BEER CLINIC :: Among the Coalfields of Northeast Pennsylvania: Breaker Brewing Company

by Dr. Carol Westbrook on December 4, 2015

Breaker Brewing Company, BBC, is named for the coal breaker, a large structure used to break and sort coal as it comes out of the mines. Breakers, once common features in the hills of Northeast Pennsylvania (NEPA), have all but disappeared, due to the collapse of the mining industry in 1959 when a river breach flooded all the interconnected tunnels.

The abandoned Huber Breaker, now demolished

The abandoned Huber Breaker, now demolished

Though the mines are closed, people are proud of their mining heritage. Many residents’ forebears moved here to work the mines, emigrating from Wales, Ireland, Germany, Italy, Poland, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia and other parts of Europe. They established ethnic communities, with their churches, schools, and taverns. People remember the stories of their grandfathers who worked the mines, and keep alive many of their traditions, including stopping at the local pub after work for a draft; filling their lunch pail with beer to bring home after work; gathering often with friends at church socials, school halls, or bars; and going to church–a lot.

Grandpa Rikoski enjoying a Sunday afternoon beer with his friends in rolling Mill Hill, not far from BBC, early 1900's

Grandpa Rikoski enjoying a Sunday afternoon beer with his friends in rolling Mill Hill, not far from BBC, early 1900’s

Like the miners’ bars, the Breaker Brewpub has become a gathering place for locals who stop on their way home from work for a draft or to bring home in a growler. It has also become a destination for beer tourists who come from around the region, jamming the brewpub on Saturday afternoon. The brewpub is a treasure trove of mining paraphernalia, old prints, photographs and paintings of mining operations and local history.

The brewery itself is a piece of history, since it occupies a local landmark, the old St. Joseph’s Church, School and Monastery in Wilkes-Barre Township, PA. Many of the BBC regulars were baptized there, attended the school, were taught by nuns, and were married in the church. St. Joseph’s closed its doors in 2009, and would have been demolished had not the brewers, Chris Miller and Mark Lehman, purchased it in 2011 to expand their growing microbrewery business. The taproom restaurant opened in 2014. It serves great food, all prepared on the premises with locally sourced ingredients. The specials are reminiscent of the food you might have gotten in church socials, and in fact Breaker recently celebrated a Coalminer’s Heritage Fest, featuring miners’ favorite ethnic foods paired with their beer.

People visit for the nostalgia, but they come back for the beer.

Recently I visited the BBC Brewpub with my friend Jaime Jurado, who is from Abita Brewing in Louisiana. We wanted to taste their beers, and see how the brewery is doing. We ordered a taster of all twelve beers on draft, plus the weekend special firkin. We accompanied our beer with soft pretzels, hearty bowls of borscht, Irish stew, and good pub camaraderie.

Jaime Jurado and Carol Westbrook, tasting beers at Breaker Brewing Company

Jaime Jurado and Carol Westbrook, tasting beers at Breaker Brewing Company

With twelve drafts there are a lot of choices for the beer lover, and even a few which will appeal to those who are not so crazy about beer. Most of the beer names have a reference to coal, making them easy to remember. BBC’s traditional ales–dark, light, and IPAs–are good and true to form; their flagship brews, such as Lunch Pail Ale, are consistent–which is important to a regular who comes to expect a certain taste.

There is always something on draft to interest the beer tourist, and it usually features fruit, most often as a flavoring added after fermentation. The high-gravity Abandoned Mine Barleywine Italiano is a variant of their usual barleywine, this one with wine grapes. They also featured Banana Nut Bread and Sour Pear Ale. You will always find a firkin, a fun mixture of beer with a fresh ingredient, like the Potbelly Pumpkin Ale spiced with cranberry, cinnamon and sugar that was on draft for our Halloween visit. Thus, there are a number of drafts that appeal to the many visitors who just don’t like hops, or the non-beer lovers who want something different.

Here is our tasting list:

  1. Olde King Coal Stout (4.5%)
    This is a very drinkable dark stout, like a Guinness but a bit more “toasted” in flavor. A lovely session beer.
  1. Five Whistle Wheat Americano (4.5%)
    A take on their flagship wheat ale. Usually brewed with wheat malt and white yeast, this was done with American Ale yeast. It went down easy but I think it was lacking the clove & spice flavor I expect in a wheat beer.
  1. Sour Pear Ale 5%
    A sour, low-hop beer brewed with local pears. Reminiscent of a Belgian beer, not too sweet, and easy to drink. My favorite new beer for the afternoon.
  1. Lunch Pail Ale (5.5%)
    This is the flagship, a pale (pail) ale verging on an IPA with 42 IBUs. Good malt balance and hop balance with Columbus, Cascade and Nugget hops. It is my all-around favorite BBC beer.
  1. Banana Nut Bread Ale (5.5%)
    Fun, on the sweet side, mild banana nose and taste. Where are the nuts?
  1. Potbelly Pumpkin Ale (6.5%)
    Their seasonal autumn offering.
  1. firkin: Potbelly Pumpkin Ale (6.5%)
    This week’s offering — over cranberry, cinnamon and vanilla. If you like spice, and pumpkin pie, this one is for you. The additions go well with the otherwise bland pumpkin ale. A pleasant drink

8.   Detonator series: Pine Ridge IPA (6%)
9.   Citra Hop IPA (6%)
10.  Mosaic IPA (6%)

The brewers love hoppy ales, and BBC IPAs are always made well. I liked all of these; the complaint is that there are too many, all competing with each other for your attention. All the ales have the same excellent malt background, and 6% ABV. Citra is made with Citra hops, Mosaic with Mosaic, and Pine Ridge contains both. Yes, it’s fun to drink them together and see if you can tell them apart. (Yes, you can always taste the Citra hops).

11.  Goldies XXX (10%)
Goldies Tripel is a high gravity blonde ale that is low in hops, and brewed with Belgian yeasts.

12.  Abandoned Mine Barleywine Italiano (10.6%)
Fall is the season that local home vintners make wine, so the brewers gave it a try, adding wine grape extract to their barleywine. Whoever would have thought a high-gravity, hoppy barleywine would pair so well with grapes? The result is surprisingly like a cask-aged, fruit wine, such as New Glarus would make. Although this flavored rather than brewed with grapes, it is definitely a must-try for the beer tourist.

Jaime, Chris and Carol at Breaker Brewing Company

Jaime, Chris and Carol at Breaker Brewing Company

Chris Miller, one of the two owner-brewers, stopped by for a chat, and took us around to see what’s next for BBC. The brewing operation will be growing and moving into the church itself, to keep up with the growing demand, and continuing a trend of situating brewing operations in churches (see YBN, May 27, 2015. Church Brew Works ). The crowded pub will be expanded with more tables and another bar, spilling into an adjacent room in the old school–to be furnished with blackboards (but no nuns). Chris and Mark are doing most of the carpentry themselves. Chris then excused himself “gotta run–I have some beer to transfer, and some pretzels to roll out. “

If the fun and romance of brewing beer is giving you thoughts of starting your own brewery–think again. It may be rewarding, but it’s a helluva lot of work. One of the reasons for the high quality at BBC is that Chris and Mark still do everything themselves, from rolling pretzels to carpentry to brewing. They have now hired a chef, but they still have to produce 11 beers for taproom and regional distribution. At some point they will have to slow down. But for now… Enjoy the fruits of their labors.

NOTE: Since the piece was written the brewery expansion has been completed and has been a great success.

Breaker Brewing Company, 787 E. Northampton, Wilkes-Barre Township, PA

imagesIn addition to her fascinating essays on a variety of topics to be found @ 3 Quarks Daily, also available from Dr. Westbrook: 

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