The Kind of Trip I Live For
(New stuff added: 2/27/05)
"Why do you need to leave so early?" Cathy asked.
"You said it's not starting till 6:00. You could leave at noon and
be there in plenty of time." I was packing for my trip to North
Country Brewing in Slippery Rock, a long way out on the west edge of
Pennsylvania. I'd been invited to the pre-opening party on February
19th, and I was determined to make it.
But a trip is a trip, and if I'm making a long one, I'm making
it worthwhile. So I was leaving at 7:15 Saturday morning, and making
some other research stops. Once I explained that, she smiled and gave me
a hug, the kids trotted up and hugged me, the dog licked my knees, and I
drove off into the dawn.
I headed up the Turnpike towards King of Prussia, took Rt. 30
through Lancaster (where I stopped in to say hi to my parents and buy
cheaper gasoline), and took Rt. 283 up to Harrisburg. From there it was
up the Susquehanna on the new 322 expressway, across the river,
and...man, look at the time! I was way ahead of schedule thanks to
leaving a bit early and no traffic. I stopped in Newport to do a little
advance scouting. I was planning on checking out the Middle Ridge Tavern
the next day on the way home, and wanted to figure out how to get there.
A few turns, and some serious mapwork later, I had it zeroed in, and I
left town on 322 again.
I ran 322 all the way up to Lewistown, flying along with
traffic on the broad highway (except in the construction zone where
they're finally widening the stretch through the narrow valley along the
Juniata River). I peeled off onto Rt. 22 south, a pretty drive through valley
farmland and small towns, and followed it into
Huntingdon, right around 11:15.
I'd never been to Huntingdon before, at least, not to stop
there; I'd been through on the train a number of times. But this was the
first time I got a chance to look around, and I was pleased with what I
saw. There's a nice little downtown area, with well-kept buildings and
some interesting shops, cafes, and bars...and of course, that's why I
was there. I'd heard good things about Boxer's Cafe, and I was
here to find out how much was true.
Almost all of it, as it turned out. The place was striking, a
real joint, with the bar along the left side and tables and chairs on
the right, an open kitchen in the back. It almost looked like a soda
fountain, and it turned out that it had originally been a pharmacy. The
backbar dated to the pharmacy, a light-colored marble edifice with twin pillars
and milky stained glass decorations.
Off-norm music played, and the whole place seemed dedicated to
the alternative: lots of vegan/vegetarian items on the menu, a good
number of interesting non-alcoholic drinks. Alcohol drinks were limited
to beer; Boxer's has one of the state's dwindling number of beer-only
licenses. What beer they had was reasonable. There were only four taps
-- Hacker-Pschorr Dunkel-Weiss, Sierra Nevada Pale, Stoudt's Scarlet
Lady ESB, and Molson Canadian -- but there was a cooler with a
well-planned selection of about 60 labels.
I got the H-P, which was a
good choice: it had just been put on and was pouring cool and fresh. I
also got a cheeseburger sub that came cut in half on a retro little
boomerang-shaped plate, mounded with shaved onions and hot pepper rings
and well-dusted with oregano. It was delicious.
I paid up ($8, not bad!), and headed back out on the road,
reluctantly. I could have spent more time there. It was a rolly-poly
ride through ridge country on Rt. 22. I stopped for gas just east of
Hollidaysburg, grabbed some Sobe Energy to keep the orbs open, and
rolled on till I made a short detour for Marzoni's. Yeah, I've
been there, and no, I didn't get to a couple places I still want to
check out in Altoona (The Phoenix and the Monkey Wharf Hotel),
but...I was driving by within 100 yards of the
place: I'm not gonna stop? Ha!
Two seasonals were on, but both -- Weizenbock and Scotch Ale
-- were just too strong to get a full glass and keep driving with a
clear conscience, so I got a small Pale Ale. Very nice, clean, not
over-done with hops, and a good sup. I did get a small taster of the
Weizenbock: deceptively light and smooth, classic clove/plum/vanilla
flavors and the full 8.2% ABV lurking in the background like a
hammerhead shark. Good stuff. Onwards!
The sky was still mostly blue as I headed west. This is high
ridge territory, and I drove up a long way till I crested out and rode
along the ridgeback to Ebensburg, where I split off onto Rt. 422. I'd
had another report of a decent beer bar in Indiana, PA, and that's where
I was headed now. I got there in fairly short order (although it took a
ridiculously long time to get one mile off 422 into Indiana), and it was
in fairly short order that I wrote the following about the Ironwood
Grill: "Not worth it. Right off the top, this is not worth a
stop. Taps are mediocre and the bottles are worse. The damned bar is a
loosely enclosed balcony, and my Yuengling tastes like raspberries.
I'll say no more of this place, except that the bartender
disappeared on me. All I wanted to do was pay my tab and get out of
this hellhole, and I had to sit around waiting. To be fair, there was
a fairly decent bottleshop on the first floor. My advice: buy two
sixers and check into a motel.
Back onto the road, to wash the taste of that place out of my
mouth. By now it was getting on towards 3:00, and I was hoofing it
along 422. It was beautiful; the sun was sinking over long views of
snow-covered hills, some heavily wooded, some bare with fallow fields. I
really do enjoy this part of what I do, the travel, the new sights, new
roads. I ramble along the road, cheering at each new sign, hill, curve,
and forest. I've piloted the Jetta over many miles, and I'll miss her
when we trade her in this year.
Eventually I hit I-79 and headed north. It wasn't quite time
to call it quits yet. I'd heard about a place in Sharon that was
supposed to be an oasis in the craft beer desert between Erie and
Pittsburgh (as is Four Sons in Titusville, and now North
Country in Slippery Rock), the Chestnut
Street Cafe. After a tour of Sharon's thriving industrial section, I
found it easily, an unpromising sign on a brick building block that
looked abandoned, just off the main strip of downtown. But I've rarely
walked away from a place without so much as sticking my head in the door
(Watertown, NY, provides half the examples of such behavior), so I
parked, fed the meter (on a Saturday? in Sharon?), and walked in.
Glad I made the trip. The Cafe's main floor was a soaring
two-story room with a pressed tin ceiling, a long bar with some friendly
old wear on it, an original interior brick wall; dark, soothing wood
everywhere. Taps were promising: two Tröegs, two Victory, three
Great Lakes (and I quickly ordered up an Edmund Fitz Porter), Penn St.
Nik Bock, Fat Dog Stout, Arrogant Bastard, Spaten O-fest, La Fin du
Monde! And a big blocky Veltins tap on the end to cap things off.
The whiskey selection was okay, I was thinking, and then I saw the
little exclamation point on the end: Weller Antique. Hello, darling!
Well, I'll tell you. It would have been all too easy to spend
an entire afternoon here, and the Edmund Fitz was tasting great, and the
bartender was attractive...but the rest of the guys at the bar were
yahoos, and I'd heard that upstairs and downstairs at The Nut were
swill-sucking goof-fests...and besides, I had to get down to Slippery Rock.
So back on the road, a quick fill-up and cup of coffee, and I was
free-wheeling down to Slippery Rock.
I still didn't have a place to stay. I wasn't worried, I mean,
it was February in Slippery Rock. So I called ahead to the Evening Star
Motel, which I figured would be my back-up. One of the first things the
guy said was "The rate is $50.12 for the night," practically
blurted it out. Bad sign. Sure enough, when I cruised by, the place
looked pretty spartan. I wanted something a bit nicer. I tried calling the
Butter Inn B&B, and got what I wanted: directions, breakfast,
friendly phone manners, and a rate that was only ten bucks more than the
Evening Star...if I
paid cash. Sold! Five minutes later I was checking in, paying cash, and
heading upstairs to my room. Nice room, too, with real heat, clean
linens and bathroom, no weird broken stuff, and not too frou-frou. Good.
I brushed my teeth, set the alarm, changed my shoes, and headed back
I had noticed a disturbing number of police cruisers on the
way to the Inn, and saw them again now: a town cop, and two State Police
cruisers. I got a funny feeling about it, remembering that the owner of
the only other bar in town was connected to city government. So I
carefully parked the Jetta facing towards the way out of town I wanted,
right across the street from North Country, and resolved to drink a lot
of water. It was time, 6:05, and I crossed the street.
It's opening night, right? So the last thing I expected to see
was Sean McIntyre in the front window, doing the brew-monkey routine,
hanging hoses, straightening out, dressed for a day of brewery work, but
of course, that's where he was. I tapped the glass, waved, and headed
around the corner to the big wooden door that still reads 'COUNTY
MORGUE.' Because that's what it was, way back.
Sean shook my hand, and offered to show me the fermenting
room. Things were right as rain (although the damned ceiling is
still too low!), and all squared away. Sean is one cleanly brewer; busy,
too. He'd been in since 4:00 AM, tweaking and fixing and getting ready.
Should have figured. We shook again, he suggested the cask IPA, and I
headed out to the bar, and caught the seat right on the corner, where
the dragonfly joint is inlaid in the surface.
Good reasons for sitting there, too. Andrew Maxwell was
sitting there, with his wife Melissa, who I hadn't had the pleasure of
meeting before this night. Andrew's the brewer at John Harvard's in
Monroeville, and Sean's partner in the brewing side at North Country.
They're actually providing brewing services to Bob and Jodi.
I ordered up the cask IPA. It was a surprising yellow, but
I've had some good ones at that color level. This one...wasn't. I was
shocked. There was something off in there, the hop flavor was flat, and
the perky yeasty freshness you look for in cask wasn't there. I got
I talked to Andrew and Melissa and absorbed ambience. The
place looked great, all wood-detailed like they'd planned: little
footprints, tree knots carved into pig snouts and howling dogs, that
kind of Adirondack look of rough wood. I worked my way through the pint
of IPA, being polite, and asked for some samplers.
Much better. Whew. I started with the lightest, Northern
Lite, an ale-brewed light beer: "Impressive amount of flavor,
a touch husky." It was plenty drinkable. The Amber Waves of
Grain really took me: "Like fresh whole wheat bread. No,
really, strikingly so, and with some underlying sweetness." I liked
this one, and recommended it to other people through the night.
Sean's family was in by this point, and I met his dad and his
brother, Shane. Nice guys, and things got a bit happier as the beers
flowed. His dad, by the way, was drinking IPA and loving it.
Next up were the two stouts. Two? Sure, why not? First was the
Stone House Stout, an Irish dry. "Perfect plus. If
you like dry stout, just the way it is -- Guinness, that is -- you might
not like this -- cuz it's "more so." Every bit as drinkable,
but roastier, a bit bigger." I really liked this one. Next
was the Buck Snort Stout, which Sean tells me was supposed to be
a full-bore Export style stout...only Bob forgot to dump one last sack
of malt into the mill. Doh! I tell ya, hard to get hired by good
help these days... Anyway, as a 3/4-weight Export stout, it worked:
"Smoother, bigger, not quite rich. Well-differentiated from
the Stone House."
Time to jump into the push-tap IPA. Paleo IPA, as it's called,
is a light golden color, unfiltered and so just a bit hazy, and
brimming over with hop: "Centennial, Cascade, and Northern Brewer
(Sean told me, I didn't guess), this is a piney, pithy, non-nonsense
hoppy golden IPA." Much more assertive and clean and
hammer-down than the cask. I have to believe there was a problem
somewhere there in the cask that will get cleaned up almost immediately,
because there was nothing wrong with this glass of beer.
Next two were beers I would rarely order on my own, the Wolf
Creek Red and the Squirrel Nut Brown. The brown, well, it's just
not my cuppa tea: "More orange than brown, not sweet, not
hoppy-fresh. Could maybe use a bit more of something, but...good as it
is, for what it is." But the Red, well, I would have been just
stupid not to order this: "The Red is happening, almost
busy. Lots of malt and yeast character, plenty of "flavor." A
bold Irish-type ale." This was perhaps my second-favorite,
after the Stone House. (3/1: just got an e-mail from Bob: Wolf
Creek's been renamed Station 33 Firehouse Red in honor of the
local volunteer fire company, and a percentage of sales will go to them
as a donation. Nice.)
The last beer I sampled (and these were samples, by the
way, little three ounce glasses; I remembered those cops!) was the Paddler's
Pale Ale. This was simply a clean, moderately hoppy pale ale, the
kind of pint-after-pinter card-playing beer that usually gets overlooked
these days...except at brewpubs. "Real drinkable, not
over-done." That's not damning with faint praise, either: I love
this in a beer.
I talked to Sean a bit about brewing philosophy. He's going to
make drinking beers, with the occasional big boy, but doesn't expect to
be able to make lagers for a while; just too busy. He's probably
right. He did scare me for a moment when he talked about not doing
over-the-top funky stuff; but laughed and assured me that he would be
re-creating the Weizenbock I had loved so much at Valhalla.
Work was over. I had some fun, swapping stories with Andrew
and Sean and Melissa, talked to Shane, sampled a really delicious ploughman's
platter (worth it almost alone for the mustard) and a
cheese-dripping gooey quesadilla with caramelized onions. I got
to talking with a woman who sat down beside me and turned out to be
Jodi's sister, an art teacher who now lives in Baltimore. I took a look
around the place more fully, noting the carvings in the men's room
(and forgot to go in the ladies' room, which I heard was a great
visual as well), the beautifully turned shelf supports behind
the bar (check out the man and the woman, they're pretty much anatomically
correct), the cozy connection of small dining rooms.
Oh, I suppose I should be used to wishing every great place was
just down the street. But I'm not. I wish this place was just down
the street. Or at least that I had more excuses to go to western PA.
It's getting interesting out here. Matt Allyn's looking at leaving Four
Sons (which he always said he would once it was up and running) to
open his own place in Meadville (which makes Four Sons a good opportunity for a
good brewer who likes
the country). Johnstown Brewing and Marzoni's are ticking
over with nice stuff. Hereford & Hops is coming into
Cranberry Township, Mark Davis still plans to brew at the Bottleshop,
Scott Smith has things running at East End. Beer bars are popping
up in unlikely places. Western PA is hot for beer, and I don't see
that changing. If anything, this independent, almost ornery part of
the state is going to grab hold and tear things up.
Enough. That's more like the upcoming March Buzz. I settled
down for one last pint of IPA, and it was good. I started
saying my good-byes, particularly to Bob and Jodi, who were (I've
realized that I completely forgot to mention) really jazzed up.
Understandably so, but, I mean, Bob was wearing a suit and tie.
Unreal. I made sure to get a picture of that, it's like a total solar
eclipse. I thanked them, wished them the best of luck, and stepped
out to the car. I had one last look at the place, full of happy
people, tired people, relieved people. As Jodi's daughter said,
"It's kind of weird. It's not ours anymore, we have to share it."
Step up, and let the sharing begin. I drove to my bed without incident,
took a few last notes, and sacked out.
Homeward, But Not Without a Struggle
I went down for breakfast. Mmmm, fresh-squeezed OJ, a bacon
and cheese omelette, and a banana. Nice little dining room, though a
bit overdone in the decor -- I have very simple tastes. Back up to
the room, grab the bags and jacket, load the car, and off I go. It was a
quick trip up to I-80, where I aimed it east and let her rip.
I decided to get off at the exit for Clearfield, just to see
if I could stumble across Denny's Beer Barrel Pub, home of the
infamous 6 Pound Cheeseburger. See, someone finally ate one in
three hours, after years of attempts, and now it's gone from their
website. So I wondered if they'd lost heart after having been
bested. Alas, I couldn't find the place, so I blew on down Rt. 322
towards Port Matilda... hoping for a different meaty
And on the far side of town, there it was: Clem's. Clem's
BarBQue. I held my breath: the OPEN flag was out, but it was
10:15 on a cold Sunday morning. I walked in, and saw Clem Pantalone
flipping racks of ribs over the fire pit. I know I'm early, I said, but do
you have meat? "Yeah, we got it, what do you want?"
Yes! Clem works with oak, not hickory ("I think hickory puts
too much flavor in the meat," he told me, "you want to taste
the pork, too."), and he uses fire, not just smoke. It's an interesting
heresy, and one I'm perfectly happy to indulge Clem in,
because this stuff is excellent. I dropped some money and bought
two pounds of "pork bbq" (kind of like pulled pork,
only in bigger chunks and covered with Clem's tangy-sweet
tomato-based sauce) and a half-rack of baby back ribs. "I'm
taking them home for dinner," I told myself
HAH! After 10 minutes of smelling that porkmeat, I jumped off
the bypass around State College, ran into Wegman's, grabbed a
Coke and a crusty fresh roll, and ate that half-rack right off
the trunk of the Jetta. I sucked the ribs clean, and it was
delicious, goofy-good, damn near lean for ribmeat, and dripping
with sauce. I'm not a big sauce man, I like the meat, but damn,
that's good sauce. I'm afraid I kind of inhaled them, too: I got two
bites of roll, and one sip of Coke by the time the bare ribs were bouncing
in the styro. Oh well. It was GREAT!!!
Groan. Yum. Wish I had more. Back in the car, fire it up, head
down past Lewistown to Newport, and back through town to find the Middle
Ridge Tavern, as I'd planned. It was a good five miles out of town,
and when I got there, it was closed. Didn't look like much, to
tell the truth, didn't look anything like the place I'd heard described.
So I left, quickly, and headed down over the hill. After some mapwork,
and a lot of the fun hill and dale driving that Pennsylvania
provides, I came out on the west bank of the Susquehanna, north of
Harrisburg, in Marysville.
I was here for my last stop, the Marysville Tavern. I had
heard about this place from three different Pennsylvania brewers, which
is more than sufficient reason to stop and have a beer. So I did, a Tröegs
Nugget Nectar, and it was mighty nice. The Tavern is on the river
side of the Rt. 11/15 four-lane, you have to go under the roadway in
a little tunnel that the locals apparently call the subway. When
you come up, you look right, and there's the Tavern. The beer's decent
-- three Tröegs were on tap that day, including the Nugget and
Mad Elf, there was Dogfish Head 60 Minute, and Franziskaner Weiss.
Not a great tap selection, but okay. The place itself didn't
do a lot for me, despite the river view. Might be a lot
better in the summer; they have a deck out there. I sank my beer and
And then I went home. All good trips must come to an end,
especially the short ones. And that's the end of this one.