But first, a little history.
By the 1970s, the differences between regional and national brews were
mainly cosmetic: Thirst-quenching "lawn-mowing beers" were in; character was out.
Then, in 1986, one year before the demise of Schmidt's, Philadelphia's last old-established brewery, the first of the city's new-wave brews appeared: Dock Street Amber Beer.
This brew was launched by former chef Jeffrey Ware, and offered drinkers fuller flavor and more stylish local appeal than the beers produced by the older regional companies.
Handcrafted in small batches with all-natural ingredients, "micro brews" such as Dock Street have reintroduced Americans to the variety of flavorful beer styles produced in the country before Prohibition.
Thanks to recently founded micro breweries and the older regionals and their new brews, the Keystone State now produces a range of beers to satisfy even the most discriminating palate.
Dock Street Amber, for example, resurrected Pennsylvania's original ale- brewing tradition. Fermented at warm temperatures that encourage the development of complex flavors, ales generally possess a more fruity aroma and taste than cold-fermented lagers. Dock Street Amber balances this fruitiness with liberal doses of aromatic American Cascade hops.
In 1992, Dock Street launched Bohemian Pilsner as a counterpoint in both style and color to its Amber. The original golden lagers of Pilsen, Bohemia - now in the Czech Republic - amazed the brewing world with their soft, dry body and pale color when they were introduced in the mid-1800s. Until then, all lagers had been dark or cloudy.
Dock Street - which also operates a brew pub in Philadelphia - brews Amber Beer and Bohemian Pilsner at the F.X. Matt Brewery in Utica, N.Y. This practice, whereby one company pays to produce its products at another's plant, is called "contract brewing."
Dock Street's launch coincided with the rise of the state's other contract- brewing pioneer, the Pennsylvania Brewing Co., headquartered in Pittsburgh.
Pennsylvania Brewing began with the beer that Dock Street waited six years to produce: Pilsner. Inspired by Germany's crisper, hoppier interpretations of the style, the company brews and bottles Penn Pilsner at the Jones Brewing Co. in Smithton.
Pennsylvania Brewing opened a combination brewery and brew pub in its home city in 1989. This was the first such establishment in Pennsylvania since Prohibition, permitted by a change in state law. Somewhat ironically, it stands in the restored premises of the defunct Eberhardt & Ober Brewery.
Eberhardt & Ober was one of the 21 area companies that merged into the Pittsburgh Brewing Co. at the end of the 19th century. And today, Pittsburgh Brewing, producers of Iron City brews, is the only regional producer to dominate a major metropolitan market.
Although some of the company's buildings date back to the 1870s, rooms filled with high-tech brewing equipment testify to its modern success: Brewers can mix the ingredients for any of Pittsburgh Brewing's 22 brands simply by pressing a button.
Since 1985, the brewery has produced Samuel Adams Boston Lager under contract for the Boston Beer Co. Inspired by the tremendous success of this and other micro brews, Pittsburgh Brewing recently launched its own craft- brewed beer, J.J. Wainwright's Select Lager.
This lager is produced entirely from barley malt in the style of one of the company's original 19th-century products. A portion of its imported Czech and domestic hops is added after fermentation, giving the finished brew a fresh herbal aroma. This time-honored practice, called "dry-hopping," heralds a partial return to more traditional brewing methods.
Pennsylvania's other large regional brewer, the Latrobe Brewing Co., never lost its traditional image. But with production of its flagship Rolling Rock nearing one million barrels per year, and the company itself a subsidiary of Canadian giant Labatt, Latrobe ranks among America's largest producers.
It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that the company has taken the micro-brewing revolution to heart by launching the craft-brewed Rolling Rock Bock.
Bock beers are strong lagers that typically have a sweetly malty flavor and subdued hops character. They originated as a seasonal style in Germany,
helping to keep drinkers warm from the cooler evenings of autumn through the still-chilly days of early spring.
While Rock Bock doesn't really live up to the style's strength, its all- malt production - without the use of taste-thinning "filler grains" such as corn and rice - is right on the mark. A percentage of specially roasted barley provides its deep amber color, while a mix of domestic hops (including the aromatic Cascade) prevents the sweet brew from becoming cloying.
Pottsville's D.G. Yuengling & Son Brewery, founded in 1829 by a German immigrant, regularly produced a bock as part of a broad pre-Prohibition range that also included a Bavarian wheat beer and at least two British-style ales. While these beers have gone the way of the town's coal-mining industry, Yuengling itself has tenaciously survived. Now run by fifth-generation family, it is America's oldest operating brewery.
Capitalizing on its historic status, Yuengling has seen sales soar over the last few years as consumers rediscover "real beer." Its brews now sell briskly throughout Pennsylvania and surrounding states. In fact, Yuengling recently stopped supplying some farther-flung accounts after Pottsville drinkers - who refer to the beers as "Vitamin Y" - complained about local shortages driving up the price of their daily dose.
Yuengling's current success comes after years of struggle in the face of post-Prohibition competition. Throughout lean times, the company resolutely continued to make the traditional beer styles favored by a loyal local core of drinkers: the hops-accented Lord Chesterfield Ale, for example, and the chocolatey Porter, a direct link with the early days of Pennsylvania brewing.
More than anything else, a pint of Yuengling offers a rare taste of American brewing history.
The same could be said, perhaps, of Stegmaier Porter from the Lion Brewery in Wilkes-Barre. Established around the turn of the century, the Lion swallowed its older cross-town rival Stegmaier in the early 1970s.
The acquisition brought Stegmaier's old-style porter, produced since the company's 1857 founding, into the newer brewery's portfolio. Despite significant setbacks in the post-Prohibition market, the Lion roars again through a combination of rising interest in this pedigreed porter and substantial revenue from contract brewing.
Stegmaier Porter derives its deep, dark color from caramel malt and chocolate malt. It also contains a helping of bitter America hops that balance its rich malt body.
The majority of the Lion's contract work comes from Allentown's resurrected Neuweiler Brewing Co. The original Neuweiler's, founded in 1891 by an immigrant German brewmaster, was Allentown's premier brewery. It produced 15 different beers at its height, churning out more than 400,000 barrels per year. But it fell in the late 1960s, unable to compete.
The brewery owes its rebirth to Barry Szmodis, a former Allentown beer distributor who noted skyrocketing consumer interest in first-wave micro brews such as Samuel Adams and Anchor Steam of San Francisco. Supported by seven local investors, he launched the new Neuweiler's Traditional Lager and Brewed Porter in 1991. Three years later, the company has entered the ranks of America's most successful new brewers.
Neuweiler's porter fills out the family of old-style "Pennsylvania porters" that includes the Lion's Stegmaier and Yuengling's brew. But its all-malt production and hearty hops accents place it closer to Stegmaier in character. Black & Tan, a lager/porter blend introduced in 1992, drinks like a well-balanced German dark lager - a category in which it won the bronze medal at the 1992 Great American Beer Festival.
Judges at the annual festival have been even more impressed by the products of eastern Pennsylvania's Stoudt Brewing Co. Located among the antiques stores and Pennsylvania Dutch eateries of Adamstown, this true micro brewery has collected top awards for its tasty Germanic lagers: Pilsner, bock, double bock, Oktoberfest and more. Founder and brewer Carol Stoudt trained for a short time at Germany's prestigious Weihenstephan Institute of Brewing.
First produced in 1987, Stoudt's unpasteurized brews quickly converted area drinkers to the freshness and flavor of "real beer." The utilitarian brew house works almost constantly to meet consumer demand for the company's range of 14 products. These now encompass a few British-inspired ales, including Stoudt's Stout (which is almost as much fun to say as "Rock Bock").
In sharp contrast to Stoudt's varied output, Arrowhead Brewing Co., Pennsylvania's other true micro brewery, currently concentrates on a single product. Arrowhead was founded in 1991 and rolls out barrels and bottles of Red Feather Pale Ale from its Chambersburg headquarters. Brewer Fran Mead says the town is "right smack in the middle" of a market stretching to the rest of Pennsylvania, Maryland and Washington.
Brewed with imported British malts and seasoned with all-American hops, Red Feather bridges the gap between nutty, copper-hued English pale ales such as Bass and aggressively hoppy, lighter-colored American versions such as Sierra Nevada.
This is a profitable niche: Red Feather has tickled the fancy of many area consumers since its introduction. Arrowhead hopes to build on its growing success by introducing a Golden Ale, lighter in both color and character, that will appeal to an even broader audience. But Philadelphia's newest brewer may have beaten the company to it.
November 1993 saw the Red Bell Brewing Co. launch its Blonde Ale throughout the Philadelphia area. Brewed under contract at Wilkes-Barre's Lion, Red Bell Blonde is modeled on Germany's golden Kolsch beer, a style developed in the city of Cologne that pairs a subtle ale fruitiness with a lager-like roundness of flavor.
As such, the new brew is intended to attract not only micro-brew lovers with knowledge of the style, but also mainstream drinkers who think Cologne is just a fancy word for aftershave.