Here are a few off-the-beaten-path reasons why.

by Jack Curtin
Atlantic Ale Trail
August - September 2007

Beer travelers heading for Pennsylvania usually, and for good reason, target Philadelphia and environs as the locale which will best suit their passion. While here, though, the history-minded among their ranks might want to stretch that "environs" thing a bit and consider a day journey up north to Wilkes-Barre. This classic coal mining town, once known as the "Diamond City" due to the large amount of anthracite coal it produced, is about 115 miles and two hours away. It is home to The Lion Brewery, 106 years old this year and one of the last of the great regional breweries in the country. Yes, D. G. Yuengling & Son in Pottsville, roughly the same distance and time from Philadelphia in a more westward direction, is the nation's oldest still existing brewery (opened in 1829) and worth a day trip as well, but The Lion is also the successor brewery to Stegmaier, which dates back to 1857 (the original Stegmaier brewery is right down the road from The Lion plant, now refurbished as an office building), so the historical lines aren't all that far apart.

Either would be a good choice for a visit from an historical perspective, each oozing the past out of every corner. Yuengling Lager is, of course, something of a legend, a beer which mystically transforms the word "lager" in every market it enters until the brand and the style become the same for bartenders and customers alike. All props to them-hey, they made Philadelphia the only market in the country where Budweiser was not number one (good), even though the winner then became Coors Light (bad)-but The Lion is the spot for those who love their suds as much as their stats. Four purposes here the decider (as our beloved pres-nint might say) is this: The Lion, which has survived in modern times primarily as a contract brewer (Stoudt's, Neuweiler, Red Bell et al) and by churning out malt beverages for the Hispanic market, has recently begun producing some excellent craft level brews under the Stegmaier label.

The Lion, under the lead of brewery operations director Leo Orlandini (GABF medium-sized brewery and brewer of the year in 1999) and head brewer Bob Klinetob, introduced a series of quarterly seasonals in 2006 out of which came two real winners. Stegmaier Brewhouse Bock, the first ever release, was superb in 2006 and was beyond that this year, as fine a bock beer as I tasted in 2007. Last year's Summer Stock Lager was an all-malt delight with a solid hop character, another keeper (I should mention that Stegmaier is one of the most favorably priced brands in the region). All is not copasetic. Management put the kibosh on an Imperial Porter as the fourth beer in 2006 and the Summer Stock was replaced by a Witbier this year because it felt the Stock was "too hoppy." The Witbier, unfortunately, could serve as the poster child for the theory that great lager brewers should not fool around with Belgian styles. On a definitely more positive note, the brand-new Steg 150 was introduced on June 2 as the brewery celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Stegmaier brand and it's as good a Vienna-style lager as you're going to find and possibly going to become a year-round offering. All in all, turning the guys in the brewhouse loose from the previously really tight rein was a brilliant decision.

Another trip, this one directly westward within the same time and distance framework, would bring a visitor to Harrisburg, the state capitol, home to two breweries which are both celebrating their tenth anniversaries this year. Appalachian Brewing, which also has smaller locations in Gettysburg and Camp Hill and is planning another in Lancaster, has what may be the largest brewpub in the country as its home base, 53,000 square feet and three floors. It celebrated its ten years with a blowout part on May 12 and completed an expansion which more than doubled its capacity in June.

Brewmaster/Director of Operations Artie Tafoya told us that "we've removed the four original fermenters and replaced them with eight brand new fermenters and added a new bright tank. The old fermenters were 4,000 gallon units, but we only used them for 3,000 barrel batches, because our system works better with that size. The eight new tanks are 3,000bbl units--3255 actually, or 105bbls per batch." The main brewery, which also provides the core beers for the Gettysburg (opened August 2003) and Camp Hill (opened August 2006) locations, currently produces about 5,000bbl annually. The two smaller pubs make their own specialty brews onsite in 10bbl and 5bbl systems respectively.

One of the Harrisburg pub's main attractions is the second-floor Abbey Bar which opened in February 2006, a Belgian-themed room which has been "a tremendous success," says Tafoya. "Not only are we selling a lot of Belgian beers, we're selling more of our own beers than ever before as well." He readily admits that the concept was copies from Bethlehem Brew Works in, you guessed it, Bethlehem, which has its Belgian room beneath the main brewery area (speaking of expansion, Bethlehem's long delayed second location, Allantown Brew Works, finally opened its doors in June). Appalachian currently packages its five flagship beers (Water Gap Wheat, Mountain Lager, Jolly Scot Scottish Ale, Purist Pale Ale and Hoppy Trails IPA) and one seasonal each quarter. The brewery will hold its annual Capitol City Invitational Beer Festival in September.

The other Harrisburg brewery is Tröegs, a production brewery which is turning more and more often on the various lists of the best breweries in the country, and deserved so. Brothers Chris and John Trogner were about as cautious as any founders I've ever seen in the craft beer industry back in the early years, both with the beers they created and their distribution, but no longer. Now the release of creative beers like the seasonal Mad Elf Ale (Christmas) and Nugget Nectar (spring) kick off a frenzy among beer geeks; the anniversary beer it does each June for the local Drafting Room restaurants is another calendar-worthy item for the same crowd.

Without a pub to host an anniversary celebration (although it is for all practical purposes the host of the annual Harrisburg Brewers Fest each summer), Tröegs found a unique way to mark its 10th anniversary, the Scratch Beer series. "Scratch Beer delves deep into our past and combines it with what we've learned about brewing beer over the past ten years," said Chris Trogner, who is Mr. Outside to John's Mr. Inside. "We recently came across some old scratch pads-notebooks where we would jot down tasting notes. Along with those tasting notes, were detailed logs on pilot batches brewed on the back patio of our Colorado apartment several years before the brewery opened, along with numerous recipes that were never brewed. None of those pilot batches or early recipes ever became a Tröegs Brewery beer, but those tasting notes and early recipes served as inspiration and research for the beers we finally bottled."

The series consisted of four beers done over four months, reviving those old recipes in small, one-time batches sold only at the Tröegs Brewery Tasting Room, which is the heart of regular Saturday brewery tours. They consisted of a California Common Beer (the beer which was the inspiration for Tröegs Pale Ale), a Porter, a Belgian-style Abbey Beer and a Barleywine. Approximately 200 cases of each batch were bottled, while the remainder was kegged for growler and "extremely-limited" keg sales. The series will culminate in a special 10th Anniversary Scratch Beer released in early August. Thereafter, "we plan on making several Scratch Beers each year as tank space allows," John Trogner said.

One final travel thought. Trust me, you needn't think only of Philadelphia which planning a beer journey to these parts. Out west in Pittsburgh, to which not nearly enough attention is paid, they have a great beer culture, quite different from the one we enjoy here in the east. It is definitely worth a visit. Indeed, to try and rectify that attention-deficit thing, I keep telling the extensive "Atlantic Ale Trail" staff that I needs must hie my ancient ass out again for a couple of days there and in nearby Cleveland, another good beer locale. I need to start walking that walk because, to be honest, the guys in the mail room now hide whenever I drop by and start pontificating about that trip (don't even get 'em started on the one to New England that I keep saying also has to be scheduled).

Just do it and get it over with, they scream. I kinda suspect what they really want is me out of the way so they can get into the petty cash, but I suppose I'm gonna have to bite the bullet and become one of those beer travelers myself.

Copyright (c) 2007 Jack Curtin

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