Phoenix man opens Gunpowder Falls Brewing

Martin Virga is a typical sleep-deprived new father. He checks his progeny early each morning before heading to work and spends each evening with them, sometimes not falling into bed until long after midnight.

Virga, 46, of Phoenix, is the proud papa of two German-style lagers he creates at Gunpowder Falls Brewing, a new brewery he opened last month in New Freedom, Pa.


The brewery has a tasting room where visitors can sip two beers — a soft yellow Pils and a pale brown Dunkel. The beers are made in a cavernous warehouse behind the tasting room.

"I'm brewing beer the way they used to centuries ago," Virga said. "I use four ingredients — water, yeast, hops and malted barley."


Although the Dunkel is a dark beer, it is not heavy, he said, and actually has a softer taste than the Pilsner.

He achieves the delicate flavors that make each beer unique by using different varieties of malted barley and hops.

Once these two beers are established, Virga hopes to introduce new varieties as well.

After Virga and his assistant brew master, Daniel Williams, 20, also of Phoenix, combine those four ingredients, it takes four weeks until the beer is ready to be bottled.

They brew once a week, so each of the four stainless steel fermentation tanks contains beer in a different stage of completion.

"This is a very fun job," Williams said. "It's a cool process to see and we do it all by hand. This place always smells so good."

Virga, Williams and some part-time employees also sanitize brown beer bottles, label them, fill them and package them for delivery.

Gunpowder Falls beer is already pouring into liquor stores, bars and restaurants in Baltimore County and city.


Although the beers are brand new to the market, they are doing well, said Robert Yorke, with Legends Limited, a Maryland distributor.

"Most every place that has tried it has re-bought it," he said.

In North County, Gunpowder Falls beer can be found at Troyer's Liquors in Hereford. The beer is also in Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore, Max's on Broadway in Fells Point and Racers Café in Parkville, as well as Wine Source in Hampden, Wells Liquors in Baltimore, Wine Merchant in Lutherville and Calvert Liquors in Hunt Valley.

"Gunpowder Falls beer has been selling very well," said Steve Judge, who runs the craft and imported beer department at Calvert Liquors. "He's the only guy around who is doing old-style German beers."

Thomas Stumpp, a friend of Virga's who is a native of Germany and visits Baltimore several times a year, said he has tried both beers and was impressed. He saw the brewery under construction and tasted Gunpowder Falls beer when the tasting room opened.

"The Pilsner was my favorite," he said. "It's very authentic German style."


Life-changing trip

Virga grew up in Palm Springs and said a family trip that included a tour of the Olympia Brewery in Washington changed his life.

"I was fascinated on that tour. When we got home I kept reading about beer and breweries in the Encyclopedia Britannica. I couldn't get enough."

That fascination lasted through college. In 1988, he went to Munich, Germany, to attend a school that was founded in 1895 and is one the oldest brewing schools in the world.

His first job was in Baltimore at the G. Heileman Brewing Co.'s lab. From there, he was hired to help start the brewing operations at Capitol City Brewing Co. in Washington D.C.

A few years later, he left to start his own brewery, Ellicott Mills Brewing Co. in Ellicott City. He sold his interest in that company in 2004.


Virga currently works full time in Towson as manager of a medical group headed up by gastroenterologist Mark Noar. Every spare moment of his days and nights is spent at his brewery.

He said he picked Gunpowder Falls as the brand name because it clearly identifies the region where the beer is brewed.

"Since New Freedom is at the headwater for the Gunpowder Falls and since water is one of my primary ingredients, I thought it would be appropriate to use Gunpowder Falls for the branding," he said.

Virga asked his friend, Jed Jenny, who works at Wine Source and is a graduate of Maryland Institute College of Art, to create the logo that features a waterfall and trees.

Gunpowder Falls Brewing is located at 15556 Elm Drive, New Freedom, Pa. The tasting room is open Friday from 4 to 8 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from noon to 6 p.m. Food is also available and tours of the brewery can be given.

For more details, go to, call 717-759-0330 or email