BEER CLINIC :: Dare beer’s good in deh Valley, heynit?

by Dr. Carol Westbrook on May 13, 2012

Translation:  Their beer is  good in the Wyoming Valley, isn’t it?

The Wyoming Valley, PA

Confused?  We were speaking “Heyna,” the local dialect here in the anthracite coal country of Northeast Pennsylvania (NEPA). The valley we are referring to is the Wyoming Valley of the great Susquehanna River, as it winds it way between the Poconos and Appalachian Mountains. The dialect is an amalgam of second generation European immigrant accent (where “TH” is never uttered), and blue collar slang, softened by Pennsylvania Dutch  (“ain’t it” = “heyna?”) with some Pittsburgh phrases thrown in, and a few unexpected surprises, such as “haitch” for “h” and “chimley” for “chimney.” It’s one of the few regional dialects that are still alive and thriving–and so is their regional beer scene.

As you readers may have surmised, I gave up on Goshen, IN and moved my medical practice to Wilkes-Barre, NEPA. Why and how is a story for another time. I did not move here for the beer, but I could have. This is a great place for the beer lover!  In addition to great beer bars (covered in a future article) there are a surprising number of good breweries in the area. It was a stroke of luck that the First Annual Electric City Craft Brew Fest was held within a month of my arrival here, giving me the opportunity to taste microbrews and meet the brewers.

Electric City Craft Brew Fest

As Brewfests go, this one was pretty nice. There were about 40 featured breweries, most from PA or nearby. It was a good size crowd, but it was not oversold, so I was able to taste everything on my list and (almost) nothing ran out.  The pours were generous. The food vendors were good value with beer-friendly food:  barbecue pork sandwiches, brats, pierogi, crab cakes, french fries, jerky. Rock music played by a DJ added to the festive atmosphere, though at times it was difficult to have a conversation.

To get the most out of this brewfest, I concentrated on regional breweries within 50-70 miles of home, giving me the opportunity to taste small batch beer, something I can’t buy in stores but may be on draft locally. Some are not even handled by distributors and do their own distribution. The 50-miles limit excludes the bigger regional breweries, many of which are excellent.

My general conclusion is that the craft breweries in this area are quite good because they have a discerning and divided audience. The Valley has both lager-lovers and hop-heads who are adamant about their preferences. So you don’t see the kind of over-specialization that you see in, for example, the Chicago lagers, or the West Coast hop houses. Myself, I appreciate the hoppy ales, and I have been impressed with the well-balanced use of hops that I believe characterizes high IBU beers in PA. I’m not a judge of lagers, though I enjoy them.

I tasted everything on my list. When I found a beer I really liked, I made it a point to ask the brewers at the festival what hops they used, since I’m a home brewer myself and am always interested. In general, I found that, compared to Midwestern and West Coast beers, the use of strong American “C” hops (Cascade, Centennial, etc.) is throttled back; I saw more European and English hops in these beers. An overly-hopped IPA can be very unpleasant, and very few brewers know how to balance it with a good malt selection or other ingredients. Here in NEPA, they seem to mostly get it right.

Of the beers sampled, here are my picks:

Best of show:  Ladder Dive Rye IPA, Three Guys and a Beer’d Brewery

Second place:  Bourbon Barrel Porter, Shawneecraft

Last place: Hops’olutely, Fegley’s Allentown Brew Works

With that introduction, here is a summary of my tasting of strictly local beers, at the 2012 First Annual Electric City Brewfest, almost alphabetically by brewery:

Breaker Brewing, Wilkes-Barre PA

If you don’t know what a breaker is, then you’re not from around here. A Breaker is a multi-story building where newly-mined coal is crushed and sorted by size. Though anthracite coal has not been mined since 1959– when the Susquehanna flooded the entire system of deep mines–abandoned breakers and a few bootleg mines still dot the landscape. And we Valley residents are proud of this heritage, as almost everyone had a grandpa, father or uncle who worked the mines, and brought their lunch pail home at the end of the day, to fill it with beer at one of the many local saloons along the way. So we naturally take to a brewery in which coal mining inspires and names the beers.

I believe that’s one reason why Breaker is growing in popularity and distribution. The other reason is they make good beer. I spoke with Mark, one of the owners, who explained that they are making traditional beers but each with a unique twist. I had tasted some of their beers in local taverns, and some were a bit rough, but their IPA is exceptional.  I Love PA (IPA) is extremely well-hopped with American C hops (Centennial, Chinook, Cascade, etc. ) and it’s now my pick at local pubs.

Barley Creek, in Tannersville PA

This is a very small outfit which makes excellent beer but, sadly for me, they are a brewpub, and they only sell their beer on site or in growlers. They cater to the outdoorsy trade — fishers, hunters, and skiers and their beers are aptly named. I tasted their Angler Black Lager, a German style Dunkel, which was very drinkable and nicely done.

Fegley’s Allentown Brewworks

I tried their Hop’solutely, a triple IPA. A high alcohol beer (11.5% ABV), it’s bottled with a cork and cage, like a fancy Belgian.  This one has a potpourri of strong, citrusy American hops: Summit, Amarillo, Chinook, Cascade. Though you need an assertive hop blend to soften the alcohol, “more” is not necessarily “better.” Though I am a hop head, this beer missed the mark. Can you have too many hops? Hopsolutely.

Stegmaeier (Lion Brewery), Wilkes-Barre, PA

Lion is a huge brewery, located at ground zero in the valley. Stegmaier is their craft line. They tend toward lagers, but they make a creditable IPA, pretty much available anywhere in NEPA, and it goes well with food. It’s my drink of choice when I’m at a restaurant where the only other options are mass-market lagers. Solid and predictable.

Shawnee Craft,

Shawnee Craft Brewery, Shawnee on Delaware, PA

This is a brewery to keep your eye on. Their beers are wonderfully unique, and they have a commitment to (mostly) organic production and low environmental impact. As a result, they will probably not grow in volume or distribution, which apparently is okay with the owner who is brewing because he loves it (He still has a day job). And you can’t beat the location in the Delaware Valley. But it’s hard to find outside of Scranton.

Their Apiarius pale ale is brewed with honey from their own hives. They are growing raspberries for their upcoming framboise. And the most sophisticated beer I tasted at the Brewfest was their Bourbon Barrel Porter, boasting a 10.5% ABV, with a modest IBU of 33 and 95% organic content. Barrel aging is the latest fad in craft beers, but this one actually tastes great; it was hard to stop.

Three Guys and a Beer’d  Carbondale PA

This is one of the newest breweries on the scene, open for only 5 months now, up da line in Carbondale. I have rarely seen a rye beer, and the ones I tasted tended to be more “interesting” than “tasty.” But their Ladder Dive Rye IPA was outstanding. I could drink it all afternoon, and I almost did.

I was also fortunate to get a taste of their new Chocolate Porter , a special release for this fest. It is a very dark porter which has a distinctive chocolate taste; probably from the added cocoa. I’m not usually a fan of flavored beers but this one was quite drinkable, very reminiscent of Guinness.

Keep your eyes on this brewery. I think their master brewer has a wonderful palate, as well as a red beard. Too bad about the name. (Ed. I personally like the name)

Yeungling, Pottsville PA

Claims to be the oldest continuously operating brewery in the US; like most large breweries, their roots are German lagers, and Y lager is a staple throughout the state. Although not strictly speaking a craft brewery, their beer is good and always available. I tasted the Chesterfield Ale, a good copy of an English bitter. It’s available everywhere.

Just for the record, I did taste quite a few other beers beyond my imposed limit. Some of the highlights:

Troegs Brewing, Harrisburg  PA, featured their flagship Hopback Amber Ale  which uses a unique hopping process. Before fermentation, the wort is passed through the hopback vessel, which re-circulates through fresh hops, extracting more flavor. Think of a tea bag. The taste is sublime, and highly recommended.

Victory Hop Devil (Downington PA) is always a favorite and Yards (Philadelphia) makes a great IPA. I consider Dogfish Head to be the king of East Coast hops (90 minute and 60 minute IPAs). True to form they presented a Demo IPA, a surprisingly tasty, hoppy BLACK IPA. Keep your eyes open for this one. I hope they expand production. It’s a keeper.

I left the festival full of pierogis, crab cakes, hops, and good cheer. The festival whetted my appetite to spend more time at the local brew houses in my new home town, Wilkes-Barre, PA. Lotsa good beer on tap, more in bottles.

Lotsa good taverns up and down the line, heynit?


{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Jerry Hawkins August 10, 2012 at 1:56 pm

It was a pleasure to meet you today.
Enjoy the Stegmaier IPA tonight !!!



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