Steel Alive and Kicking
A town with some history finally gets a microbrewery
March 24, 2004
Written by Probiere
Part 1 of Pennsylvania small town breweries
<P><P>* In steel talk, a bluehat is a mill laborer or skilled employee. A whitehat is a supervisor.
<P>Johnstown, PA is most famous (if you can call it famous at all) for the 1889 Flood, a dam-breaking, 2000 life-taking decimation of a prosperous mill town. Built on successive waves of German, East European, and Irish immigrants, the downtown area in 1889 had 10,000 inhabitants and nearly 40 churches, most of them Catholic and named for ethnic saints. Steel was the reason for the boomtown, and until the collapse of the American steel industry in the mid-1980s, it continued to be the reason people lived and worked in Johnstown. Mills for both US Steel and Bethlehem Steel were producing around the clock.
<P> So what do 10,000 thirsty workers do when they get off their shift? Have a beer, of course. The Iron City Brewery in nearby Pittsburgh was founded in 1861, and you can be sure that it shipped its beer up the river to Johnstown. Later years saw the influx of national beers such as Budweiser and Miller. Not good beers to be sure, but blue collar beers for bluehat steelworkers. Through three floods, two World Wars, and a hundred years, Johnstown was a hardhat-wearing, church-going, beer-drinking town.
<P> The mills began closing down in the late 80s and early 90s. The beer habit, however, was a little harder to break. Johnstown had missed the early years of the microbrew revolution and stuck loyally to its traditional brands—because that’s all that were available. I myself grew up with a case of Rolling Rock always in the basement. I didn’t even know beer came in brown bottles until a camping trip sometime in my late childhood! Now, however, changes, they are a happenin’.
<P>Johnstown Brewing Company, founded in February 2002, is the city’s first brewpub. Since I didn’t turn 21 until, oh, about 6 months ago, I couldn’t sample their wares. I admit I was biased against them from the start because of their radio ads, which stated, “Sure, the beer is great, but it’s all about the food!” I remember thinking when I first heard the spot, “WTF? What kind of brewery would downplay their beer like that? It must suck!” A couple months ago I also criticized their beer lineup on a forum thread. More on that subject later.
<P>Regardless of the preconceptions I held about their beer, I was nonetheless excited to visit the place over my spring break. It was new; it was a first for anyone on the site. Sure, a few people had tried one of their beers, but that was at a festival somewhere. Doesn’t count! I was the first Ratebeerian to walk through the doorway of that place, and it was on my home turf. I am always envious when I see all the beers with one rating, entered by, for example, SilkTork or Oakes. So much travelling, so much adventure. So…romantic. Um. Yeah. So here is my humble contribution to the betterment of Ratebeer. Several new beers and an interview with a promising young headbrewer, who will hopefully stick around and bring some good beer into Johnstown.
<P> The brewery and restaurant (it’s all about the food, remember?!) have taken over the old Bethlehem Steel Management Club building in the Westmont section of town (the whitehats). I was quite familiar with this compact stone mansion and all its interesting nooks and crannies. My dad used to shovel coke for the mill, later moving into environmental testing, and when its finances began to tank, club membership and its accompanying Sunday brunches were opened to bluehats. The additional membership fees were needed to keep it afloat. My memories of the place were fond—hide and seek on the terrace, sitting at the grownup table for formal dinners, and, one glorious Sunday, eating seven Eggs Benedicts all by myself. God, how I love Eggs Benedict!
<P>The place was largely the same when I walked in. They left all the chandeliers and wood paneling in place. However, it no longer had that quiet, plush carpet feel to it. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised by a vibrant buzz of conversation and very little smoke. The walls were covered with mill paraphernalia—all authentic, I later found out. Warning signs, ingot molds, payroll lists, furnace tongs, and a sobering board charting all the injuries occurring to mill workers in the year 1982. It was a little kitsch, especially if you don’t know town history and happened to walk into the place. But for an ordinary Johnstowner proud of his family’s history, it would be perfect. It seemed that it was perfect for a lot of people—the upstairs dinging room was full. My friend Jess and I took a quick look around the upstairs and then headed down to the Lower Works. The Lower Works was historically a section of the Bethlehem mill that was further down the river from the main mill. Now, its name exists only in the basement of the JBC. The Lower Works was properly decked out with more ingot molds and cage lamps. Two TVs were showing the Pens game and Pitt/Somebody, but thankfully the sound was muted and both TVs were in a nook where interested patrons could watch them without disturbing others. We ordered samplers of all 9 beers they had on tap and Jess and I proceeded to taste. Jess isn’t a beer geek, but she’s too inquisitive for her own good and I’m going to turn her into one eventually, despite her protestations. I can say this with impunity because I haven’t revealed Ratebeer to her yet. ;-) Next, I discuss the beers a bit, and since the beers were rather unremarkable, I included some more history tidbits to explain the odd names they gave the beers.
Flood Light (2.7 overall)
No special story to this one. A blond ale, marketed to appeal to macro drinkers. Light, flat, typical bland ale. More caramel malt and it could pass for a weak amber. Average, not good.
<P>White Hat Pale Ale (3.4 overall)
See what I mean about the whitehats? I didn’t make this stuff up. Appley-juicey, a touch of citrus malts, but very underhopped for a pale ale. Refreshing to me, but I like my hops more subdued than some.
<P>1889 Amber (3.0 overall)
Some other flood tidbits: Johnstown is naturally flood prone. The city is built in a steep sided valley where the Little Conemaugh and Stoneycreek rivers meet. Since the 1889 flood, 2 more major floods have occurred, each at approximately 40 year intervals, leading some geologists to conclude that the area has endured such periodic flooding for centuries. The flood of 1889, which occurred on May 31, 1889, was the first large-scale test for the newly formed Red Cross under head Clara Barton. It was the largest peacetime tragedy in the United States to date. It has inspired many books and an Oscar-winning documentary. The beer named after the flood isn’t as impressive as the flood itself. The same mild hop profile as the Flood Light, but with—you guessed it—a stronger malt presence. Like thousands of passable but bland amber ales at brewpubs all over the U.S.
<P>South Fork Dam Beer (3.7 overall)
The South Fork Dam, a poorly maintained earthen dam 14 miles upstream from Johnstown, burst after 24 hours of heavy rain. 20 million tons of water, forming a wall nearly 40 feet high, rushed down the valley destroying everything in its path. The devastation it wrought was finished in merely 10 minutes. The lake behind the dam was the property of the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club, a hoity-toity retreat for Pittsburgh business magnates, including Andrew Carnegie and Andrew Mellon. The club’s callous disregard for the safety of the dam was later named as a cause of the flood, but the implication of such philanthropists in such a tragedy has been largely forgotten. Today the site of the former dam is a national monument. The beer named after the dam is easily the best beer in the pub’s lineup. It is supposed to be a koelschbier. Having not actually had authentic koelsch, I can only say that it seemed to fit the style description and it was tasty. The hop profile was dominant but not boring: it started with citrus, moved to flowers on my tongue, and then finished with a bitter herbal note. The malt was solidly in the background, biscuity, but decidedly not weak—it left a chewy note on the finish. Very well balanced.
<P>Old Stone Bridge Brown (2.9 overall)
When the water reached the famous Old Stone Bridge crossing the Big Conemaugh river (beyond the river junction) the bridge held, creating a huge backwash and a second, smaller wave that rippled back and caused further destruction of the downtown area. All the debris carried by the flood waters was backed up at the bridge because the arches in the bridge were too small to permit it through. The water backed up in the downtown section to a height of up to 30 feet. Later that night, as the water drained, the debris at the bridge caught fire and burned for a week, destroying the bodies of many who had been trapped and died in the pile. Of 930 missing, only 700-odd were ever found. Many pulled alive from the wreckage died later as result of an outbreak of typhoid fever caused by water contamination as the floodwaters drained slowly away through the pile at the bridge.
<IMG border=0 SRC=images/features/bridge2.jpg>
Source: <a target=_blank hrefhttp://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/displayPhoto.pl?path=/pnp/habshaer/pa/pa3700/pa3723/photos&topImages=361969pr.jpg&topLinks=361969pv.jpg,361969pu.tif&title=HAER,%20PA,11-JOTO,141-2&displayProfile=0>American Memory
<P>I suppose it would be accurate to say that the soupy brown beer named after the bridge resembled the brown pits of mud left after the water drained. This brown was NOT a brown. It was interesting, but not a brown. It was chock-full—overfull—of chocolate malt and clogged with so much unfiltered stuff that it didn’t give the impression of being chewy: it WAS chewy. It was nearly black and resembled a mild stout or porter without the sweetness and had a heavy coffee flavor with the barest hint of hazelnut. Bizarre.
<P>Steel Worker Stout (2.7 overall)
I suppose this is meant to be a strong beer for a strong steelworker, but it had a super roasty flavor with a watery mouthfeel, and it just wasn’t working. I’m not the biggest fan of dry stouts, but I don’t think they’re supposed to have a finish reminiscent of charcoal.
<P>Heffley Springs Honey Raspberry Wheat (3.1 overall)
I would tell a story about this one too, but I haven’t a clue what Heffley Springs is. I suppose everyone is sick of history for today and has breathed a huge sigh of relief. The beer looks like lemon jello, an initial sweetness and medium-heavy body. Fading residual tartness from the berries. Not wheaty enough, but an honest, drinkable attempt. Slightly metallic finish.
<P>Cambria Iron Ice Lager (3.3 overall)
The only lager in their lineup, and it surprised me. It had a heavy amber body with an upfront hops hit and a toasty biscuit malt finish. When it warmed up, it was an insipid strong lager, but when chill, it almost reminded me of Anchor Steam. It also had an interesting floral aroma—aroma hops, in an ice beer?
<P>Lovette Brothers Irish Red Ale (3.1 overall)
Milder than the amber but very similar to it. Better balanced. It wouldn’t interfere with a meal, but it ain’t standout. Who are the Lovette Brothers? Do you know?
<P>Jess and I had a couple more beers and enjoyed the acoustic duo playing that night. They were quite good. Of course, I’m a sucker for exactly four instruments, and acoustic guitar is one of them. The service was excellent; in fact, the owner’s daughter was our server, and when she saw me taking notes she invited us to go talk to her dad. We did a quick walk-through of the brewery and talked for a bit. Since beginning to brew their own beer last September, they’ve gone through beer like crazy and are on track for 800-1,000 bbls this year. He’s immensely pleased with his venture, thoroughly enjoying himself, and planning improvements. I have to apologize, after speaking with him, for the comments I made about their beers earlier. He knows his food and atmosphere are great and his beers mediocre. He admits the area probably isn’t ready for aggressive craft beers, so he tailored his beers to be accessible. And they are accessible, although to more experienced beer drinkers they won’t really impress. The task of shocking the now-regular patrons into good beer belongs to Barrett Goddard, the new head brewer. The previous brewer worked for Spanish Peaks. He designed the system and got everything running. He is currently in parts unknown. <P>I came back the next day to talk with Barrett. A Bucknell ChemE grad (small world!) with an interest in brewing, he did some apprenticing and moved into this position when the previous brewer left. Barrett’s an affable guy with some serious plans for the beer. He showed me some of the current recipes and explained where he would be tweaking things: the pale ale was getting ramped up, the brown is going to be totally retooled and the gunk filtered out, and he wants to introduce a better stout and possibly an IPA. I asked about the Koelsch and he said that he was changing the hop additions only very slightly. I sneaked a peek at the recipe sheet and spotted Tettnang and Hallertau, so maybe it is on for the style. At any rate, Barrett wants to use the next year or so to introduce his own, more aggressive beers slowly while simultaneously improving the quality of the pub’s milder beers. Best of luck to him, I say. If the place continues with excellent service and great food, people will inevitably be turned on to good beer by simple exposure. Victory for good beer in Iron City land. Hmmm.
<P> I drove home that night with a lonely Celtic violin wailing on WQED. As I drove down Menoher Boulevard, the city in the valley winked up at me with fuzzy orange sodium vapor lamps. Over by the river, an empty black spot swallowed up the light. Where the mills used to run nonstop there is now only darkness and silence. Nowadays, people remember Johnstown for the movie Slap Shot (our crowning cultural achievement, to be sure). But regardless of its current economic woes, Johnstown has always attracted the best kind of people. Friendly. Generous. Sincere. And now, craftbrewers. It was a good town to grow up in. Hopefully it’ll pull itself out of the doldrums and become something of note again. Its people deserve that. I pulled in the driveway thinking that moving away to find a job might be exciting, but nothing could ever compare to the simple joy of coming home.
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So what do 10,000 thirsty workers do when they get off their shift? Have a beer, of course.
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