Business and personal travels took me to Pennsylvania, specifically Reading and Lancaster. I had been to Lancaster on other adventures but Reading was new. Providence had provided and I would have time to explore some of the local beer. I am glad to say I have some very favorable reports to log.
This is the first time I've spent any time in Reading PA, at least enough to explore the local beer scene. I use an iPhone app called BreweryMap (it also has a web version) to quickly learn the landscape for the local breweries. I have found this application very useful when visiting a new location. Bring up the app and it will show you all the breweries in the vicinity. Move the search area around, touch the "search this area" tab at the top of the screen and pins will pop up showing you local breweries. Touch the information icon and up pops the list of useful information such as current beers, telephone number, website and even address useful for finding your way to the brewery. I also find the favorite beer-geek-tool — Untappd — very useful for this as well and did use it to find local venues and recent beers being served there. I'm assuming that if you're reading this you already know about Untappd.
Spirits in Lancaster
This large room serves as tasting rooms for both Thistle Finch Distillery and Wacker Brewery in Lancaster PA
Good fortune, Chatty Monks popped up at the top of the list, had excellent Beer Advocate ratings and was within an easy drive or healthy walk from my hotel. I engaged a couple colleagues to join me and we were off. While not a big place, the beer — as you would expect by the name — very much had a Belgian-style focus. They had a quite decent menu with a range of styles. Being it was my first time here, I chose a flight of three five-ounce pours — Revelation Dark Ale, Belgian Blonde, and Belgian Dubbel. All were quite good and true to style. So good, I ventured on for a full pint of the Endoplasmic Reticulum IPA at 7% ABV and 77 IBUs — venturing away from their solid Belgian-styles. Again very good with some very interesting hop notes on the finish.
Besides the beer, the other qualities that would bring me back to Chatty Monks was their staff. They were very engaging and friendly, quick to offer a sample when questioned about a particular beer. Not always do I go for the background music of a place (see Adroit Theory article), being a product of the Beatles era and nearly set in my ways, but it suited my boomer tastes just fine with eclectic selections ranging from Led Zeppelin to Gary Clark Jr. The food was definitely above average pub food and I would be quick to recommend the tuna tacos.
West Reading Tavern
After a full day of sitting and listening to a variety of presentations, my butt could stand little more. I had a couple of hours before the evening banquet and Untappd told me of two places nearby with excellent beer. I had time for just one and it was right next door to Chatty Monks. A brisk 20-minute walk later I was at West Reading Tavern. Untappd reported that they had Hardywood Gingerbread Stout on draft (94 pts on Beer Advocate). I knew this brewery, having had several of their beer at Savor 2016 and also picked up some bottles in Harrisonburg VA on another trip. The beer I'd once had was the bourbon barrel version and was obviously more complex than the regular edition, but it was a great beer in its own right. It was a nice neighborhood bar with locals bouncing in and out. With a friendly and engaging bar staff. I finished my 10-ounce tulip and I was soon trekking my way back to the hotel for the evening banquet. The other place I'd hoped to get to, but did not, was Mike's Tavern. Untappd informed me that they had Rodenback Alexander (98 pts on Beer Advocate), a Flanders red ale that has been on my wish list. A bar too far and one I will have to leave till my next time in Reading.
I had visited the Lancaster Brewing brewery and restaurant a couple of years ago. At the time, their flagship beer was their milk stout — big, creamy and a touch sweet. This is fitting being that they are in the heart of Amish country. The brewery facility and the restaurant are located in the historic Edward McGovern Tobacco Warehouse, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990, in Lancaster, PA. A great place for a 21-century brewery.
This trip we had lunch and a beer at their tap room. Their beer selections seem to have grown and become more complex since I visited last. My tastes have become more complex since then as well, instead of having their signature milk stout I opted for their Imperial Jo Milk Stout, (I'd been in that mood lately) logging in at 8% ABV. It was a good beer, I enjoyed it, but unfortunately I only had time for one.
The room was bright and clean as were the faces that served us. If in Lancaster, this deserves a stop and a beer.
Wacker Brewing & Thistle Finch Distillery
Again, going to the trusty BreweryMap app, I discovered that Wacker Brewing was within easy walking distance from our venue. We had some time and the desire to explore the town, so off we were toward Wacker. An interesting note, for me anyway, is that my paternal grandfather's nickname was Wacker. I don't any more than that, it just was. I didn't know it until we later did a tour of the building, but this was once a tobacco warehouse, too — like the Lancaster Brewing building. Sturdy of build and character. As usual, I did the flight which was comprised of all six of their offerings (see beer menu pic below).
In the same building as Wacker Brewing was Thistle Finch Distillery. A somewhat symbiotic relationship of mutual benefit, they even shared the tasting room with separate bars across from each other. We were about to leave when we noticed the distillery tour about to start. We walked all of twenty feet and joined the tour. It was during the tour we learned that Lancaster at one time had a bustling tobacco industry. As smoking preferences shifted from cigars to cigarettes, the Lancaster tobacco business fell out of favor, too. Now, many of the those fine warehouses have been converted to other uses, such as breweries. They offer a variety of rye whiskies, a gin and vodka. Well, we didn't pick up any other fine spirits, I did grab a couple of the Bittermilk Bitters that were offered for sale there. I'm experimenting with the addition of bitters to certain beers and found these had some interesting ingredients such wormwood and being aged in bourbon barrels. I knew these were unique to the area so I didn't want to pass up the opportunity.
The beer tasting flight is composed of all six of these beers on tap
Rye whiskey is their signature spirit but they also produce gin and vodka
While walking around Lancaster, enjoying the beautiful day and town, it came time to think about lunch. We passed by Checkers Bistro, walked in to check the menu and atmosphere. We were impressed. The menu was upscale, both food and drink. We opted for the Checkers Apple Salad, which must be one of their signature menu items, and I had the Peking Duck Tacos with Chinese Barbecue Duck, Wonton Taco, Guacamole. I mention this because the food was excellent.
The beer menu was not extensive, but balanced in styles, chosen to pair with their foods, and offered choices from local breweries and across the country. Being attracted to big beers, I asked for the Bourbon Barrel-aged Vanilla Bean Stout by Avery Brewing Co. Bottom line, excellent food, beer, staff and decor.
Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant
Next was lunch at Iron Hill Brewery in Lancaster. My first visit to an Iron Hill Brewery was in 2014. Little did I realize at the time, but there are a series of these scattered across Pennsylvania, New Jersey and one in Delaware. I counted 12. There were several sporting events taking place in Lancaster during our stay and when we were looking for lunch, so were they all. The place was packed, but amazingly it didn't take long to be served.
Still on a stout rampage, I asked for the Iron Hill Brewing Russian Imperial Stout. Really exceptional. According to their poster near the entrance, this is their most awarded beer. The food was very good, all around. As I'd mentioned, we had visited another Iron Hill venue three years ago and I don't remember being as impressed by their beer then. I was this time.
Ultimately, I had an wonderful beer and spirit laden adventure in a couple of beautiful Pennsylvania towns. Beer has come a long way, with craft breweries and artisanal distilleries popping up in many towns across the country. And the liquids are good and getting better as these shops mature and get better at their craft. Hand crafted beer, spirits, even bitters — life is good.