Pennsylvania boasts a long tradition of making quality beer and is currently home to more than 50 breweries and brewpubs. This tradition, and the current numbers, should come as no surprise considering Pennsylvania’s history of blending British, German, and other eastern and central European immigrants into its population. All of these immigrant groups brought with them their various beer and brewing styles. To this day, you can find brewers using all of these styles to create delicious, high-quality beers throughout the Keystone State.
The modern tradition of blending styles and creating wonderful new brews in Pennsylvania is highlighted best by the Victory Brewing Company of Downingtown. Beginning operations in 1996, Victory now sells its products in more than 20 states. The best place to sample the brews, however, is in the company’s brewpub, particularly after a tour of the operation. Victory has a number of tasty, and award-winning, beers. A few to be sure to try are:
HopDevil Ale – This IPA (7% ABV) is an excellent way to introduce a fan of craft beers into the world of hops. The pour is a copper-colored ale, topped by a respectable head. The aroma is typically malty with a citrus-edge from the hops. The malt predominates the first sip, but the hops shine through, both in bitterness and in the spicy tingle in the mouth. Like many of Victory’s brews, this is a medium body beer, with a clean finish. True hops heads may want to skip ahead of this one and try the Hop Wallop.
Old Horizontal Barleywine – Caramelized sugars are the predominant aroma from this dark-copper beer. The sweet, almost-burnt flavor is rounded out nicely with the hops so that neither becomes too aggressive. The beer is thick, making it one to sip over an evening, and with an 11% ABV, taking your time with this one is not a bad idea. I actually recommend buying some Old Horizontal and letting it age for a year or two before drinking. The age mellows some of the flavors, and that way you can always have a rotating stock of winter warmers on hand!
Golden Monkey – This Belgian-style ale pours a golden-honey color and has a good, long-lasting head. The aroma is one of fruit and spices, and it has a taste profile reminiscent of the more well-balanced Christmas offerings. There is little bitterness to the brew, making it very drinkable. Watch out, though, it does have a relatively high alcohol content (9.5% ABV), and it really sneaks up on you.
The depth and longevity of the brewing tradition in Pennsylvania is exemplified by D.G. Yuengling and Son. Yuengling has been in operation since 1829 and is recognized as America’s oldest brewery. To survive during Prohibition, Yuengling switched to producing non-alcoholic Near Beer and opened a dairy. In 1999, after exceeding the capacity of its main brewery, the company expanded by opening operation at a brewery in Tampa, Florida in addition to its Pottsville, Pennsylvania home. Two years later, a new brewery in St. Clair, Pennsylvania opened for production, and the company resumed shipments to the New York market. Yuengling markets its beers mainly along the East Coast, from New York south.
Lager – Introduced in 1987, Yuengling Lager has become a mainstay of Pennsylvania bars and restaurants, and this popularity has extended wherever the brewery ships its products. In fact, the beer is so popular that in many regions of Pennsylvania one has only to ask for “A lager” to get this, no specification of brand needed. The aroma and taste are dominated vaguely by hints of bread and, perhaps, citrus. It is a medium-bodied beer with just the right amount of carbonation. This is the perfect go-to beer for those who have woken up to the fact that the products of the major breweries is swill, but who are not yet ready for the complexities and challenges of the more specialized craft breweries.
Black and Tan – A combination of Yuengling’s Premium, a pilsner style, and their Porter, Black and Tan is a pre-mixed version of the old British stand-by. There is something to be said for combining the beers at the moment of consumption, and for using ale rather than a pils, but the Black and Tan is still a quality product. The beer is dark with a beige head. Aroma and taste are both dominated by roasted malt with a coffee edge. The beer has a nice smooth finish, but the body is a little weaker than would be the case had an ale been used.
Weyerbacher was founded in 1995 in Easton as the labor of love a homebrewer. With this sort of beginning, it is no surprise that they hit on their first big success just two years later with a Raspberry Imperial Stout. You can feel the love the folks at Weyerbacher have for beers by reading the excitement at their website, by taking one of their Saturday tours, or, most easily, by tasting one (or many) of their brews.
Raspberry Imperial Stout – This is, without any reservation or hyperbole, simply an amazing beer. I have rarely seen a darker beer, and I don’t think I have ever seen a darker, or more perfect, head. The aroma is one of coffee and dark chocolate, and the drinker may be wondering why the word ‘raspberry’ appears in its name. That question is dispelled upon tasting. Those same coffee and chocolate notes come through in the tasting, but they are just rounded out by the sweet raspberry flavors. At 8% ABV, this isn’t the biggest stout you will find, but it is one of the best. On a personal note, this is the beer that pushed me into the world of homebrew, and it has inspired several of my most well-received brews. Weyerbacher’s Old Heathen Imperial Stout has many of the same qualities, but without the hint of raspberry.
Blithering Idiot Barleywine – Another potent brew, this barleywine weighs in at just over 11% ABV. It is a deep copper color, with hints of malt and dark fruits in the aroma and the palate. Perhaps even more so than Old Horizontal, this barleywine has the complexity and depth of flavor that makes it well worth the time to let it age. Buy a six-pack, try one, and put the rest away in a cool, dark place for at least a year.
For more than 20 years, Stoudt’s beers have been a favorite in and around Adamstown, Pennsylvania. This brewery has grown out of another business, Stoudt’s Black Angus restaurant, an Adamstown tradition for 45 years. These well-crafted beers are the perfect accompaniment to great food, and the combinations you find at the Black Angus just highlight these pairings. Among many great brews, two call out for special recognition:
Scarlet Lady Ale – This is an English-style ale, copper in color with a decent head. The aroma is dominated by a sweet malt note that sticks around in the tasting as well. The palate is rounded out by a touch of caramel flavors and just the right amount of carbonation. This is an excellent beer to pair with meals, and it is not at all challenging for a beginning beer-drinker.
Fat Dog Stout – This beer is everything a stout should be. It combines the smoothness of an oatmeal stout with the big alcohol content (9% ABV) of an imperial. Deeply dark and delicious, coffee and chocolate notes really come through in this beer.
These are just a few of the great beers and great breweries from Pennsylvania. I would heartily recommend these beers, and other products from these breweries, to anyone who likes beer. Even more, I would recommend they find local breweries in their area and try those beers. Do not overlook brewpubs, either. These operations, such as Otto’s Pub & Brewery in State College, pair hand-crafted beers with delicious foods. There is no better way, short of brewing your own, to encourage the growth of craft beers than to support the locals who are create them.