I have a microbrewery in my neighborhood. I am blessed–in fact, I am twice blessed, not only because it is so close to home, but because it is on the former site of St. Joseph’s monastery. And who can brew beer better than monks?
There are at least 5 purported patron saints of brewing–that’s important in a Catholic town like Wilkes-Barre– but the only one with credentials is a monk, St. Arnold of Flanders (1040 – 1087 AD) who himself was a brewer, and is depicted with a bishop’s mitre and a mash rake. Although monks did not invent beer, they were responsible for improving the process and introducing hops. Most monasteries felt obligated to keep their regions well supplied with beer –which in medieval times was much safer to drink than the local water supply.
In the same tradition, it is wonderful to have a brewery in a nearby (former) monastery to keep our region well supplied with beer. Breaker is an easy stop on my way home from work to pick up a growler or two . The tasting room is open 3 evenings a week for free-flowing beer, conversation, and an occasional snack brought in by a local patron. You will usually find one of the brewer/owners, Chris Miller or Mark Lehman, chatting with the visitors and showing off their brews. Their enthusiasm is contagious. They love brewing, starting the enterprise as homebrewers in their garage, and are rightly proud of their brewery and the beers they make.
Breaker’s new brewery and tasting room is located along a beautiful and steep drive, Laurel Run. This historic road, which is locally known as “Giant’s Despair,” is the site of many crashes. The road is also hosts a yearly car summer race, the Giant’s Despair Hill Climb, which has been going on since the early 1900′s. It is a dramatic setting overlooking the Wyoming Valley. You can see the sites of many former anthracite coal mines, some of which are only a few miles from the brewery, which explains the brewery’s name and logo.
A “Breaker” is a coal processing plant, which is used for breaking up and sorting raw coal ore that is brought up from the deep underground mines. Although Wyoming Valley’s history dates back to pre-revolutionary times, it was the European immigrants who came to mine coal in the 1800′s and early 1900′s who brought the demand for beer. The coal mines are now closed due to an underground flood in 1959, but most locals still feel a strong connection to the miners, and that is why
Breaker is so well-loved. (The other reason is the good brew.) Most everyone from around here is only one or two degrees removed from mining. My husband Rick had two Lithuanian grandfathers who were miners. One, Grandpa Rakauskas, worked at the Stanton Colliery, which was only a few miles from the tasting room; you have seen his picture, sharing a brew with his friends on a previous Beer Clinic. Grandpa Gober worked across the river at the Harry E Colliery, just a couple of blocks up the hill from the house he shared with his family. Rick remembers how he would walk home carrying his empty lunch pail, tired and thirsty at the end of a long day, stopping at Antanaitas’s tavern along he way to to fill up the pail to drink at home.
Breaker pays homage to the anthracite coal miners who lived and worked in the area. The tasting room is filled with miners memorabilia including miners’ lamps and lunch pails, and old-time photos of the area. It is a veritable history museum, and a delight for the local coal aficionados. And of course the beer names memorialize the miners and their lives.
Lunch Pail Ale is the flagship (Pix 5). It is American Pale Ale, currently my go-to beer in local bars. At 5.0 % ABV, it’s incredibly drinkable, with a beautiful amber color, good malt flavor from Munich malts, and a highly-hopped (45 IBU) but balanced flavor, using mostly west-coast hops–Columbus, Cascade and Nugget. It has a great aroma, thanks to dry-hopping. Every time I drink it I think of Grandpa Gober and his lunch pail, though, in reality, he probably drank a lighter, lower-alcohol beer, possibly a pale ale or, more likely, old Gibbons Lager – well loved but now defunct.
Goldie’s Blonde Ale is probably closer to what Grandpa Gober drank. It’s an easy-drinking session beer, at 4.5% ABV with only a smattering of hops (12 IBU), leaving a distinctive clove and banana finish. Goldie’s was an establishment in downtown Wilkes-Barre where local coal miners would unwind with beer, food and “merriment.” I am still not sure what “merriment” is, but it might have involved Goldie. Last week I tried Goldie’s Extra, which is the same recipe but brewed with twice the malt, resulting in a 7% ABV beer. Excellent! It is much better than regular Goldie’s, and it has much more merriment.
A few weeks ago I stopped in at Breaker’s tasting room to see what was on tap and to catch up with the brewers. The draft list contained their standards, which includes a stout and several IPAs, all very good–and incidentally they make an outstanding black IPA, Black Diamond. There was a new addition, Five Whistle Wheat Watermelon Ale. If you are a regular reader, you probably know that I’m not a big fan of wheat beers, or summer fruit beers, and I am especially skeptical of beers that feature “weird” ingredients. I was not prepared for this beer, which was exceptional summer ale. This beer used their standard 5-Whistle Wheat Beer as a base, with added watermelon juice for flavoring. Unlike many summer beers and pumpkin ales, the fruit was not used in the fermentation process because, as Mark explained, it ended up making the beer taste like watermelon rind. But using the juice as a flavor additive worked beautifully. The beer is crisp, cold and thirst-quenching, watermelon-y but not too sweet. I took a growler along to a picnic that evening, and it went quickly. This is the best summer beer I ever tasted. I hope they feature it again next summer.
I returned a few weeks later for more, but sadly, the 5 WWW Watermelon was all gone. Instead, I was handed a draft of another summer wheat beer, this one flavored with lemongrass, Laurel Line Lemongrass Ale. The ale is named for an interurban light rail that connected Scranton and Wilkes Barre, The Laurel Line, a.k.a. The Lackawanna and Wyoming Valley Railroad. Laurel Line is a fun beer to drink, because it tastes like lemonade, very similar to a traditional Shady, which in England is a beer mix of 50% English Ale and 50% lemon soda. I was initially skeptical because the only other lemongrass beer I had ever tasted was Monkey Knife Fight, at Nodding Head Brewery in Philadelphia. I did not care for Monkey at all, in part due to its confusing and unpleasant flavor mix, which includes ginger, spice and lemongrass. Monkey has its followers but I am not one. Laurel Line has one flavor — lemon– and it’s done correctly.
Unfortunately, most of my readers will never get a chance to taste these wonderful beers, because Breaker is a microbrewery, which means it is small (less than 15,000 barrels by definition of the American Brewers Association). In general, the smaller and more hands-on the brewery, the better the beer — but there is less of it. Like most micros, Breaker doesn’t bottle, and Mark and Chris do most of their own distribution. They can barely make enough to keep up with demand. They brew in 3 BBL kegs (Pix 7) and often hit gridlock, waiting for the brew to finish so they can move in another beer. I was pleased to hear that they are adding more tank capacity. This will double their output, so the beer will be flowing more freely. Along with this, they’ll also be expanding their tasting room into a full-time brewpub, serving food and drink
In the meantime, I’m happy to enjoy the small pours at the tasting room, take home the occasional growler, and seek out BBC on draft at the local saloons. I recognize that bottling is not a realistic plan for such a small enterprise, and it would probably have a negative impact on their quality or innovation if they chose to go in that direction at this time. Too many small breweries have been ruined by scaling up too fast. I’m happy to keep Breaker as my local “monastery”, keeping our region supplied with freshly brewed beer. This is not is not a plea to Breaker to scale up, expand and start bottling. Though if that happened, I would be the first in line, so I could take a few cases to out-of-state friends. (I’ll bring one for you, Harvey!) It is, instead, a reminder to love and support your local microbrewery. Amen.
Dr. Westbrook’s invaluable book, Ask an Oncologist is available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble.