We’re back! Craft Beer in Northeast Pennsylvania: Part I, Breaker Brewing Company

by Dr. Carol Westbrook on May 14, 2018

I had followed the craft beer scene around Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, for 4 years, beginning with the First Electric City Craft Beer Fest of 2012. At that time, craft beer was just gaining momentum nationally. In Wilkes-Barre, a number of brewer-entrepreneurs were also getting started, from homebrewers starting in their own garage, to experienced brewers with an eye toward commercial development.

It was time to go back, to see how these craft breweries were doing since I left two years ago. Were they thriving or going under? Had they solved the inevitable problems of increasing production but keeping quality high, improving distribution channels, and keeping their business solvent, while still maintaining their original passion for good beer?

My first stop would be Breaker Brewing Company, my old go-to neighborhood brewpub.

Breaker is a true American success story. How many homebrewers actually realize their dream of taking their homebrewing into a successful commercial craft brewery? Chris Miller and Mark Lehman did.

It is an arduous process for amateurs with full-time day jobs and little capital to invest. Before applying for a brewer’s license, they would first have to locate and purchase the space for their brewery, and then pay all the fees for brewing and business licenses. Miller and Lehman’s choice of location was a stroke of genius–they purchased the former St. Joseph’s school and monastery, a vacant property high on a hill in Wilkes-Barre Township. In so doing, they spared this landmark from demolition, endearing themselves to the local residents who’ve seen many beloved churches face the bulldozer.  Further endearing themselves to the locals is the brewery’s name, “Breaker Brewing Company” which is a unique reference to the coal mine breakers, large structures which dotted the landscape of this mining area, and appears on their logo. The coal industry is long gone, but it lives on in local lore, as well as in the memorabilia that fill the brewery’s taproom. This theme continues in their beer names, such as Old King Coal Stout, Lunch Pail Ale, and 5-Whistle Wheat. It pleases their loyal followers.

Early on, the brewery would have to decide if they wanted to serve beer to drink at the brewery, or just concentrate on large scale brewing and distribution with only a small tasting room. Prior to 2016, Pennsylvania law allowed breweries to offer free tastes and growler refills, but in order to sell beer to drink on site they would have to open a brewpub. If they went in this direction, they would have to purchase a brewpub license and become restaurateurs in addition to brewers–a lot to bite off for home brewers-turned-entrepreneurs. That required additional facilities and food inspections, but for most small brewers that was the only option at the time, as large-scale production and distribution would require substantially more expense.

Mark and Chris made their own brewing equipment at the start and expanded in small steps. They went from homebrew in 5-gallon batches, to a 12-gallon system. Commercial sales began in 2009 with a 1.5 bbl system which they built themselves.  Demand increased, and they purchased a 3 bbl system when they opened the taproom in St. Joseph’s school. The tasting room turned into a brewpub, and the food and beer were so good that they expanded their restaurant into additional rooms in the school and a patio. Recently they moved their brewing operation into the renovated old abbey church, to house their new 15 bbl brewing system; this year they added their canning line, and expanded their brewpub into the church.  The gleaming stainless steel brewery is a fitting backdrop to the modern seating in the second brewpub, contrasting with the old-timey feel of the original brewpub.

I stopped by the brewpub on a Saturday in April. If their crowded parking lot at noon is any indication, they have a devoted following, especially when they are releasing a new beer from their canning line, as they were today. Dozens of cars were driving up to collect their 4-packs of I Am Thine Ice Cream Man summer cream ale. It was sold out in two hours! I was glad that I called ahead to reserve a table in the bar area. Every brewpub and bar in NEPA has good food, but Breaker’s is well above the norm, cooked from scratch with daily specials that include hearty stews, artisan pizzas, panini sandwiches and seasonal specials. Most importantly, their beer is very, very good. They love their product, and brew it with the same care and pride as their first releases.

Although they are still brewing their traditional IPAs, stouts and wheat beers, they are known for their small-batches of fruit-infused ales, sours, flavored stouts; some are better than others, and you never know what you’re going to get in the weekly releases. Their beer list is extensive, with 12 beers on draft, as well as bottle and can releases. We tried about half of these beers paired with homemade pizza for lunch. Shown are three brews that illustrate the breadth of Breaker’s offerings. Old King Coal Molé Stout, 8.5% ABV, which is partially “hopped” with jalapeno peppers; Lime Life Keylime Sour IPA, a sweetened farmhouse sour, 6.1% ABV, which is surprisingly tasty if not too sweet for my palate; and I Love PA, one of my favorite IPA’s, at 6% ABV with a perfect mixture of American hops.  The lunchtime visit with friends was fun and satisfying.

“The little brewery that could” is still doing well. And yes, they can.

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