The Billtown Brewers Guild
The word “guild” has a sort of medieval connotation. It might bring to mind visions of castles, cavalries, kings or knights. Dig further into the imagination and perhaps visualize the hearty laughs of burly, beer-drinking men, clinking their goblets and steins full of mead or wine at an old-fashioned dirt-floor tavern.
A guild meeting of the 21st century paints a slightly different picture – but the beverages remain the same and the tavern might be a bit more tidy (thankfully no dirt floors).
Williamsport has its very own guild dedicated to all things beer. The Billtown Brewers Guild, formerly the West Branch Brewers, consists of a group of men who have one passion in common: the delicious taste of a nice cold beer. But not just any beer – these gentlemen are not Bud or Miller Lite fans. They like “the fancy stuff” – craft beer.
“There were about six of us that started it. We had a couple names but wanted a name that kind of fit with the region,” founding member Jim Pietraski said. They changed the name from West Branch to Billtown after they realized a nanobrewery in Milton has a similar name.
These beer-lovers gather on a chilly Thursday evening at Riepstine’s Pub, 913 Arch St., for a meet and greet, stein mugs in hand, filled to the brim with one of the tasty craftbrews from the menu.
The evening occasion calls for new or interested guild members to meet up with current members and to talk beer. But not only to talk about beer, but also about making it. They join a rising national trend of crafting their own brews by hand at home.
Pennsylvania is particularly booming with homebrewers.
Gary Glass, director of the American Homebrewers Association, of which the Billtown Brewers are a member, discussed Pa. homebrewing statistics.
“As it turns out, Pennsylvania has the fourth highest membership of of any state in the nation, following Colorado (where AHA is based), California and Texas,” Glass said, adding that, based on state-by-state AHA membership, there are around 58,000 homebrewers in Pennsylvania.
Beer-lovers even come from out of town to make the Thursday-night BBG meeting.
“We gotta guy coming from Lock Haven tonight … Jim-something, he’s new,” said another founding member, Chris Kuriga.
He explained that a lot of what the guild does is generally held at their own homes, so they like to hold meet and greets to get to know the prospective members beforehand.
“We have families … kids running around; do we want to bring someone to the house without meeting them first? It’s kind of an excuse to meet somebody at a neutral location and have a beer, see what they’re up to and then go OK, next meeting is at Bob’s house, here’s what we’re gonna talk about,” Kuriga said.
The guild has about 20 to 30 people registered on an email distribution list, but “about a dozen or so of the active ones come to the majority of the events and participate,” Pietraski said.
Bob Gudgel, a veteran homebrewer since 1997, is one of those active members. Grudgel was part of a different brewers club in Selinsgrove, where he would drive 15 miles for meetings. But it was too out of the way, considering the nature of the club, so he eventually found the BBG. He likes to brew wheat beers and stouts, and enjoys drinking India pale ales.
Tim Miller, of Montgomery, was meeting the other members for the first time. He said he wants to learn more about the chemistry so he doesn’t blow himself up.
Learning the chemistry of the brewing process is part of the reason the group comes together, Kuriga said, so folks who want to brew can get started without failing too miserably at first, or continue brewing out of buckets.
The group holds several types of events to engage members.
Billtown Brewers Guild has even become active in the community; they donated 25 gallons of beer for a fundraiser at the Thomas T. Taber museum over the summer – and Pietraski helps teach a homebrewing class at Pennsylvania College of Technology.
But generally a BBG event, Gudgel said, means getting to try different beers at one of the members’ homes.
They hold “brewdays” (when they’re actually making the beer) and also try craft beers from breweries that they’ve traveled to.
“We had one (an event) a week ago where we tried India pale ales – we had a whole variety and got to try a bit of each of them, and rate which ones we thought were more tasty and lass tasty,” Gudgel said.
In addition to tasting and trading craft brews and sometimes commercial beers, they also hold “homebrew critiques.”
“People bring in their own beers and have the club taste them and kind of pin point what’s good about them and what’s bad about them,” Pietraski said.
This is so members can improve their recipes.
“We can compare – did you get the style the right way?; what do I need to change? That’s the point can we, personally, make a better beer?,” Kuriga said.
Some members stick to one type of beer that they drink or brew – like one member who Kuriga said “will brew nothing but IPAs,” but others are adventurous and challenge themselves to try even more complicated recipes.
“You might try something at the bar and be like, can I make that? Here (Riepstine’s Pub) they had a coffee stout – a vanilla latte stout – and the three of us tried to make something similar to it, just to see if we could,” Kuriga said.
Additionally, members seem to have different passions that drive what they choose to brew – like Kuriga, who finds pride in concocting a brew that his wife enjoys.
Whatever the reason to brew, Kuriga and Pietraski both agreed that there’s more to beer than just drinking it.
Like guilds of the distant past, there’s adventure and companionship to be had.