who is the face of Manatawny’s vodka brand, Three Bitches.
Pfeffer says Manatawny has no immediate plans to open more tasting rooms in the near future, though the company continues to take steps forward in terms of the product mix. Specifically, he expects more innovation in American single-malt whiskey.
“We pride ourselves on doing things a bit differently,” he says. “We’re not just another bourbon. We are making a unique product. Just like brewers have started to make interesting beers, to the point where we’re getting 100 different styles of beer, we’re doing the same with whiskey. We’re exploring what whiskey can be.”
‘Get Out of the Garage’
The brewing bug bit Jeff Mulherin in 2005, when a close friend received a home-brewing kit as a gift. Before long, the two friends were brewing beer together; Mulherin enjoyed the process, the creativity, and the end result. He liked it so much that he wound up turning his parents’ garage into a microbrewery.

At the time, Mulherin was working as a respiratory therapist at Doylestown Hospital. He spent two years brewing small batches for “friends and family,” mainly for parties and get-togethers. Things changed when his father, who had a shore house, visited the operation run by Cape May Brewing Co., which had been on its way to becoming an acclaimed regional craft brewery.
“The amount they were brewing was maybe 15 to 20 gallons more than we were brewing,” Mulherin recalls. “That made us think: Maybe we can find a small space and get out of the garage.”
Mulherin and fellow co-owners Paul Mulherin and Paul Hogan—his father and uncle, respectively—found a space in Hatboro, which they turned into the headquarters for what is now known as Crooked Eye Brewery: a cozy tasting room as well as a destination for take-home growlers. The name, incidentally, came to Mulherin while working a long, bleary-eyed shift at the hospital.
The success of Crooked Eye, which recently celebrated 10 years in business, enabled Mulherin to become a full-time brewer. The enterprise has grown considerably in the years since, not only in terms of its physical space, but also in terms of the number and quality of the beers it produces. It even has a few local restaurants that have its beers on tap.
“I live a mile away from the brewery, so I can run over there pretty much anytime,” Mulherin says. “My wife still works at the hospital, working three 12-hour shifts [a week], so most days I’ll get the kids on the bus in the morning and then come here. … Eighty percent of brewing is cleaning, and 20 percent is brewing. We get by brewing three days a week, maybe four in the summer.”
Crooked Eye typically has more than a dozen beers on tap. Maintaining a variety of brew styles to appeal to many tastes is both a challenge and a source of pride for Mulherin, a native of Southampton who now lives in Upper Moreland. Personally, he enjoys the “clean crispness” of a German-style lager, though he admits stouts are his favorite beers to brew.
He has learned a lot about the business, and about brewing, over the past decade. Perhaps the best lesson applies to quality—namely, to make sure every batch meets a certain standard.
“When I first started thinking about [opening a brewery], I went to a bunch of different breweries and asked, ‘What would you do differently?’” he says. “One guy said, ‘We released a beer that we knew wasn’t quite right, because we didn’t want to take a hit. It took a good year to get our reputation back.’ What I took from that: If you have a bad batch, take a hit and dump it.”
For those who have never before brewed beer, on any scale, Mulherin says much of the work is tedious. He equates it to painting a house, which requires a lot of prep work. If the prep work is done well, however, the dividends are worth the effort. Mulherin actually enjoys the prep work, but the thing he enjoys most is the hospitality side of the business—having a place where people can come together, unwind, and enjoy the fruits of his labor.
As he looks to the months and years ahead, he sees expansion on the horizon. Maybe Crooked Eye will widen its footprint by adding a second location, or perhaps it will make the bold move of self-distributing to more restaurants that want Crooked Eye beers on tap.
“We have a lot of irons in the fire, so we’re trying to figure out the best way to go about it,” he says. “To this point, we’ll let the business push us to expansion. I’ve seen several places grow too fast and go out of business as a result. We don’t want to put ourselves in too much debt, but now seems like a good time to grow.”
While getting Crooked Eye to this point has required a lot of sweat equity, Mulherin says the benefits have been immeasurable. His life is much different now compared with when he worked in a hospital setting.
“A lot of respiratory therapy involves working with end-of-life patients, a lot of people on ventilators,” he says. “When you come to the brewery and see people being happy, it’s so much better. Life is short, so do something you love. Life can end in a blink.”
For more information about Manatawny Still Works, visit manatawnystillworks.com. For more information about Crooked Eye Brewery, visit crookedeyebrewery.com.
Kindred Spirits
Suburban Philadelphia overflows with talented brewers and distillers, including the following creators of suds and spirits with taprooms and tasting rooms throughout the area.
Bluebird Distilling
Multiple locations
Conshohocken Brewing Co.
Multiple locations
Five Saints Distilling
Hewn Spirits
New Hope and Pipersville
Levante Brewing Co.
West Chester
Mountain Laurel Spirits
Neshaminy Creek Brewing Co.
Multiple locations
Sly Fox Brewing Co.
Multiple locations
Tired Hands Brewing Co.
Multiple locations
Troubles End Brewing
Vault Brewing Co.
Victory Brewing Co.
Multiple locations
Photo by Jody Robinson
Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Life magazine, February 2024.