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Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Trio of PA Newbies

This past Sunday, Brewslut and I decided to check out a few new-ish breweries in the area we hadn’t visited before. This is the kind of quick decision married couples have the luxury of making when they have no children or pets to prevent such a spontaneous outing. So, it was off to Berks and Montgomery Counties to check out a trio of breweries new to us.

First on the agenda was Hidden River Brewing in Douglasville, PA, in the same general neck of the woods as Boscov’s Department Store corporate headquarters, where I worked in my early twenties (a lifetime ago and well before I went through my metamorphosis from beer hater to craft beer enthusiast). I heard some chatter over a year ago before they had opened for business, but they quickly fell off my radar due to dozens of other new breweries opening. However, my memory was jogged when I picked up the current issue of Edible Philly magazine at work and started leafing through it. I immediately remembered the name of the brewery. Plus its turtle logo piqued my interest.

Outside Hidden River Brewing Co.
Our GPS unit had difficulty navigating us to the correct location, and after driving back and forth down a one-mile stretch of road, decided to call the brewery and have them guide us in. After a quick chat with who turned out to be one of the owners, we arrived to find a property brimming with patrons enjoying a leisurely Sunday afternoon on the porch of a picturesque Victorian-era house and also off an adjacent deck featuring a trio of local musicians performing some light music. Upon setting foot on the grounds of this brewery, I knew it was something special. Turns out, the owners (a married couple) saved the building (the historic Brinton Lodge) from being destroyed. Good thing too, because it would have been a travesty for such a unique building to be torn down.

Inside the main dining room at Hidden River.
Inside, visitors can stroll through most of the rooms of the house and take a trip back in time (the rooms are all still decorated with period furniture, books, paintings, and other assorted knick-knacks). This is also where Hidden River brews creative and unusual small batch beers using as many local ingredients as possible. Needless to say, I was pretty blown away. Since it was a beautiful sunny Sunday afternoon, most of the patrons were out on the deck enjoying the music and atmosphere. The nearby lawn was clearly dog-friendly, and there was also a food truck on-site. Actually, Sundays are also BYO grub. We bumped our beer friend Tom, who informed us that he’d been a frequent visitor since they opened 13 months ago. I admitted I was ashamed that it took us so long to make our inaugural visit. Still, better late than never, right?

Another dining area inside Hidden River.
But enough of my yackin’. Let’s talk about beer.

Hidden River had one of those chalkboards where EVERYTHING sounded awesome! I literally wanted to try every beer. Unfortunately, their smallest pours were 10oz. (see Pizza Boy isn’t the only brewery that doesn’t do flights). I asked a group of locals at the bar which IPA they recommended, and I was met with a unanimous response: Dynamics of Living Organisms. This beer reminded me of a name Tired Hands might come up with. The beer was similar too: ultra-cloudy and NE style to the core (think Tree House and Bissell Brothers). It looked like a glass of grapefruit juice. Still, this one reeked of grapefruit and had a very pithy finish, which I enjoyed quite a bit. While it didn’t knock my socks off, I’d easily drink more next time (should it be available). Brewslut went with Helen, a Saison brewed with cherries from the nearby Weaver’s Orchard. It wasn’t super tart, but it boasted a pleasant natural cherry aroma and flavor with hints of wildflowers and pepper. 

Beer on the mantle during a stroll through the house.
For my next selection (I almost got this first, but my rule of thumb is generally to lead off with an IPA and go from there), I chose Madcap Backslap, a Grodziskie style brewed with pineapple. For those not in the know, a Grodziskie (and I only know this because Selin’s Grove brewed one) is a traditional smoked beer historically brewed in Poland. The addition of smoked pineapple gave this beer an amazing Hawaiian pizza vibe. Overall, I was probably my favorite of the six beers we tried during our visit. Brewslut opted for a pint of the lower ABV Sirius Finis, a cream ale brewed with local peaches (also from Weaver’s Orchards), corn, lactose and oats. Overall, this was a tasty, refreshing beer albeit a bit thin on the palate. Up next, I grabbed a small pour of Kickboard, described as a grapefruit wheat ale. The third beer in its series of fruit wheat beers for summer, this one was conditioned on grapefruit purée and hopped with a blend of American hops including Herkules, an underutilized German-bred varietal that imparts hints of melon and citrus fruit. 

Me and my Madcap Backslap!
For our last beer, we went out on a high note. I’d been eyeing up this beer called Old Swede on the chalkboard. This one, however, was a gin barrel-aged version of their Gruit, an ancient spiced ale. I’d just had a gin barrel-aged IPA out at Gigantic Brewing Company (which you can read about here) and loved it, so I was eager to try this one. Oddly enough, I’m not a fan of gin at all. For whatever reason, the flavors that come through in gin seem to work with key ingredients in beer, because this was another winner! To go into more detail, this beer was Hidden River’s Old Swede Juniper Berry Hyssop Gruit aged in a Hidden River gin barrel from Manatawny Still Works for more than 4 months. Man, was this one complex beer! This one also has an intriguing story attached to it, which you can read about on Hidden River’s Untappd page. This one fell smack dab between an Imperial Stout and Belgian strong ale, and was packed with lots of dark fruit notes, molasses, licorice root, and chocolate with a berry-like tanginess. It reminded me of an artisan cola without all of the carbonation. I really enjoyed this one!

Pleeps was diggin' the Gin Barrel-Aged Old Swede.
I really wanted to stick around at Hidden River longer, but they were closing at 6 p.m. anyway, so we decided it was time to shove off to stop #2. Our friend Tom had just told us about Stickman Brews during our visit to Hidden River. We had planned on swinging by Sly Fox's Tastin' Room in nearby Pottstown, but we called an audible and headed south on Rt. 422 to Royersford in Montgomery County. Coincidentally, Stickman's location was right behind Sly Fox's old Royersford location before they moved the operation to Pottstown. We'd been to Sly Fox many, many times before, so we figured we'd try a new spot based on Tom's recommendations.

The Stickman Van was parked outside.
Stickman's shtick seems to encompass brewing slightly off-the-wall concoctions rooted in the Belgian style but Americanized with the use of odd ingredients and bold hops. The beer names and artwork mirror this image and decorate everything from its beer menus to the walls of the tasting room itself. All of the drawings were crude but whimsical stick figure drawings of people, animals, ingredients, and funny little beer-inspired scenes, which created a lighthearted, we-don't-take-ourselves-too-seriously vibe. Oddly enough, the tasting room was dimly lit and sparsely decorated. It reminded us of one of the many warehouse breweries out in Southern California.


Faux handwritten notebook page for a beer menu.
My first beer choice was Cooperative Conundrum, a dry-hopped sour brewed in collaboration with Hidden River. This was my favorite of the bunch. With a dry, tart, citrusy bent, this one straddled the line perfectly between mouth-puckering and hoppy. Brewslut surprised me by ordering a huge 10.5% ABV Double IPA called Sensible Portions. While this one was quite dry and bitter, as the description promised, it fell a little short on one of the other adjectives - "juicy." Still, at 10.5%, it was quite smooth and lacked the alcohol burn that similarly heavy DIPAs tend to have. We stuck with a sensible portion of 4oz. with this one. 


Stickman's beer menu... some cool names!

Her second choice was equally as surprising: a Grand Cru brewed with orange peel, coriander, and chamomile called Cousin Stoopid. For me, I went with Lady in the Streets, a barrel-aged Saison brewed with white grapes. This one was a bit odd and had a distinct grainy finish like Cheerios (yes, the cereal). We finished up Capitalism, a Belgian style ale brewed with cherries. Described as a Trappist style ale processed like a German Maibock, this one had a similar finish as the Lady in the Streets but was much more complex with a slightly sweet, subtly tart cherry character and fruity esters. I also forgot to check it in to Untappd and forgot we even had it until I looked at the beer menu again.

Stickman's dimly-lit, industrial vibe.

About midway through our visit, a guy in his late 40s/early 50s came in and sat near us at the bar. He asked the bartender if they had any beers that we're "similar to Miller Lite." OK. Now, I get that there is a huge learning curve when it comes to craft beer. The general public as a whole still isn't really educated enough about the industry, the people, the product, etc. to know much about anything other than their own (generally misguided) tastes. Case in point: "I don't like those heavy, dark beers." Whatever. What perplexes me is this: why on earth someone would walk into what is clearly a small brewery (not a bar) and order "something similar" to a beer that doesn't even really resemble beer. To me, that's like a slap in the face. I mean, what's the point? I get that there are those people who don't like to venture too far out of their comfort zone when trying new things, but isn't the point of going somewhere different to experience something different? Why drink Miller Lite when there are so many other flavors to discover? This also raises the question: why would a small, independently owned craft brewery even care to make something like Miller Lite? Ugh. At any rate, I really hate getting sidetracked and could add a lot more on this subject, but I want you to continue reading this. So, I'll spare you of my general disdain for this type of ignorance. For what it's worth, Miller Lite is the only "lite" beer on the market that doesn't offend my palate. Coors Light and Bud Light, though? I'd rather lap up Deuane's urine after drinking a gallon of Pliny the Younger. and now back to our regularly scheduled program...

Pleeps was kind of silly at Stickman.

Up next on our little Sunday afternoon tra-laa-laa, we headed back towards home for a stop at Oakbrook Brewing Company. I'd first learned about Oakbrook through our friend and pro brewer Colin Presby (who also is the owner of my favorite athlete of all time... two-time winner of the Sly Fox Goat Races, Peggy the three-legged goat). The brewery itself is situated in Reading, PA's historic Oakbrook Fire Station. In addition to a spacious tasting room with several long communal "beer garden" tables, they also have plenty of outdoor seating. We opted to enjoy some cool, fresh air avoid the group of boisterous roller derby fanatics viewing a roller derby match on TV inside. 

Inside Oakbrook Brewing Co.
With only about 6 offerings on tap, I started off with easily the best named beer of the lot - Venerable Parrot. This IPA is named after the former mascot of the fire station. They actually describe it as a "malted grapefruit drink that has to be experienced rather than described." In addition to a special blend of hops, they add a good bit of grapefruit purée and serve with a sprig of rosemary. I must admit I was bowled over by the aroma. This smelled so fresh and vibrant, and the herbaceous aromatics of the rosemary complemented the zesty quality of the grapefruit. I really enjoyed this beer a lot. I was actually taken aback because I honestly wasn't expecting this place to be amazing. But this beer served as an amazing introduction to Oakbrook. Brewslut opted for the Blood Orange IPA, which is basically their Oakbrook IPA fermented with blood orange purée. This one was also a winner, and I enjoyed this variation more than the base beer itself. 

Oakbrook Brewing's exterior (courtesy of Google Images)
While we were sitting outside waiting for our nachos, we struck up a conversation with a guy accompanied by an adorable little mutt named Sadie. Brewslut and I love making friends with animals (and their owners, of course) when we travel, and Sadie was extremely friendly right off the bat. We ended up staying a bit longer than we had anticipated, but we enjoyed the beautiful evening outside talking about music, beer, dogs, and plenty of other things while scratching Sadie behind the ears and on her belly. She was one of the sweetest dogs I ever encountered. 



Two pairs of kinky boot beasts on display.
We concluded our evening by sharing a pour of the flagship Oakbrook IPA, a West coast-style IPA that honestly paled in comparison to the other two beers we had. Not to say it was bad; it just didn't wow me like the other two. Still, this place has tons of potential and is housed in a really cool building in a good part of town. Believe me, we used to live in the Reading area and we stayed out of Reading as much as possible. But this place has enough charm and good beers to bring us back, as we find ourselves in the Berks County area from time to time. 

All in all, we enjoyed our leisurely day of brewpubbing just outside our own backyard. I have a feeling Hidden River will be seeing much more of us in the future. What a gem! I promise to return to the Oregon trip soon. Sorry for the diversion! Until next time... 

1 comment:

  1. You can have a drink from my tap any time my friend! 🍻

    ReplyDelete

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