The beer is flowing at a new brewery in Northwest Pennsylvania
April 7, 2004 Written by Probiere
Iowa, UNITED STATES -
Part 2 of Pennsylvania small town breweries
<P> I’m at the point in my life where I’m starting to be invited to weddings. When you’re a kid, cousins that you’ve never heard of get married and celebrate the reception in your school auditorium/church hall. You run around between the tall people, escape to the church boiler room to explore parts unknown, and drink as many of those “special orange juices” as the bartender will let you have. “My mom wants another one.” “Mmm hmm. Sure.” Somewhere along the way I’m sure they set up a tray of not-so-special orange juices just for me.
<P> Now when I go to weddings I have to behave myself. A coworker from last summer invited me up to Grand Valley for her reception. As a bit of background, I worked horse staff at a summer camp last year. One of those “life experiences” Peace Corps veterans are always raving about, and I didn’t even have to leave my home state. As this wise-cracking friend was one of the few reasons I escaped camp with my sanity, I was happy to make the trip and wish her and her new husband good luck. The two had met at camp and annouced their engagement at the end of the summer. Picture perfect. The drive up was in pounding rain, but the wedding itself was very nice. If you ever happen to read this, Darrick and Jeanna, congrats and best wishes. Keep in touch.
<P>Grand Valley is ten miles from anywhere. Anywhere is also known as Titusville. You may have heard of Titusville, but you probably can’t remember why it rings a bell. I’ll give you a clue: hum the Beverly Hillbillies theme in your head. That’s right, in the mid-19th century, Titusville, home of some bubbling crude, was the birthplace of the modern oil industry. This week, it is the focus of your history lesson.
There were no internal combustion engines in 1859, so there was also no need for gasoline. However, by the mid 1850s, the search for a source of crude oil was well underway. Why? Until this time, lamp oil had been provided by whaling. The whaling industry, however, had been so successful as to begin to drive itself out of business. With whaling catches declining, scientists began looking for other substances that could be turned into non-smoky, non-smelly lamp oil. Seeps of crude oil (literally places where the gooey stuff oozes out of the ground) were collected and analyzed. Although (as anyone who lives near a petroleum refinery today can attest) the process stunk to high heaven, it was discovered that distillation of the crude oil resulted in the separation of the heavier carbon chains from the lighter products. Products close to kerosene were produced in ordinary stills, and as we all know, kerosene burns relatively cleanly. This was a major breakthrough, and exploration for oil sources began in earnest. Enter Titusville.<P><P>
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Where is Titusville?
Source: Oil History
<P>Titusville was a farming community. In the past, its inhabitants had drilled wells looking for water. When they found their wells contaminated by crude oil, they abandoned them in disgust. The problem of finding clean well water in Titusville piqued the interest of several New York businessmen. They funded an expedition by E. L. Drake to find a source of crude oil and extract it in commercial quantities. Choosing an area where ground seeps proliferated, Drake began to drill. Problems abounded. The hole kept collapsing. Part of the reason for this was the very geology that allowed oil to be found there in the first place. Drake was drilling through varied layers of sedimentary rock, primarily sandstone and shale. Investors knew the oil was there in the rock, but didn’t know from whence it came. It was called “rock oil” for lack of a better name. However, paleontologists and geologists speculate that the northwestern portion of Pennsylvania was once on the edge of a large inland sea. The carbon containing life forms in the sea died and were buried under layers of mud and sand, changing over millions of years into oil embedded in the rock. This crumbly “oil shale” was what Drake had to fight while trying to drill down to the reservoir he hoped to find. In order to combat the collapsing hole, Drake invented the drive pipe. This was a pipe inserted into the hole and lowered as drilling progressed. It abutted the walls of the hole and protected the drill equipment. Drake was prepared to drill as far as 1000 feet deep to find oil (he was slightly obsessed). They struck pay dirt at only 69.5 feet. A derrick was built with a steam engine to bring the oil above ground. This first truly commercial well produced an average of ten barrels per day for about a year. When you consider that Saudi Arabia now produces close to 8 million barrels per day, oil truly did have humble roots! <P><P>
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The original derrick at Drake’s well.
Source: Oil History
<P> A bevy of wells sprung up in the area surrounding Titusville in the next few years. The Drake well dried up relatively quickly and was abandoned after efforts to deepen it failed. The heyday of Pennsylvania oil production was quickly overshadowed by big reserves found in Texas and elsewhere. However, no one can deny that the technology for commercial oil production and refining was first developed and implemented in Pennsylvania.
<P>Today, Titusville is a small town that has largely returned to its farming roots. The community has also developed a small tourist trade around its history. It has reconstructed the original Drake well (which had been looted and dismantled for parts) and brought Drake from his original burial site in Bethlehem, PA, entombing him with statued and engraved tribute in the town. All around town, you can find plaques telling of obscure oil-related history. And that is Titusville. After spending a summer there, I thought I knew the place pretty well. Turns out I didn’t!
Coming back to Titusville for gas after the wedding, the fog after the rain was like cheese and broccoli soup (who here has actually had pea soup? Raise your hands. Someone somewhere must have eaten it all the time or else we wouldn’t have that stupid expression. But whomever it is, they’re probably dead now.) . I was headed out of town when a building that had been conspicuously empty this summer loomed up in my peripheral vision. “Four Sons Brewing” read the marquee, and the place was hopping! I parked in record time and made my way in the door. The fog wasn’t going away; so why hurry to drive 4 hours through it and go home to bed?
<P>My first impression was Art Deco. Big, blocky spaces filigreed with sweeping curves of wood and shining brass. The ceiling was at least twenty feet high. Smoke was minimal. People were leaving with growlers in a steady stream and the food marching past on trays looked damn good after wedding cake. The bar and restaurant areas were separated by a row of Dorian columns. I waited until after the groups in front of me had been seated and then asked to speak with whatever ranking person was around. I got to talk with the owner, Thom Sauber. His office is situated on an open-air half-level platform overlooking the whole bar. With a twenty-foot ceiling, you can get away with interior design tricks like this. He didn’t explain the name of the bar (and I didn’t think to ask—I’m not too good at the impromptu interview just yet), so I guess that’s one question that’ll go unanswered. On the upshoot, we had a nice chat about the reasons he got into brewing and what direction he wanted to take with his pub. The place opened its doors on February 24, 2004, and approximately one month later, it seemed that everyone in town knew about the place. In contrast to the owner of Johnstown Brewing Company, Mr. Sauber intends to make beer with character right from the start. The “lightest” regular beer in his lineup is a helles (more on that fine beer later). The way he explains it, if people are never exposed to more than what they’re used to, they will never develop a palate or preference for interesting beers. He said, for example, that one of his most popular beers is a schwarzbier, and that it is especially popular with women who want to try something completely different from the macro lagers they grew up with. When I asked about extreme beers, he confessed a love of balance. He also said that, like Johnstown, he anticipated a better first year with food than beer, but, as was clearly evidenced by the activity at the taps below, beer was doing just fine!
<P>Unfortunately, the head brewer, a Matt Allen, wasn’t in that night, and as much as I would have liked to, I wasn’t driving 4 hours back the next day to talk to him. We concluded our talk with best wishes all around and I proceeded to make my way down to the bar to try the beers.
There were seven beers on tap that night, served in 5 oz. samples on a coded wooden tray. Service was fast, friendly, and attentive. In keeping with the owner’s Scottish heritage, all employees wore kilts. It was an interesting twist in the usual black pants/white shirt routine. The beers were all served at a good temperature, but their lines were pushing too much CO2 because every sample I had was pretty roughly carbonated.
<P>Heavy K (3.2 overall)
A scotch ale, this was drinkable but not really on for the style. It was almost estery, with a distinct apple note. The alcohol was too apparent, but the rest of the malt did its best to compensate, with figs, honey, toasty biscuits and a sweet finish. Soothing, but it seemed too young. Maybe some ageing would mellow the alcohol note. Excellent firm mouthfeel.
<P>Plissken Pale Ale (3.7 overall)
This APA poured a light translucent orange, unfiltered. The aroma reminded me of 90 Minute, but not so overpoweringly grapefruity. The taste is almost wheaty, definitely yeasty (this beer was unfiltered), but carried by the hops. This was balanced. I liked it.
<P>Titusville Lager (3.6 overall)
Here’s the helles I was telling you about. Inviting banana, sweet malt aroma emanating from a dark yellow/pale amber beer. The taste is a super-honey-malt attack, and the finish was clean and somewhat clovey. This beer is appealing and refreshing, and I venture to say that no one who’d tried it had failed to be impressed. Based on the growlers I saw and the orders going out as I sat at the bar, it’s one of their most popular beers.
<P>E’s SB ( 3.5 overall)
One guess what this one’s supposed to be. Like the koelsch I had at Johnstown, this beer was a first of style for me. Without a basis for comparison, I had to rate somewhat blind. Deep amber-brown color, smells like crackers, peanuts, and cinnamon. Warm and malty taste and mouthfeel, but too much alcohol in the finish. Subdued and balanced hops. Like a mini-barleywine? Lots of toffee.
<P>Rebecca’s Revenge (3.4 overall)
The schwarzbier. Biscuits and toast aroma, nicer coffee flavors than some stouts I’ve had. Acidic, roasty, and dry. Tasty but challenging—like chewing on dry toast, it takes a while to get through a glass. Not a quaffer. Too much coffee for me.
<P>Noah’s Ark Abbey Dubbel (2.9 overall)
Smells of fruit but no peaches. Why no peaches? Too rough and not enough depth or malt. The over-carbonation was most detrimental to this beer. Smells and tastes alcoholic. Distinctively a dubbel but not a real good one.
<P>Monkey Run Oatmeal Stout (4.0 overall)
A molasses-sweet smell—chocolate! Milky, thick feel, touch of roast in the finish. Reminds me of Sam Smith’s Oatmeal Stout in its unabated rich sweetness. Oh yes, this is some superb stuff. If I had had my growler with me, I would have taken some of this home for sure.
<P>I took my time with my beers, savoring the conversations rippling around me. The air—and there was a lot of it considering the ceiling height—was full of good smells and soothing sounds. Thom Sauber had created a neighborhood bar out of scratch in an area that has never been known for beer. Then again, Indiana wasn’t ever known for beer until 3 Floyds’ came along, was it? The drive home that night took 6 hours instead of the usual 4. The fog hadn’t let up any, and I went 35 (mph) for most of the way. Excruciating, but safe. I was less worried about cars than I was about deer, to tell the truth. Cars at least have headlights. That night, a deer could have been 5 yards directly ahead of me and I wouldn’t have seen it till I was on top of it. Those who have had the misfortune of hitting a deer with a car know what I’m worried about (hitting a deer with a truck is another matter…). At any rate, I rolled into bed tired but satisfied that night. Another good experience, another article idea. Next week, my local: Selins Grove Brewing.