One of the great things about living in western Pennsylvania is the availability of solidly crafted microbrews and brewpubs. The bad part, however, is that enjoyment of those beers usually involves getting behind the wheel to get them. In late 2003, I was excited to learn that a new place would be opening just ídown the mountainí from my in-laws, and that I would finally have a nice place to drink beer. Before that time, good beer was found only by driving to Pittsburgh or State College. In the spring and summer of 2005, I found myself living with my in-laws for six months before my new job started. Not that I donít adore my in-laws, but after being on our own and married for 10 years, my wife and I looked for any reason to get out of the house for an evening. And so, in those long months, we found ourselves parked inside Marzoniís Brick Oven & Brewing almost every Friday night.
In March 2006, during one of my less frequent trips to Marzoniís (I now live an hour away) I was able to sit down with Bill Kroft, the head brewer and assistant manager of the brewpub. Over a few pints, we talked about the brief history of Marzoniís and what we can expect in the years to come. Looking at the RateBeer page, youíll notice that not many people have had the chance to visit Marzoniís. Well, I should say, not a lot of RateBeerians have had the chance - stop in during any weekend evening, and youíll have at least a 30-45 minute wait for a dinner table, and the bar will standing room only. I sincerely hope that anyone reading this article will give Marzoniís a visit when in the area, or check out their offerings at one of Pennsylvaniaís many beer festivals.
The brewpub itself is located in Duncansville, a small town between Altoona and Hollidaysburg (home of the Slinky). It sits next to the corporate headquarters of the Hossís restaurant chain, and rightly so, since the company that owns and operates Hossís also owns Marzoniís. Bill Kroft, whoís originally from DuBois, was living in York, PA and working as a Hossís restaurant manager at the time when Marzoniís was being planned. Bill had been homebrewing for several years. Once he learned of the brewpub plans, he "consistently bugged" the corporate folks for a chance at running the brewing operations. You couldnít ask for a better deal. I learned this story long after having sampled the beers there, and I must say I was surprised. Iím no Oakes or Per, but Iíve tried a few beers. I can honestly say that despite Billís lack of professional brewing experience before Marzoniís, heís far ahead of many of the micros Iíve sampled in other places.
Of course, jumping right into a 10 bbl system from 5 gallon all-grain batches is not without its challenges. Bill and his assistant brewer, Jason Walls, spent some time with consultants from Kelley Breweries out of California. Kelley helped mentor them through the first three batches at Marzoniís and a few bumps. Since then, itís been up to Bill, and gauging from the crowds, heís doing pretty good. The average batch from his 10 bbl lasts anywhere between 4-12 weeks, and in 2005 Marzoniís made between 500-600 bbl. He keeps six brews available at all times, and rotates two seasonals throughout the year. Currently, there are no plans to expand the number of taps or add a bottling line. A few local bars, such as Jean Bonnet in Bedford and The Knickerbocker in Altoona, tap his kegs. And of course, you can get growlers to go.
I asked Bill what some of the biggest challenges and surprises were for him by jumping into a brewpub and trying to promote craft beer in the Altoona area. "One of the biggest challenges in this area is making beers that appeal to the local tastes. As a predominantly traditional blue-collar area, itís difficult to switch people from Bud and Pabst over to other styles like an IPA or a really malty beer. On the flip side, I was surprised at just how many people really do enjoy other styles - a lot more than I expected."
On that thought, I asked if that was the reason that Marzoniís also sold some popular macro beers like Coors Light and Michelob Ultra - to me it seemed odd to offer someone elseís product at your brewpub. "Well, itís really about having customers enjoy their time here. If a group of ten come in and nine are wanting my beers but the tenth guy only drinks Coors Light, it only makes sense to give that guy what heís used to rather than risk losing nine other customers because they have to go elsewhere to make everyone happy. And since we serve alcohol and wine, too, weíre not having to get an extra license just to sell Coors Light. The other point is: thereís too much work involved in making a Coors Light clone - Iíd rather spend my energy making beers that I enjoy."
Bill has the complete operation going, from milling to finish. For his ales, he uses mostly English malts; for lagers, he goes with German malts. For some of his specialty beers, like the saison, heíll try to stick closely to the style and use Belgian malts. All his yeast comes from White Labs. I asked about scaling up from homebrewing: "Well, the biggest lesson I learned is that the grain bill scales up proportionately but hops do not!"
When asked about the role the management and corporate people played in the brewing decisions: "Iím happy with it. Iíll get some suggestions now and then, but Iím free to do what I want and I enjoy that. Theyíve seen the response here and they trust my experience." And the response to Marzoniís must be a good one. There are now plans to build a second brewpub in the Harrisburg area. At the moment, some places in Hershey are being looked at, but no final decision has been made. Personally, I was a bit disappointed, since I keep bugging them to come to Indiana, but I donít know if this town is ready to handle them yet. So, for all you mid-staters, keep your eyes open in the coming years for a Marzoniís near you. Billís plays it close to the vest when asked if heíll move to the new location, but I canít say I blame him for wanting to move to a more built up area than Duncansville.
So whatís on tap at Marzoniís? The first is "Locke Mountain Light", a light-bodied golden lager coming in at 3.7%abv. Itís a pale golden clear beer with nice white head. Though by no means a íbigí beer, itís fairly hoppy and a nice session beer for those more accustomed to fizzy macros.
Next up is the "Amber Lager", a slightly malty lager at 6.1%abv. Itís copper-red in color with a fruity nose. Thereís a nice level of sweetness in this one that finishes off with a nutty bitterness.
For American wheat fans, Bill makes the "Highway 22 Wheat" (named for the road connecting Altoona and Ebensburg down to Monroeville). At 4.7%abv, itís a cloudy pale ale with some nice citrus aroma. Thereís some nice wheaty taste, lemon, and a bit of bubblegum.
The namesake of Marzoniís address, "Patchway Pale Ale" is a decently hopped ale at 5.5%abv. Nice aromatics on this one, grapefruit and some resin. Reddish-brown in color, it starts with a nice fruity flavor before finishing with some good bitterness.
For the stout lovers, thereís the "Stone Mason Stout" at 6.1%abv. Itís a dry stout with nice creamy tan head (not under nitro, to my knowledge). A bit of sweetness and good roasted flavors with clean dry finish.
As for my personal favorite of the regular lineup, thereís the mouth puckering "Avalanche IPA", a double IPA weighing in at 6.9%abv. Huge hoppy nose, with resin and apricots. Finely balanced maltiness with a huge bitter followup and big bitter after. A few of these and youíre in a happy place.
Billís made several other styles that have been rotated through at least twice now since the opening. You can see the RateBeer page for all his offerings but a few to mention are the "Anniversary Ale", a wonderful barley wine first unveiled in 2004. I was away at the time, but got to try a year-old sample at the State College Festival in 2005. At 11.2%abv, it was warming and sweet, with a nice vanilla-oak bitter finish. The ESB and Czech Pilsener were very good and true to the style. Finally, though not my highest rating for Billís beers, my consistent favorite at Marzoniís is his saison. Iíve had the fortune to sample a few saisons over the years, and quite a few of them from the home of they style. With the exception of a fine sample of Saison de Brooklyn, his is the best American-made saison Iíve had to date. Coriander, orange peels, and jasmine aromas, with a nice floral-bitter finish. I could drink this all day.
My thanks to Bill for taking the time to chat, and for making great beers in my (almost) back yard. If you get a chance, check out Marzoniís. Youíll not regret it. Website:http://www.marzonis.com