I have a Welsh corgi named Maud. She’s small and she’s young, but she looks like a miniature German shepherd. She’s feisty and dominates a room like a much bigger, older dog. There’s a lot to be said for that kind of energy, style and attitude.
Central PA’s craft breweries are a lot like Maud. The biggest of them are tiny compared even to regional powerhouse Yuengling, and most are less than 10 years old. But they’re real breweries, their energy and innovation get plenty of attention, and they’ve found a home with adoring fans.
This has been beer country for a long time. Brewing goes back to the early 1700s in Lancaster County, and it spread up both branches of the Susquehanna River (and up the Schuylkill River from Philadelphia). Wherever there was good water and Germans, there were breweries. Many closed during Prohibition; some reopened, but by 1985 most had closed for good.
Two years later, Carol and Ed Stoudt started their new brewery in Adamstown, and the central Pennsylvania beer story started all over again.
SMALL TOWN STORIES
You might have noticed I don’t use the word “microbrewery.” I don’t really think it’s useful anymore, as places like Victory grow toward producing 100,000 31-gallon barrels a year. “Craft brewery” is only a bit more useful, because to me it’s really about the kind of beer they make, rather than the way they make it or who owns them.
“Brewpub,” on the other hand, is great: they make beer there and sell it there. It’s at the brewpubs that you’ll find the freshest beer. It’s filtered from the conditioning tanks into freshly-cleaned serving tanks and runs right to the taps. (OK, some brewpubs do keg their beer, but it never leaves the building.)
One of my very favorite brewpubs is Selin’s Grove Brewing Co., located in the old Snyder Mansion right in Selinsgrove. It’s not easy to be my favorite — I visit at least 20 new brewpubs a year these days - but Selin’s Grove has the important points locked down. The beer’s tremendous — from the light, refreshing cream ale through the cherry-stuffed kriek up to the lusciously rich St. Fillian’s barleywine. The food’s not just delicious, it’s all house - made and locally sourced when possible. The service is friendly and fun.
It’s the intangibles that make Selin’s Grove a solid winner: the tiny bar with no TV, the stone floors, the little patio in the summer and the genuine love among the staff. It all makes for a place that has knit itself into this town’s life, and mine. If you get a chance, try to stop by on the winter solstice, it’s their opening day anniversary, and it’s a special day on the Pennsylvania beer calendar.
A new favorite is Old Forge Brewing Co. in Danville. Old Forge’s brewhouse is right in the front window, and there are two big racks for the regulars’ hand-fired mugs. It’s hard to miss that this is a brewpub. The place has only been open a little more than two years, but they’ve already expanded.
They crank out some great food — including breads and pretzels, cheeses and produce — and provide a wonderfully intimate bar atmosphere on this pitch-perfect street of shops. And don’t overlook the beer. The Old Forge Alt is a spot-on re-creation of a classic German style that many American brewers have fumbled. That alone is worth the trip.
If you like this kind of small-town vibe, you’ll also want to visit Marley’s Brewery and Grill in Bloomsburg, River House just across from Lewisburg and Elk Creek Café & Aleworks in Millheim. All three are excellent and located in beautiful towns. Elk Creek has an interesting connection for me. I discussed the plans for Elk Creek with owner Tim Bowser about 18 months before it opened — sitting at the bar at Selin’s Grove. With a start like that, how could Elk Creek go wrong?
GOOD BEER, GOOD PEOPLE
Otto’s Pub & Brewery opened less than 10 years ago in State College. Otto’s thrived, despite a location with limited brewing space and severely limited parking. Owner-brewer Charlie Schnable plugged away at some early brewing problems and was soon producing excellent beers. The food is locally sourced when possible from places like Hogs Galore in Philipsburg. The beer’s even locally sourced to some extent. Charlie’s mother picks the elderberries for Otto’s Mom’s Elderberry Stout from her own yard.
Things are on the upswing at Otto’s. They recently moved down the hill to a much bigger location with a lot more parking. There’s also more room to brew, so they’re going to be packaging beer for sales off-premises. Charlie also is making Keewaydin Cider with locally grown apples.
Jeff Harless and his wife, Jo, barbecue some mighty tasty pork (and beef, chicken, tacos, even cabbage) at their Manheim brewpub, JoBoy’s. They’ve got two small but efficient smokers in the kitchen, which is also where they have Jeff’s very small brewery — a 15-gallon system that would fit in the back of an SUV. Jeff may have actually miscalculated on that; the beer’s been so good, and so popular, he’s spending a lot of time brewing those small batches.
We have time for one more, and it’s not far away. Spring House Brewery Co. is down in Conestoga, tucked away in a barn along a two lane road. It’s rustic Lancaster County; the only thing that gives it away is the foam insulation poking out between the barn’s planks. Brewer-owner Matthew Keasey was running everything out of here: brewery, sales and a touchingly popular tasting room on a raised interior deck that was a real beer hotspot for about a year. The beers were great, if a little nuts — like the Kerplunk! Chocolate stout, named for the sound made when Keasey dropped the Lititz-made Wilbur Bud chocolates in the brewing beer. But Keasey could see this wasn’t a good long-term plan; he needed time to brew and space. So the Spring House Taproom opened on King Street in downtown Lancaster this year, serving light food and a madly rotating variety of Spring House beers in a smart-looking bar setting. He’s doing his best to keep up with demand.
That’s the story all over central Pennsylvania. The breweries that are here already are all doing well, as craft beer explodes in popularity — craft grew 10 percent in America last year, while overall beer sales declined a little — and there are new ones popping up all the time. They’re small and young and feisty, and that’s just the way we like them!
Lew Bryson, left, is the author of four regional brewery guidebooks. He is also the managing editor of Whisky Advocate magazine and lives north of Philadelphia with his wife and two children.
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