The Electric Pale-Ale Powered Mini-van Urine Test

"The bus came by and I got on, that's when it all began
There was Cowboy Lew at the wheel of the bus to Never Never Land"

Well.

The Wild Hunt has its origins in a beer trip I organized at my last full-time place of employ, Greenwich Pharmaceuticals, ten years ago, in December 1991. It was the day after our company Christmas party, and there
were many bleary eyes. We drove up to Yuengling for the 10:00 tour, then proceeded to hit bars through Berks County and Reading -- Shartlesville Hotel, Virginville Hotel, the Grand Central Taproom, the Northeast Taproom, Bruno's Pizza and Beers of the World -- on the way home. Fairly small, fairly sedate.

The next two years it grew to almost unmanageable size, reaching 17 at its height. We did the Stroh tour in Allentown, we hit Shangy's beer store, found one of our favorite jewels, the Kempton Hotel, and did a hardhat and flashlight tour of The Lion (where we scored four cases of beer).

We even did two extracurricular projects: a three-day New England hunt (14 breweries, heavy snow, grueling) and a one-day hunt that sent me and a guy to Portland for 2 dozen lobsters (and three brewery tours) and three other guys to St. Catharine's, Ontario for a 1/4 keg of beer (we had the party the next day). Then Greenwich crashed and burned, and willy-nilly, we found ourselves trimmed down to three: myself, and my two friends Les and Tom.

We drove each other crazy, bitching and moaning and sniping, but we had a great time, and found some classic back-country bars, like the Stoney Run Hotel, where we chanced to stop in during the last week of a family ownership that had run over 150 years. The 75-year-old woman running it had been born in the hotel. We found the Shive Wheel, a tiny joint in New Philadelphia, and we got a VERY chilly reception at Posty's in Mahanoy City.

Then we picked up a few people, notably Tom's friend Mike (and his brother-in-law Mike), and kept cruising the hills of Berks County. One memorable year we had a third Mike (Gates) along: six of us stuffed into Les's mom's Buick, sleet and wet snow, and the horrible realization that most places in Berks County are closed on Tuesdays...

 

Release the Hounds!

Rich Pawlak (RP) kept hearing about this, and kept whining to go along in that endearingly noodgy way he has. A couple invites went by when he couldn't fit them in his schedule (we always Hunt between Christmas and New Year's), but this year he just said to hell with it, bit the bullet, and called in sick.

We had a different Hunt planned this year. No Yuengling tour (Les was pissed off at the tour guide, who'd kicked everyone out of the taproom when some guy made a derogatory comment about her sexual habits), but a bold strike
into NE PA. I arranged a full tour at The Lion (I know the brewer pretty well there), and had a day planned from there. RP met me at my home, and we headed for Quakertown to meet The Hunt.

"I got a great place for lunch," was practically the first thing he says when he gets out of his car. He's a nutcase with food. He starts going on about these hot dog joints, we talked hot dogs most of the way up to Q-town (I have been known to eat a few frankfurters meself). I kept telling him, "You'll have to convince them. I don't lead this thing, it's a democracy." Which isn't quite true, by the way. It's more like a panel discussion, and I'm the moderator, mainly because if someone didn't try to sum up and shut down, we'd just drive around blabbing forever.

We met the other hunters at Yum-Yum Bake Shop in Quakertown, got coffee and donuts ("Gotta lay in a base for drinking"), and split a couple beers in the parking lot, as we always do: a cellared Jack Daniels Winter Brew (exquisite: chocolatey and a flavor like good dried cherries) and a vintage 1996 Snow Goose (why can't they make it like that today???). Into my minivan and off up 309 to the Turnpike (cuz I forgot to grab the TP right there in Q-town!).

I spared no horses and EZ-passed our way thru the tolls, so we wound up early for our 10:15 tour. No problem, we drove by half a block to Dukey's for an early beer. Dukey's had been found previously, a dingy place with cheap, fresh Stegmaier (no surprise, they're half a block from the brewery!) and politically incorrect bartenders. Yow! What a change! The place was clean, painted, and... "womanized." We split on this one between disappointed and pleased. We had pints of Steg and they did serve us a complimentary basket of damned good home-made potato chips dusted with Old
Bay seasoning.

The Lion Roars

Then we got our tour with ass't brewer Bob Kleintob. On with the hardhats and safety glasses (no flashlights this time), and into the brewery, up four floors to the milling room. We progressed through the lagering "cellar" (it's on the third floor), the brewhouse, the ferment chambers, and down to the 'mixing room' where they mix the sodas that are keeping them profitable. The Lion does a BIG business in malt soda (Goya, primarily), a nasty sweet thing that is huge in Hispanic and Caribbean markets, and some high-end sodas, particularly a delicious ginger ale that uses real ginger. Their output is only about 30% beer, though that's up from 20% only a few years ago, thanks to picking up some contract work brewing Pabst. 

They showed us the new bottling lines and new pasteurizer, they're getting a new brewkettle this year, and the lagering cellar was relatively new. What was NOT new was the taproom, where we started in sampling beers and their 'malternatives:' Chester's Hard Root Beer (not bad, but weird) and Long Island Iced Tea (frighteningly easy to drink, and probably good with a glassful of ice). We finally hit the road, deciding against another beer at Dukey's (which Les now insisted on calling "Dixie's"), and instead going to look at Moose's Par Four, a bar I'd heard had a good selection of beer.

Sure enough, when we got there we found a Rogue neon in the window, a good sign, only the place was locked up tight, had no sign out, and it looked like a new lock: out of business? [I've since learned that Moose's is open Wednesday 
thru Saturday, but doesn't open until 4:30.] 

Dog Day Afternoon

Didn't know, didn't care, screw 'em. At this point, RP talked the boys into checking out Abe's, the first dog shack. Wow, was it great. Grill going in the front window, covered with dogs, and a big guy sticking them in rolls, laying the rolls in a six-deep line on his forearm, and slathering them with chopped onions, mustard, and "Greek sauce," that delicious meat sauce beloved by aficionados of the "Texas wiener." He'd hand them off to the countergirl as he did them, she'd whip-whap-wrap them in thin wax paper, and tucked them in a paper sack. We got two each and ran to the van.

On the road to Scranton it started snowing as we tore into our dogs. They were great, smoky, spicy, and not real messy in that soft, absorbent roll. ("This is a good idea," says Tom, angling to talk Les out of one of his dogs. "We needed to lay in a base.") Scranton was in the windshield shortly, and we joked as rolled into town about the hopper cars on the siding covered with snow; they're shipping in snow from Canada! RP pointed out the sights as we drove, Scrantonian that he is, and then we got to Cooper's.

Cooper's, as Tom put it, "looks like a place I would never, ever go in." Picture Noah's Ark with a parking lot, then put a huge purple octopus on the deck with two pirates in its tentacles. Put a double glass door in the side right under the mad cephalopod, and you've got Cooper's. It looks like it ought to have a miniature golf course around it. 

Inside there's an astonishing array of... things, both nautical and not, things like, like, well, like the framed collection of Charlie's Angels trading cards in the men's room ("Farrah watched me pee!"), and a lifesize cardboard cutout of Clint Eastwood from Fistful of Dollars, and a ton of historical photos of Scranton. We headed straight for the main bar (a
mistake, we should have gone to the back bar, where things are generally less frenzied and the service more friendly) and grabbed a section. We were thirsty, it had been almost an hour since we last had a beer!

Cooper's has about 24 taps and well over 400 bottled beers, and it's not crap. We had Lindeman's Framboise, H-P Dunkelweizen, Harpoon Winter Warmer, and Salvator, all on draft. I got a bowl of clam chowder (NE style, if you're interested, they had it all three ways) and a smoked trout plate (which was fabulous, and loaded with pickles, olives, pepperoncini, and hot pepper rings besides the horseradish cream, just the thing for laying in a base). The only flies in our perfect ointment were RP's woefully overdone potato pancakes ("My mother would roll over in her grave," he said) and the bartender, who really wanted us to leave. Eventually, we did.

Back in the van, with a few of us getting a leeeetle bit silly about this time. It's still snowing, by the way. Down into downtown Scranton, again at RP's urgings: another hot dog joint. This one was much more scenic; tucked in under the jowls of a railroad bridge where the sidewalk descended from the main drag and the windows of the place appeared as the face of the building spread downwards, the door appearing as soon as there was room for a door. We stepped in, and bent down and to the right, around the grill, and took seats at the counter, damn near the whole counter.

This place was something. First off, you've got the long white counter, with round backless stools facing framed Scranton Times front pages of Repeal, Pearl Harbor, Agnes (if you're from PA or NY and over 35, you know what that
means), one hell of a big trainwreck, and 9/11. 

Behind the stools, through an arched arcade, are the booths, and they're beauties, all dark wood and nicely carved. Then you've got the three people running the joint: the grillman (the original owner's son, whose twin brother (according to RP) runs a dog shop half a block away -- they don't speak to each other), a tall, balding, thick-lipped guy who just keeps
slicing, flipping, and ladeling; the cook, a middle-aged woman with a friendly smile who keeps moving, but takes a protective position by the grillman often enough to make me think she's his wife; and the waitress, an auburn-haired woman looking about 68, who moves slow, and seems overwhelmed by seven guys who ALL WANT THE SAME THING. I mean, there's only hot dogs and hamburgs on the menu, HELLO!!

These dogs were much more interesting. They were shorter, about 2/3 the size of a standard dog, but fat ("They make 'em special for me," said Grillman), and the grillman split them almost in two with a long serrated knife and laid them open face-down on the grill. When they were done on that side, he'd hit them two whacks with the knife crossways to the first cut, and then flip them. When they were done, he took the rolls (also weird: short and square, for the dogs, but he sliced the tops right off and put them aside), laid them up his forearm, and started laying on dogs, minced onions,
mustard, and Greek sauce. When they were done, he put the top of the roll right back on. The mustard ("That's special, you can't buy that") and onions ("They're special, too," he said with a grin, causing Les to wonder "What, how special can onions be? You piss in 'em?") both are kept in earthenware bowls RP swears are the same they used when he went there as a kid. We all agreed that hot dogs were perfect for laying in a base.

Good dogs, but... I liked Abe's better. Better Greek sauce. This sauce was more like chili, and had a sharper flavor to it that lacked the mellow subtlety of a good Greek sauce. To me, of course.

"Old Forge pizza! It's the best!"

Back in the van! Les was pushing for a bar he'd visited in a northern suburb of Scranton, "a Hunt bar," he said, a shot and beer place. Okay, do you have any idea where it is? Yeah, he said, and conferred with RP. About fifteen minutes later we were stuck in traffic, which finally let us out into Taylor (?), where Les said the bar was. Well, we drove the whole way through Taylor, riding Les the whole time (which was FUN, by the way; usually the Hunt's primary occupation is riding ME, so I was enjoying this).

When we reached the western edge, Les snapped. "Pull the goddamned van over!" he yelled, so I did, thinking he wanted time to think. He starts unbuckling, and I ask "What's up?!" 

"Just let me fucking drive," he snarls, and I slapped the van back in gear. I U'd it around and by the time I got us off the road in a pull-off, Les had regained composure and whipped out his cellphone to call his friend who took him to the place. We had directions toot sweet, and headed FURTHER west about 1/4 mile, and there was Maxie's.

Maxie's looked like someone's house, the only giveaway being the sign and the small parking lot. As we were getting out of the van, a guy was walking to his car carrying two pizza boxes, and RP hails him with "Old Forge pizza!"

"Old Forge pizza!" the guy replies with a big SE grin, "It's the BEST!" What the hell are they talking about, I wondered. Is this some kind of local pizza factory that ships out pre-made pizza to local bars and people actually like it enough to know about it? Yuk. 

Les was right, though, it WAS a Hunt bar. Bar was the central fixture, there was an odd pinball-type game in the corner (something like Bingo, it looked like, lots of cups and posts that you just let the ball roll down into, pinball for the severely lazy or impaired), and, of course, there was a bottle of Rock & Rye. We got Stegs and chilled.

Then RP started talking to the bartender about pizza. After he ordered ("We gotta lay in a base," he says to me, and "Six cuts," he says to the bartender: not slices, "cuts."), I got the skinny on Old Forge pizza. Old Forge is the name of the town and we were right on the edge (actually, we were in Old Forge: the van, out in the parking lot, was not). The town had
developed a rep over the years for a particular style of pizza that all the joints in town made. It's rectangular, but it's not Sicilian. Instead you've got a medium-thickness crust, but with a crunchy layer on the bottom about 1/4 inch thick: crunchy, not crispy, it crunches almost like zweiback. Then there's a nice soft doughy layer on top, covered with a fairly peppery tomato sauce. And there's lots of cheese; if you order extra cheese, you better mean it. Good stuff.

RP and I did shots of Rock'n'Rye (sweet, medicinal, warming), Mike fired up a cigar, Les "played" the bingo-ball machine -- really, you just kind of put your quarter in and watch -- and we ate our cuts. Not much talking, not much of anything, really. Perfect Hunt stuff, which is why we don't take women along. They just wouldn't get it.

Black Rock, White Death

It was getting along about 5:30 by now, the snow had stopped (having never really amounted to anything but scenery), and we had to make some decisions. There were four places left on our itinerary, and one had to be cut: Elmer Sudds (a great beer bar), Black Rock (new W-B brewpub), Barley Creek (Poconos brewpub), or Weyerbacher (Easton brewpub, their next to last night). The people spoke: Elmer Sudds bought it. On to Black Rock. 

By the time we got there, it was dark and REALLY cold and windy. The snow had started again, spitting flakes at us. The first person we saw as we walked in the door of Black Rock was brewer Terry Hawbaker, so I got the scoop on available brews from him. They were going through beer at a great rate, so they were down to four beers: pale ale, kolsch, altbier, and a winter spiced ale. We thanked him, and grabbed space at one of the detached counters.

 Black Rock opened about a month ago, using the brewhouse out of the closed Valley Forge Blue Bell brewpub and the brewer (Terry) out of the closed W.T. Hackett's in Scranton (Terry and boss Pat O'Connor are angling to buy some of Hackett's tanks; they need them badly already). The place is a former insurance office, an excellent recycling (too bad it wasn't a law firm). It's all one large room, though there are some well-placed half-height dividers, and it's a fairly warm place for all that, even though the drop ceiling is a bit off-putting. 

The beer was great. I had the altbier, and what a deliciously malty thing it was. I'd like a bit more hop-spike for an alt, but for a cold-conditioned ale, it was delish. The pale ale was just so, hop-spiked and crisp; the winter spice was good, not over the top. The hit of the night was Terry's ballsy kolsch, a big kolsch, beautifully clear and clean. True to style?
Nehhh, just good. Les dug it immensely and got everyone else to try it on the free second round Terry sent over.

That was nice, but when we got back outside the snow was intense. It dumped about half an inch in 20 minutes, which may not sound like much, but the ground was frigid already, and the combo made for very slick conditions. This was the same storm that killed 7 people on I-80 in PA with just such conditions: sharp, intense, blinding snowfall with just enough accumulation to make things greasy. We carefully made our way up the long hill out of town on Rt. 115. I'd figured on taking 115 down through the hills to Barley Creek for fun, but I was now aiming for the PA TP to take the longer, safer way round.

Submarine on Wheels

Ho, ho, ho: the TP was SHUT DOWN, flares across the on-ramp. We ducked into a convenience store, and learned that the TP was shut down because so many accidents were happening. Heh. I bought pipe tobacco (for our corncob pipes
left over from last year's Hunt), went out and strapped myself into the driver's seat. "We're going," I called out, and aimed the van down the 15 curving miles of two-lane.

Things quickly got stupid under the tension. 

"Black ice!"

"Shut up."

"Watch out for black ice!!"

"Shut up."

"We're all gonna die!"

"Shut up."

That was about it for conversation for the next five minutes, as the van took on that rumbly quiet isolation of snow-traversing vehicles, like a submarine on wheels. A submarine on wheels in the woods, that is. 

We followed the other traffic slowly southeastward on Rt. 115, slipping a bit now and then, but kind of chafing a bit, too. I mean, these guys went SLOW. Finally, the beer and water (RP and I were taking on water to stay on top of things) caught up with me, and I started looking for a place to pull over. Eventually I gave up and just put her on the side of the road. 

"Pee stop!"

"Yellow ice!"

"Shut up."

The Mikes and I eased springs and damn near froze our willies in the icy wind. Back in the van, back on the road, and by golly, it got better. The snow petered out, and we made it down to I-80. Fifteen minutes later we were climbing the hill to Barley Creek. 

Brewpub Frenzy

It was a madhouse. I grabbed owner Trip Ruvane and said hi, he told me that today was the first real big day of the ski season they'd had, weather'd been too warm. "So a lot of things broke down under the strain, unfortunately," he said, "including the kitchen staff and the men's room." Erk.

We ordered up beers: I asked for my fave, Renovator Stout, and was told it was a special oatmeal version. VERY nice, smooth stuff, do that all the time. The place was jumping, and when we grabbed standing counter space, it was a relief. Out came the pipes and the cigars, food came (including my favorite Barley Creek food, Crane's Crazy Chip Dip, a gooey mess of chili and cream cheese with mixed corn chips...and it's never too late to lay in that base), and we relaxed as much as we could. It was good not to be driving.

After two rounds we called it quits, headed back down the hill to I-80, then south on Rt. 33 to Easton and the last stop of the night, Weyerbacher's, on their next to last night. It promised to be crazy. 

"Black ice!" 

"Shut up."

Weyerbacher had lost its lease, and was moving to a new location on the south side of Easton. Good news/bad news: the new space was a dedicated industrial space with better facilities, drains, floors, and more space to boot. (They're already up and brewing there, BTW.) BUT there was absolutely no room for the pub. So this was the last weekend the pub would be open. We expected it to be kinda crazy, and it was.

They had prepared for the crowds by hanging their Christmas tree upside down in the corner (fun, once you got over the initial shock!), but that was all. The pub was always a small space, a long narrow bar area with a slightly larger dining area with about eight tables. We slowly pushed our way down the bar and took up standing room by the service entrance to the bar. This didn't make us popular, but did get us plenty of face time with one sweet-looking waitress (who was nice enough to appreciate our interest) and one snarly bar manager ("Screw him, he's out of a job!" we laughed).

The beer was limited, as tanks were running dry, but what was left was delicious. I stuck to Hops Infusion and Winter Ale, both rocking good stuff: the Infusion was aromatic enough to smell it over the somewhat stifling fug of the room, the Winter Ale was a grin in every sip, really good malt and Brit ale yeast flavors. 

We finally got two little tables and played Russian Roulette with the menu ("No, we're out of that...and that...I can let you have that without the salsa.") for the official dinner of the Hunt. Could have been a pain in the butt, but given the circumstances, it was fun. We enjoyed ourselves immensely, the food was great (at least, my Chicken Montreal sammich was), and people just bumped into each other and smiled.

It was getting even more crowded, and we were getting a bit worn by 10:30. Enough, we said, and slowly made our way for the door. Once in the van, I pointed it up over the hill and west on I-78, back to Yum Yum, where we'd started over 14 hours ago. 

"Hey, Lew?" came Les's unwearied voice from the back.

"What?" I barked, knowing that crap was imminent.

"Can we stop somewhere for some hot dogs? I think we oughta lay in a base."

I finally got home at midnight. It was a great Hunt.

Copyright 2003 Lew Bryson. All rights reserved. 
Fee required for reprints in any commercial media.
Revised: March 04, 2003