No Cute Title: Just a Brewpub I’m Lucky to Call My Local
April 29, 2004 Written by Probiere
Iowa, UNITED STATES -
Rugby players are not generally known for the quality of beer they drink. I think it would be fair to say they are better known for their exploits in mass consumption and the off-key singing accompanying said consumption. So it really surprised me to find what was unmistakeably an empty growler on the windowsill of a rugger’s house during a post-match party. “Oh yeah!” Rob** told me after we had retreated to the kitchen to hang with the keg of Natty Light and be able to hear each other without shouting. “Selinsgrove! They make a killer porter!” Great, I thought. A brewpub I can’t legally visit for another five months. I could have cajoled him into getting me a growler to try, but I am what most people call ‘too stinkin’ honest.’ Plastic cups of crappy free beer were as illegal as my underage drinking got. Besides, I wanted to actually experience the place. Thus, I was the good girl; I waited until I hit the magic age and then hustled my butt out to Selinsgrove, a ten-mile, twenty-minute drive from Bucknell.
<P>At this point, I should explain to you a bit about Bucknell and its fascination with inebriation. Situated in the heart of central Pennsylvania (snickering may stop now, thank you), Union county personifies PA’s image as postcard perfect farmland, dotted with small, friendly towns that have vibrant Main Streets and historical districts. Many students come for the picturesque view and only later realize that one only gets the view if one sacrifices the exciting entertainment opportunities of the Big City. This isn’t meant to be a student paper editorial bashing the area as boring—Lord knows I read enough of those every year—just a bit of explanation. Some students come because they love the country. Some are initially appalled but come to love it. Unfortunately, some (read: significant statistical portion) spend their entire four years making fun of the local “hicks”, complaining about the lack of things to do, and ruining their livers several days a week with the cheapest booze they can buy. Supply and demand coupled with PA case laws means that it’s hard to find affordable good beer in Lewisburg.
OK, explanation over. Selins Grove Brewing is housed in the basement of the Governor Snyder Mansion, residence of three-time PA governor Simon Snyder. The place is mostly famous for the guests it has entertained: George Washington, James Madison, and James Monroe among others. The house was part of the Underground Railroad during the Civil War. A tunnel several hundred feet long connected it to a house on the bank of the Susquehanna River, and slaves were housed and smuggled through the mansion. The mansion is on the National Register of Historic Places and is a must-see if you ever go through the town. Also recommended are the downtown shops (antiques, books—window shop if nothing else, and enjoy the small-town character of Selinsgrove) and BJ’s Steak and Ribs, which has the best prime rib for the price east of the Mississippi. But what am I doing? I’m supposed to be talking about beer! Oh yes, the brewpub in the mansion…
I have to start with atmosphere: the place is full of it. Did you grow up in a house with mismatched furniture? Do you shudder when your spouse wants to buy the “living room set”? My God, the horror of walking into a place that’s supposed to be designed to reflect your personality and seeing matching chairs and couches and endtables and lamps! But that’s just me—perhaps YOUR personality IS color and style coordinated. ;-) I grew up in a house where nothing matched: some antiques, some family hand-me-downs, and some new things bought as separates (but never to match!). Selins Grove felt like home the moment I walked in the door. Under the low-wood-beamed ceiling are a hodge-podge of tables and chairs and rescued church pews, all struggling for balance on the uneven floor. The lighting is soft and each table contains one electric candle. People I take here have fun passing the candle around the table to read their menus. Yes, we are easily amused. Of course, it's not exactly ideal conditions for rating appearance, but it’s quite easy to improvise by taking the shade off of the candle and holding the bulb up to the beer. The indoor area is non-smoking; a good thing because it’s small, with bar and tables holding maybe 50 people. In nice weather, three or four outdoor tables line the terrace and provide extra seating for the Friday and Saturday night crowds. The bar is short but comfortable, and the route back to the kitchen flanked by a stairway whose open-sided steps display a choice bottle collection attesting to the owners’ love of beer. The kitchen itself is small and produces soup, sandwiches and appetizers, all fresh and filling and all a step above typical fried pub fare. If you’re feeling extra-hungry, there is a feature dinner plate and dessert that changes weekly. The pub is open only Wednesday through Saturday but draws a nice crowd each night. Whenever I go the place is full of conversation and, although there are board games available on a shelf in the back room, people seem content to sit and talk over their beers, those wonderful beers that are brewed by Steve and Heather McNabb.*
Heather was gracious enough to grant me an interview outside of normal pub hours. I learned that her husband Steve began homebrewing in college in the mid-80s. A mutual love of beer allowed them to harbor the dream of one day opening their own pub. It took them a little while to reach that point, but the credentials they have amassed along the way are impressive.
<P> Everything started at a brewer’s school in Maine. Following that, they moved out West and took jobs with New Belgium for three years, from 1993-95. At the end of that stint, Steve was working in brewing and Heather in brewing and filtering. Deciding to leave was a hard decision, she said, but they both felt it time to strike out on their own. They moved back to Pennsylvania (Heather is originally from Lewistown, outside of State College) and began looking for a place. After having some difficulties locating one, Heather’s parents, who own the Governor Snyder mansion, suggested that they open shop in the basement. Naturally, (as anyone would!) they took a look and thought it was too small! But as it was pretty much the only option, they got creative and got down to work. They have now been in operation for 7 years and are working to convert from a 3 bbl to a 7 bbl system that will move their brewing out of the back room and into the relative spaciousness of their garage. Along the way their beers and reputation have grown to dwarf the size of the pub they operate, making it into a favorite stop for locals and travellers alike. Despite the soon-to-be-increased capacity, Heather says they do not plan to bottle beers on a regular basis. “Maybe for special occasions,” she says. But she and Steve enjoy the control and closeness they have with on-premise distribution, and feel that starting a bottling line would make the place more into a factory than a pub. They do offer growler fills, so be sure to bring your along when you visit.
<P>When I asked about the kind of beers they prefer to brew, I really had no idea what the answer would be. In the short time I’ve frequented the place, I’ve added maybe 10 new beers to the database, all of different styles. However, I got an answer based not on style but on substance: balance. Heather says she prefers hoppy beers and will 9 times of 10 pull herself a glass of their IPA. But it, like all their other beers, is a brewer’s lesson in balance. As for styles, there seems to be nothing at which they won’t try their hands (and do a respectable job of it, too!). And thus, on to the beers.
Selins Grove brews a number of regular beers and has at least three seasonals on at all times (quickly rotating, so don’t put off trying them until your next trip), making for a total of 7 to 8 beers always on tap. I’m going to highlight the regular beers first, and then cover what I think have been the most outstanding seasonals.
White Horse Porter (4.0 overall)
Allegedly named for George Washington’s horse who used to graze in the mansion’s backyard, this porter is simply excellent. It’s not over the top alcohol-wise, so feel free to have several—I always do. The mouthfeel is thick and creamy without being sticky. It’s sweet and bitter like chocolate milk and coffee with vanilla and roasted undertones. A lovely, lovely beer, and I daresay their most popular. Call before you go to make sure they haven’t run out earlier that evening.
<P>Crystal IPA (3.9 overall)
This beer is another gem. It’s not excessively bitter, but it is deliciously complex. The nose smells like stinky cheese and flowers and honey and the taste is superbly balanced between a fruity start (figs? dates?), smoky middle, and hoppy finish. It’s a deep glowing amber color with a foamy white head. Another must-try.
<P>Scottish Ale (3.7 overall)
This is another balanced beer, with sweet, heavy malt and a tangy peat middle. Mouthfeel is thick and the finish is warming alcohol. Spot on for the style.
<P>Captain Selin’s Cream Ale (2.1 overall)
Here I am raving about their beers and here’s a clunker! I don’t know why they brew this as a regular (again, something I should have remembered to ask. . .), but if I had to guess I would say it’s because not all of their clientele appreciate the works of art that are their other beers. This is the typical cream ale, with a corny, sweet taste and sharpish finish. The one pint I had tasted strangely oxidized, maybe because this beer isn’t a fast mover. At any rate, try it if you’re curious; otherwise leave it to the macro-drinking fishing buddies you brought along on your central PA odyssey.
Fireside Brown (3.8 overall)
This is a fall/winter seasonal. A delicious nutty, toasty brown with a full body and a subtle finish. I know many people on this site complain that browns are boring, but I happen to enjoy a well-made one, and this certainly fits the bill.
<P>Phoniex Kriek (3.5 overall)
Winter seasonal. The best small-market kriek I have had. This interpretation of a Flemish Sour starts off with a spicy whiff of cinnamon and oak and proceeds to a medium cherry body with hints of burnt toast and vinegar, to finish soft and sweet like cherry pie. Well-worth a try if it’s available.
<P>Stealth Triple (4.1 overall)
Winter/spring seasonal. This year’s batch of triple was simply mind-blowing. It smelled of spices, apples, and bananas. Amongst my non-beery friends it was known as the “banana beer”. Pleasant and complex with a clovey-doughy taste mixing with sweet malt and a long warming finish. Simply good!
<P>These seasonals were all sampled this past winter, so if you’re interested in making a winter trip up, I suggest you call and find out what they’re planning to do again and when. Currently, the seasonals are an organic APA and the Lil’ Budgie Pilsner. The pale is unremarkable, but the pilsner is very refreshing, if not quite hoppy enough. I am eagerly anticipating a maibock, and I suspect a weizen is in the works for summertime. Also, they have a nitro tap system and generally have a stout on that. The stouts are all solid, but the nitro largely kills their distinguishing characteristics.
<P>In sum, this is an excellent neighborhood brewpub with atmosphere, friendly patrons and servers, and two brewers who love to make quality beer. The beers that aren’t quite spectacular are still eminently drinkable (for example, the Orval clone that isn’t much like Orval but is still pretty tasty), and the beers that are spectacular, are well, spectacular. This is one stop I highly recommend. Either one hour north of State College or Harrisburg, or 30 minutes south of Interstate 80, it’s an easy day drive if you’re anywhere in the area. Heck, if you want to meet up give me a beermail and I’ll take a road trip from Jersey! This is one pub I will never mind coming back to visit. Thank you, Heather and Steve, for making my Bucknell beer experience a good one.
<P>**Name changed on request
<P>*It runs in my mind that I have messed up the last name somehow and as Heather is hard to hold of, I could not confirm this was correct. My sincere apologies if I have misrepresented their names.
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Selins Grove felt like home the moment I walked in the door. Under the low-wood-beamed ceiling are a hodge-podge of tables and chairs and rescued church pews, all struggling for balance on the uneven floor.