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Susquehanna Valley breweries hold strong, carry on during pandemic

Just two states boast more craft breweries than Pennsylvania and only one produces more barrels of beer than the Keystone State.

According to the national trade group Brewers Association, Pennsylvania’s 444 craft breweries trails only New York and California. The 3.1 million barrels brewed ranked only behind California.

That kind of output takes collective effort and the local brewers in the Susquehanna Valley continue to do their part to create quality beer paired with delicious food in wholly unique environments.

Nestled along the Susquehanna River or tucked further away in the Valley are 13 local breweries in Montour, Northumberland, Snyder and Union counties.

At 25 years old, Selin’s Grove Brewing in Selinsgrove is by far the longest active brewery in the region. Old Forge Brewing Co. in Danville follows, having opened in 2008.

“I wish I had more time to go around” and visit the expanding number of breweries in the region, Selin’s Grove Brewing manager Heather McNabb said. “I believe Pennsylvania, as a whole, has one of the best beer scenes in the country. It’s not trendy. It’s what Pennsylvania is used to.”

The scene really started to blossom about 2015 when Rusty Rail Brewing Co. in Mifflinburg, Covered Bridge Brewhaus & Taproom in Shamokin and Marzoni’s Brick Oven & Brewing on the Golden Strip in Monroe Township all opened for business.

The rest followed in time: Rock God Brewing Co. in Danville in 2017; Isle of Que Brewing Co. in Selinsgrove and Eclipse Craft Brewing Co. in Sunbury, in 2018; Three Beards Brewing outside Sunbury, Jackass Brewing Co. near Lewisburg, and Pineknotter Brewing Co. in Northumberland, in 2020. Hidden Stories Brewing Co. in Millerstown counts among the newer breweries. Lost Mined Brewing Co.’s restaurant opened a few years before its own brewery debuted in 2021.

The 13 join Civil War Cider Co. in Lewisburg and three breweries in Columbia County to create the River Rat Brew Trail, promoted by the Susquehanna River Valley and Columbia-Montour visitors’ bureaus.

The Daily Item spoke with a few of the brewers along the trail about the Valley’s place in the craft beer scene, hits and misses in brewing and how they handled problems posed by the pandemic.

Selin’s Grove

Heather McNabb and her husband, Steve Leason, were among the first craft brewers in the Valley when they opened Selin’s Grove Brewing Co. in 1996.

The company’s 25th anniversary was threatened by the COVID-19 pandemic, but “we survived because of all the grants,” said McNabb.

Due to the aluminum shortage during the health crisis, the couple switched from cans to reusing growlers, or glass beer vessels.

“We reused all our growlers and customers brought in a lot of theirs,” she said.

The couple, who are known for their fruit beers and pumpkin ales, also took the time to experiment and created a blueberry beer that McNabb said turned out to be a good seller.

“We tried things we’d never done before,” she said, adding, the uncertainty “was still scary.”

More than two decades after she began brewing craft beer, McNabb said she still enjoys operating the business at 121 N. Market St. and seeing other similar ventures flourish.

Hidden Stories Brewing Co., of Millerstown, is one that McNabb cites as offering unique sour beers.

After 25 years in business, McNabb and Leason are actively seeking buyers to take over the brewery and pub at 121 N. Market St. in Selinsgrove.

“We’ve run the circuit and I honestly believe it will be in better hands with someone new,” she said.

The state’s history of longstanding breweries, like Yuengling, Straub and Lion Brewery, has helped encourage the support of smaller craft breweries that are expanding their offerings to include hard seltzers, milkshake IPAs and pastry stouts.

“I wouldn’t have thought about that 20 years ago,” said McNabb.

Rusty Rail

The speed and reach by which information spreads has never been greater, and it will continue to grow. That’s allowed craft brewers in rural areas to stay on trend with their urban counterparts.

“I think there was a time in craft beer where people would say Central Pennsylvania is behind the times. That doesn’t exist anymore,” said Guy McCarty, brewery director, Rusty Rail Brewing. “The Susquehanna Valley consumer is more aware of trends than ever. The products available to everybody are top-notch.”

McCarty’s tallied 16 years in the beer business, so far. The one constant along the way has been the social aspect of beer. Social media allows quick, humorous and informative connectivity between the brewery and its fans. The beer, and food from Rusty Rail’s full kitchen, stimulate the social interactions in-person at the brewery’s sprawling restaurant and event spaces.

Creativity isn’t lacking at Rusty Rail. Neither is hard work. McCarty didn’t hesitate to compliment the brewery’s staff for its work in creating memorable drinks and artistic labels and packaging. The brewery embodies a spirit of collaboration, working together to develop beer recipes and branding. A typical workday incorporates constant communication across all departments, McCarty said.

When the pandemic first set in, McCarty assumed people would “bunker down and not be as explorative.” Ample data shows spending and consumption on beer rose after the shutdowns began.

Out of concern over how the market would react, Rusty Rail took a conservative approach. For one month, head brewer Logan Powell and packaging and logistics manager Justin Ewing operated the brewery alone.

Sourcing ingredients didn’t turn into as great a headache as feared. Rusty Rail’s use of 16-ounce cans helped them avoid hiccups others experienced with 12-ouncers. In time, production ramped up and operations regained some semblance of normalcy.

“People were just as thirsty for that positive impact and excitement of new brands than ever. I was very fearful people would just go to the brands they were familiar with decades ago,” McCarty said.

Pineknotter Brewing

The Valley has turned into a “destination spot” for craft beer lovers, according to Derek Fisher, one of the owners of Pineknotter Brewing Company.

“People always ask if we’re worried that so many breweries are popping up,” he said. “To be honest, no. The more the better. People come in from all over the area. People stop in and say they were just at Jackass or Rusty Rail, they stopped at Rock God, and they came to us. They come for the tour.”

Fisher said he often recommends other breweries to customers when prompted on where else to stop. He has recently been recommending Three Beards Brewery outside Sunbury.

“I don’t know where it (the future of the industry) is headed, but I’m excited to see where it’s going,” said Fisher on the future of the industry.

Pineknotter Brewing Company has never experienced business outside a global pandemic, having opened in Northumberland on March 6, 2020. The Fishers — Tread, Derek, Brandon, and their wives, Beate, Jenna and Ashley Fisher — were only open for six days before Gov. Tom Wolf ordered the shut down of all nonessential businesses in Pennsylvania. They are located at 254 Front St., Northumberland.

The brewery started off 2021 in style by being voted the best new brewery in the state from Breweries in Pennsylvania, an online promotion company focused on Pennsylvania Craft Beer. The year has exceeded expectations, said Derek Fisher.

“We never thought we’d be growing as fast as we were,” he said. “If we had the extra space, we’d be having more fermentors. Right now, we’re a small two-barrel.”

Supply-chain issues have been minimal. It took five months for new fermenters to be delivered in 2020. They have had to switch companies several times to get supplies like grain, but they have had no issues with not being able to make products, said Fisher.

Fisher said he brews two to four times a week, making two styles at a time. The goal is to set up a few more fermenters, but he said any future expansions must be in downtown Northumberland.

“Hopefully in the spring we’ll add another deck to the backside of the building,” he said. “Right now it’s a tent. It’s used as a to-go area, a non-licensed area, where you can buy it to go.”

Jackass Brewing

Like Pineknotter, Jackass Brewing Co. opened for business just ahead of business shutdowns in March 2020. They got five days in.

Co-owners Skip Kratzer and Larry Winans had to pivot, pushing takeout beer and food from the in-house kitchen — sharable dishes, bold flavors. When the weather improved, they capitalized on their ample outdoor space adjacent to the Buffalo Valley Rail Trail.

Sourcing aluminum cans isn’t as easy as it had been. Winans said Jackass got ahead of the curve by storing a cache of cans and planning to restock again even if their inventory remains healthy.

“The lead time can be as long as six months,” Winans said.

The art and science of brewing are what captivates Winans. He and Kratzer collaborate on recipes to turn out their varied beers.

One beer Winans is particularly proud of is the Hey! Ho! I’m from Idaho, a West Coast IPA crafted with Idaho 7 hops. His favorite? Could be the Imbecile, an imperial Russian stout aged eight months in bourbon barrels. It’s noted as bold, powerful, flavorful. It’s a sipping beer brewed for the winter months. and it’s strong. Bartenders allow just two pours per customer.

“You don’t go out in the middle of the afternoon and have three,” Winans said.

Working in craft brewing isn’t easy, Winans said, but it’s fun. Each day and night Winans gets to watch customers — friends — come together at the brewery and enjoy each other’s company as they enjoy a craft beer brings a certain satisfaction.

“I think the Valley’s craft scene is really diverse and varied. In our attitude, a rising tide lifts all ships, so there’s plenty of room for the breweries here to do well,” Winans said. “The more good breweries there are, the better it is for the craft beer industry.”

Covered Bridge

Covered Bridge Brewhaus and Taproom sees continued collaboration between owner Eric Kuijpers and head brewer Scott Wilson. They’ve brewed beer together for 20 years. The brewing operation is in Catawissa, and the resulting beverages are served at the popular taproom in Shamokin.

“If you had said five years, 10 years ago, that there would be two breweries in Shamokin, they would have said you were nuts,” Kuijpers said. “Everybody has their own niche, and they’re all good at it. From Rusty Rail to us, if you compare size, each has their own identity. There’s room for more as long as you have a quality product and have something unique to offer.”

Asked about trends, Kuijpers said he expects sour beers to continue to grow in popularity. But, as of now, anything goes, he said. That’s allowed the return of traditional styles like lagers and ales, too.

Covered Bridge has a taproom as unique as any. The decor is eclectic and tasteful, and it’s plentiful. There are three distinctly different, adjacent storefronts that Covered Bridge occupies in its home on the 500 block of Eighth Street, just off downtown Independence Street. Each is meant to have a different atmosphere. Customers pair the brewery’s rotating rounds of brews with food served by visiting food trucks parked just outside.

The growth of the craft beer industry is “amazing,” Wilson said.

“It’s good for the industry to see all this,” Wilson said. “You get more and more people who come in who didn’t like beer. Now it seems to me that more and more people are being exposed to it and young people want that craft beer.”

People used to corner bars and back-alley dives might not go for the stylized beer and scene at craft breweries. The only way to convert them is to have them sample it, said Kuijpers.

“The more places there are, the more people will get to know what real craft beer is all about, and then the more everyone benefits from it,” he said.

When asked about the beer they are most proud of, Kuijpers and Wilson mentioned Strubarb Wit, a strawberry rhubarb wheat beer. They also mentioned Strike Team Cream Ale. For every sale of Strike Team, $1 from is donated to the annual Children’s Christmas Party hosted by Shamokin and Coal Township police departments.

Three Beards

Three Beards Brewing is looking forward to 2022 and its owners said opening and operating during a pandemic was challenging and an experience they won’t soon forget.

Nate Badman, Matt Reinard and Levi Strouse first partnered in 2011 and their shared dreams in opening a brewery together have come true — for the most part.

“It’s been chaotic and challenging at times,” Strouse said. “We made it through and are looking forward to 2022.”

Three Beards began with a spirit of endless experimentation and along the way, experienced highs, hopes and moments of despair.

Now, the friends from Shikellamy’s Class of 2003 are taking turns brewing, working as waiters, cooks, dishwashers and everything in-between. They do it all while working other jobs, too.

The brewery serves a rotating menu of 13 different beers. Sourcing products to make it has been challenging. At times, they’ve had to change up and brew something different, Strause said.

Hiring 16 employees was another challenge, he said.

“Some positions were harder to hire than others,” he said. “We are also going through the same as everyone else when it comes to someone who is feeling sick. They have to stay home and then one of us has to come in and fill the spot.”

One of the advantages of the brewery, it sits on a hill just above Spyglass Ridge winery, which also is home to owner Tom Webb’s Backyard Summer Concert Series. Three Beards brewed 3,000 gallons of beer alone for the 2021 Series.

Strause said the brewery, which also offers a full menu, specializing in various pizzas, is now catering for major bands and trying to host the several thousand people that come to the concerts through the summer months.

Webb, who is a partner with Three Beards, is pleased to finally get the chance to showcase the brewery and winery together.

“We all worked very hard and had a lot of support along the way,” Webb said.

Three Beards will be undergoing some additions in the coming months, as they plan on adding more outside seating and a wrap-around deck to the building.

“I love being here and even though we may be off the beaten path a bit, I think people are enjoying the place,” Strouse said.

Daily Item reporters Marcia Moore, Francis Scarcella and Justin Strawser contributed to this story.

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