“The brewery itself is four years old, but my family’s been involved in brewing since 1849, and my partner’s family has been involved since the repeal of Prohibition. You bleed it. It’s a calling, and there’s no other way of making a living from my point of view,” Fred Maier, cofounder of Susquehanna Brewing Co. (SBC) says of his brewing roots.
We’re sitting in the tasting room of the brewery, and he points to an ancient-looking wooden wagon showcased in a shadowbox above the taps (far right in photo above). It was part of the old Stegmaier Brewery that his grandfather founded and a reminder of where everything started. When Stegmaier closed in 1974, Fred’s father took the wagon as a keepsake, and it’s a timely reminder to everyone where it all started. Many of their current brews go back, too.
Fred’s great-great-great-great grandfather brewed the first lager in northeast Pennsylvania in 1851, and Stegmaier brewed a golden lager. SBC’s 2015 GABF bronze-winning Goldencold Lager is a call back to those beers. Fred says, “It’s got malty sweetness, bitter hops, and the sourness (from acidulated malt) is cleansing but with that German bite. And if you leave it out in the sun for five minutes, it tastes like Heineken, which I get a kick out of.”
Their 2016 World Beer Cup gold-medal-winning Shady Spot Lemon Shandy was such a hit last summer that they brought it back this summer, along with a new Grapefruit Shandy. Both are brewed in the English style, traditional and dry, with a bit of bite from the fruit. “We make wonderful award-winning IPAs, and people would say they’re delicious, but they could have only one or two because they’re so strong. Where’s the fun in that? I’d rather have six shandies over two imperial IPAs. An entire generation of people grew up drinking Hi-C and Kool-Aid. You get a lot of fruit flavor in the taste, combined with drinkability.”
Seasonality drives a lot of the production schedule at SBC. “In northeast Pennsylvania, it’s zero in the winter and 100 in the summer, so you can’t drink the same thing all the time. Our first big seasonal was our pumpkin beer, and our seasonals are our biggest sellers.” They also have a core list of IPAs, a lager, a Pilsner, a stock ale, a black Pilsner, and a Bavarian hefeweizen that are brewed year-round.
USA Today named SBC as the #4 brewery tour in the United States; the tour usually runs about 45 minutes and is led by a stakeholder in the company. Rather than a canned commercial, the tour always begins with the question, “What do you want to know?”
When SBC opened four years ago, their mission statement was to raise the bar of craft beer in northeastern Pennsylvania. The year 1974 was a time when quality took a backseat to quantity, and because of its emphasis on quality, Stegmaier closed down. Times are certainly different now, with an emphasis on quality and brews that’ll not only be interesting and drinkable, but will put the brewery on the map. Still, SBC sticks to the fundamentals.
“Originality is dead in craft brewing,” Fred says. “What hasn’t been done? We went from a lager to a stock ale to imperial IPAs, and now we’re making Belgians, and next we’re going to get into some sour beers and barrel aging. We’re just reinventing things that people have done for more than 5,000 years. Really, the sky’s the limit.”
PHOTO: DAVE MURPHY