As part of our DiscoverNEPA Brewer’s Loop Series, we’re hitting the road – yes, all 390-plus miles of it. We’ll be taking brewery tours, sampling stouts, lagers and IPAs, and tasting taproom grub all over Northeastern Pennsylvania. Follow along as we bring you a firsthand look inside the region’s exploding craft beer scene, and let you know how, when and where you can experience it for yourself.
Thoughts on Duality (of mind, of beer and the places it’s devised)
Just before the Susquehanna Stretch section of the DiscoverNEPA Brewer’s Loop funnels from the Endless Mountains to the Wyoming Valley, we stumbled upon Back Mountain Brewing Company.
Cue melodramatic piano… Occasionally, on this little trip of ours, we become wizened to the futility of singularity. We are not one person, one thought. The great expanse, pulsing inward and outward, the “heart divine,” as Poe coined it, entreats what we might recognize as division. We’re safe to dream ourselves somewhere else — perhaps as someone else. We allow, for each other, the ability to see one thing as two. Your tree may be another’s roof — your road home, someone’s road to nowhere, to anywhere.
In truth, anything can be split – ideas, political issues, a can of spam. There is within all things a double nature, or at the very least, an alternative perception. These thoughts penetrated our recent sunny, mid-October afternoon ride into NEPA’s Back Mountain. As we rose up onto the northwestern ridge of the Wyoming Valley, the road cleaved the mountain’s bold autumn countenance. Our path, an asphalt snake in the garden, weaved among the convenient separation of stick and stone. Tasting beer was the day’s task. Or, was it working, note taking, questioning, filming?… A curious duality of labor to be sure.
We rolled through the mountain’s famous Rock Cut. The stone faces flanking the road leered over the buzz of mid-day traffic. We found ourselves traveling the stratum of some strange superposition. It was one that extended from the brutish intentions of modern convenience – road slicing through mountain of rock – to the dual existence of work and pleasure. Naturally, we leaned toward the latter with Christmas-morning enthusiasm.
Our target proved yet another element of this seeming cosmic duplicity. It’s at once factory and laboratory, social and solitary, serious and not so, brewery and pub. Time and capital demand have changed the function of this place decade over decade. Still, though, it never quite exorcized that blue-collar vibration. Today, the sweat and steam that warms the bricks of this old mill are expended in the effort of making beer. And that’s precisely why we ‘ve come.
They call it Back Mountain Brewing Company. Let’s go take a look and see if we can’t rustle up a few cold ones, shall we?
Patience and process pave the way to quality.
Locals still call it The Twin Stacks. That’s kind of how you find the place – two symmetrical, red brick smoke stacks peering out over the Dallas Highway. It was born a textile mill and, in many respects, it still is. An orderly tangle of exposed pipework treats the eye to a tour of the cavernous space. Three massive two-story windows electrify every steam valve and sight glass with warm mid-day sun.
The brewhouse squeezes into a far back corner. It’s a nimble system, dwarfed in stature by the remnants of mill machinery. Slim fermentation tanks share the floor with polished brew kettles. Dials and clipboards engage in the work of keeping the brewer honest, or humble, or both. Hoses and conduit trace the natural separation of grand scale production from the minimalism inherent in modern manufacture. The brewer’s space, in defiance of all ordinary laws of production is simple and small. It’s, in a sense, a containment chamber for an imperceptible world of creation and science.
In a lot of ways, the brewhouse at Back Mountain Brewing offers a subtle homage to the spirit of homebrewing. It’s designed to be quick and to favor experimentation. You might think of it as a pinpoint marking the intersection of talent, creative expression and passion. Yeah, you can also throw in quality ingredients. And, of course, don’t forget that all too important occasional bit of dumb luck and, even more crucially, a systemic memory of every single failure. It’s all there — in one mind, in one place and in every pour.
Some things are better left unchanged.
The taproom at Back Mountain Brewing Company doubles down on this theme of dual perception. At eye level, it’s a polished, retrofitted industrial space. High tops scatter throughout the open design. Carefully rescued hardwood floors transform the day’s light into a rustic glow. A purposeful, sectioned floor plan utilizing the common divisions of the old office space encourages quieter conversations. Throughout, delicate and artfully placed lighting seems to soften what’s left of any industrial edge.
Of course, the past lives here – in thought, in material, in stories told. And occasionally, in a nail head, a slightly dated light switch, a particular bend of pipe, an interaction begins. We engage in conversation the specter of a forgotten time. And in the space of maybe a minute or more, this place exists in both its present and its past. Soon, the hiss of steam, or the squeak of a valve being wrenched open echoes from wall to wall. Sunlight shimmers off of a pint glass, or perhaps a wristwatch belonging to some long-faced supervisor.
The fruit of these momentary interactions with our past tends to nourish the mind. They welcome a sobering appreciation for the duality that exists in all things – textile factory, nano-brewery, mountains split in two, rock faces pulled apart like Lego bricks, us, maybe.
Oh right! The beer.
Beers forged on the hot irons of homebrewing ingenuity.
The beers at Back Mountain Brewing Company deliver a unique perspective on the art and trade of brewing. On one hand, the brewer holds fast to his homebrewing roots. And on the other, a nagging urge to obtain mastery over process and clear-as-day-consistency in his product. In this “in-between” state, a rift opens within the fabric of creation. The pursuit, naturally, is to bring these worlds together, or, at least, to walk with one foot in each.
And the tap list at Back Mountain Brewing reveals an auspicious start in this particular direction.
Many of the beers on the slate are worked over renditions of the brewer’s often award-winning homebrews. Our journey began on the lighter side with Notorious P.I.G., a translucent, straw-colored beauty of a Kolsch. It straddled that line between delicate and bold with a slight fruity crispness. From there, we moved on to Back Mountain’s signature Weiss — Piggy Smalls. It arrived gorgeously golden with a creamy head and offered that slightly spiced, bready flavor.
Next up was a trio of IPAs. The K.I.S.S. Pale Ale weighed in at 6% and delivered on that standard piney promise. Little Squatchy, at 7.2%, was the heavy hitter on the board. This traditional West Coast IPA simply shined in golden orange. It packed that signature hop punch with a turn toward a feint citrus sweetness. And then it was on to the hazy boy. NEPA NEIPA is Back Mountain’s take on the New England IPA. It arrived cloudy, aromatic, a bit hoppy and brought a whole lot of stone fruit to the party. At 6.7%, this one clocked in on the high end of the NEIPA spectrum.
Finally, we entered the dark side. First up, Pine Land Porter. This delicately fruity and chocolatey ale came in light at 5.3%. It started out smooth and silky and bent toward a pleasant light bitterness. Finally, we moved on to the Ol’ 76 Stout. It poured nearly black with a tan head of velvety foam. The distinct aroma of dark chocolate and coffee shot straight to the nose. The hops were mild and perfectly balanced with a subdued malt sweetness. In all, a damn near perfect stout.
The taproom also offers a selection of cocktails made from locally sourced spirits and a few of NEPA’s finest homegrown wines. Back Mountain also dishes out brewery snacks, Pennsylvania-made soft pretzels and pizza through a partnership with Dallas favorite, Bernie’s Pizza. The brewery also encourages a BYOF (Bring Your Own Food) policy.
The good people at Back Mountain Brewing Company welcomed us on a sunny and warm Tuesday in mid-October. They shared their stories, their travels, their Back Mountain roots coupled with their Back Mountain hospitality. Secondarily, they shared their amazing beer. And we found ourselves grateful for each and every sip. Head out the scenic Dallas Highway and check out Back Mountain Brewing Company.
Notorious P.I.G. – Kolsch – Crystal clear and simple with very light hops, smooth malt sweetness and an apple/pear crispness — 5.4% ABV
Ol’ 76 Stout – American Stout – Moderately hoppy with a creamy, yet subdued malt sweetness and a delectably noticeable coffee/chocolate aroma — 6% ABV
Little Squatchy – American IPA – Let’s face it. This is a true-to-form, classic West Coast IPA with just a bit of that bitter edge sanded down. Bold citrus and pine lead the way – as they should — 7.2% ABV