Charlie Schnable, an owner and brewer of Otto’s, sat down with me during a Monday afternoon in early June to talk about beer, brewing, and success in central Pennsylvania.
I lived in State College from 1998-2003, while attending graduate school at Penn State. For years, I had heard rumors of a brewpub coming to town, but there were always more rumors as to why it wasn’t. For months, there was an empty building in downtown that was rumored to be the new site of a brewpub. However, that was transformed into a local grocery store, much to my disappointment. In October 2002, my prayers were finally answered, when State College welcomed Otto’s Pub and Brewery on North Atherton Street about two miles from downtown.
Charlie is a Pennsylvania native from Williamsport, which hosts the Little League World Series, and is located about an hour northeast of State College. An avid homebrewer, he and a partner decided to go together with some interested investors and open a brewpub in Williamsport back in 1996: The Bullfrog Brewery. Through some connections with their equipment suppliers, Charlie spent some time working brewpubs in southern California for practical experience, and the rest came from “trail by fire” at the Bullfrog. Within a few short years, the Bullfrog was doing well, and Charlie decided to branch out to an as-of-yet untapped market: State College.
Q: So why did you choose State College?
A: I went to school here and wanted to move somewhere close to home. I also didn’t want to move to any big cities, and this is a really high-growth area at the moment.
Q: You opened in 2002? How was it at the start?
A: Yes, October 2002. It was kind of a tough year. The economy was going in the dumps and it was a hard year to open. I’ve talked to a lot of restaurant owners around here and they all said the same thing – 2002 was one of the worst years that State College restaurants have seen in a long time, for some reason. This year’s rebounded quite nicely, so we’re pretty happy right now.
Q: That’s quite a testament then, that you’ve done well despite opening in a slow year.
A: Yes, we’re pleased. I’m still learning a lot about brewing here. We’re just getting into wholesale now, another step we’ve been wanting to take. Again, there’s a lot of growth potential there. Right now, we’re on tap at Zeno’s (downtown) and some other places in State College, and places in Lock Haven and Huntingdon. Wholesale has been a new thing for us here. I did it at the Bullfrog as well, but there’s a lot more potential here than in Williamsport. There’s a huge void out here on the draft micro scene, because there’s a very limited amount of distributors, who are distributing a very limited selection.
Q: And PA is on the three-tier system?
A: Yes, the problem is we’re in the middle of the state with Pittsburgh and one end and Philadelphia on the other and no big distributor is willing to come here. So once beers filter out here, they’re very expensive and very limited in selection. And it’s too far out of the way for most micros to want to come and deliver it themselves. This is a good area for getting started in something like this. We’re kind of taking it slow because space is kind of limiting us right now; places for keg storage, etc.
Q: Do you hope to expand this facility in the future? Maybe a bottling line?
A: No, we don’t have plans or the room for that. The only way for us to expand would be for us to tear the equipment out and rebuild, or move to another building. Right now we lease here, but who knows? In five to ten years we might move to a bigger and better place.
Q: I’ve been fortunate to try most of your beers right here, and a few at the State College Microbrewers festival along with other RateBeerians. You were also at the Pittsburgh brewing festival at Penn Brewery last weekend. Do you try to get around to other places in PA or out of state?
A: We don’t do any out of state. I limit us to PA because beer shows take so much out of me, and I’ve really cut back over the years because they’re a lot of work for not a whole lot of return. They’re mostly a party for the brewers, really. I like going to the Pittsburgh show because it’s a good area for potential customers. I go to Stoudt’s and Harrisburg, and that’s about it. I have way too many hours in here, and going to a show kills a whole weekend. It gets harder and harder every year, but we’ll see. Maybe in a few years we’ll have the ability and more people to do stuff like that.
Q: So where do some of the names for the beers come from? Otto and Arthur?
A: Otto is the name of my cat, and Arthur is my other cat – very much a cat person. Red Mo and Black Mo are the names of local streams [Mo is short for Moshannon], as is Spring Creek. Mt. Nittany, of course, overlooking downtown.
Q: And Hellkat?
A: That’s a dedication to all the baby girls we’ve had here lately of the people who work here. My partner has two baby girls, a guy in the kitchen had a baby girl, I have a baby girl. Little hell cats, so it’s a tribute to them.
Q: So what’s your brewing capacity here?
A: We have a ten-barrel system. We can probably brew about 1200 barrels a year max. If I brew more lagers it limits us a bit. If I brewed only ales I could probably do about 1500 barrels a year. Right now, we’re running around – if I keep on track – probably about 850 barrels this year. I’d like to see it get up to 1000 barrels/year by year five, that’s my goal.
Q: Some of the beers I’ve had here over the years are maybe what I’d call atypical of the traditional beers you find in western-central PA. Big beers, with higher alcohol and big flavor; the Hellkat and Double D IPA, the Weizenbock. Do you find they’re doing well here, or are the milder traditional ales and lager better sellers?
A: That’s one of the reasons I try to have 10 or 11 beers on tap at all times; to keep the menu very varied. There are certainly fans of every style. The Double IPA is sort of the new trendy style – the big thing at the moment. Ever since the micros came into focus, the higher alcohol beers have been a selling point – fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on how some people look at it. “Micros – that’s that strong beer!” is some people’s stereotype. The PLCB (Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board) is on us now – we can’t put our alcohol percentages on the menu anymore because they think it’s enticement, but that’s another battle. Everyone else in the state can post theirs, but we just happen to have somebody – the local PLCB regional guy – who says we can’t, even though the brewpub right across the street from their office can. But we work with them and comply. I like the big styles and making more adventurous beers.
Q: So, to rotate 10-11 beers, how often do you brew?
A: I usually brew twice a week, so about 7-8 batches a month. The more popular styles - the helles, apricot wheat, Red Mo, Spring Creek, Double D - usually are gone in a month. We usually get about 20 kegs from one batch.
Q: And your ingredients, do you stick with certain ones, or do you mix them up to try new ones?
A: I use mainly three base malts; pale malt, Maris Otter, and pilsener malt from England. But with the skyrocketing costs of shipping and the weakening dollar, it’s harder and harder to get overseas grain. I’m considering moving to American malts. For hops, I use American, German, British – whatever the style calls for, basically. Right now I’m using all American hops for the Red Mo and the Mount Nittany, and others I switch between American and British. For yeast, I have a favorite ale strain and a favorite lager strain – one’s a British and the other’s a Czech pils-style. For more special styles, like the Roggen, I’ll use a Weihenstephan strain; or Duvel for the Hellkat.
Q. What’s the water like here?
A. That’s another big thing we’re wrestling with right now. The water here is terrible. So, I’m breaking down and getting a reverse-osmosis filter. It’s so hard to make a soft floral hoppy beer here because of the hardness. If you had to pick one style that would do really well here based on water, it would be a stout like you’d find in England or Ireland. Or other dark styles. I think that our stouts and schwarzbier we make our probably our best quality, as far as trueness to style, because of the water. On the other hand, many times I’m not pleased with the hop character in, for example, the pale ales or certain lagers. The big problem is that State College water is from many different well fields, and they switch around many times a year. So, literally, my water can change overnight. They’ll let us know when they’re going to switch, but that doesn’t alleviate the problem – so, reverse osmosis. It’s going to be a lot of work, reformulating, but the mid-range ales – helles, Double D, etc. are really going to improve in hop character. So, come back in about 6 months to a year, and you should notice a big difference in those styles.
With that, Charlie gave us a quick tour of the brewing area, enclosed in a large room at the street side of the restaurant and visible for all interested. His assistant brewers, Davo Geiser and Nikolai Mebane, were busy cleaning tanks and getting ready for a batch of root beer, another favorite at the pub (though unfortunately I didn’t have the chance to sample). Afterwards, we sat down so I could try some new offerings that I’d not previously rated, including Arthur’s Rye Ale, Spring Creek Lager, Roggen Bier, and the Hellkat.
I’ve been lucky enough to sample most of Otto’s offerings in the past two years (see <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Ratings/Beer/ShowBrewer.asp?BrewerID=3060>Otto’s RateBeer page), and this is one of my favorite brewpubs. I’d like to thank Charlie for taking the time to meet with me for this article, and offer congratulations to Charlie, Davo, Nikolai and all other members of Otto’s for making great beers (and a great place to enjoy those beers) in central Pennsylvania.
And if you’re fortunate enough to find yourself in Happy Valley in the future, stop in say hello. They’d love to have you.
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Otto is the name of my cat, and Arthur is my other cat – very much a cat person. Red Mo and Black Mo are the names of local streams [Mo is short for Moshannon], as is Spring Creek. Mt. Nittany, of course, overlooking downtown.