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.
A Little Brewery in a Big Brewery Town
Way down about as deep as you can go into the Southern Reach section of the DiscoverNEPA Brewer’s Loop, we happened upon Black Rock Brewing Company.
Back in January of 2020, we got word that a new microbrewery was set to open in Pottsville. Imagine our excitement. Here, in the shadow of Yuengling, America’s oldest and one of its most revered brewhouses, a little, baby brewery is born. What a story to tell – the lineage of craft beer in Northeastern Pennsylvania – outliving Prohibition, superseding coal…
Well, then 2020 happened. We lost focus for a bit, and we lost track of this little brewery in its delicate infant stage. Our minds and efforts turned to other concerns. “Soon, we’ll come back to this,” I thought at the time. Maybe, when that fat cosmic finger lifts from the universe’s great big pause button, we’ll return to tell this little brewery’s story.
Nearly a year and a half later, we found ourselves on Route 61 headed south toward that ever-present Blue Mountain ridgeline. Pottsville was our destination. More specifically, we were looking for Black Rock Brewing Company. Yep, that same little brewery – the one whose intentions to launch had been all but stifled by a worldwide pandemic. It’s the same one whose first shaky steps in this world were met with disrupted global supply chains, a disrupted social structure, a disrupted economy, a disrupted vision of the future.
Yeah, that little brewery. It survived.
I’d love to say I was surprised, but this is Pottsville.
We’re talking about a town carved into ancient bedrock with a genetic predisposition toward moxie. Pottsville and its people have beaten floods. They’ve survived the inevitable obsolescence of unsustainable industry and economic upheaval beyond their control. Coal built this town and, on leaving, nearly broke it. Railroads had come and gone and taken with them a generation of livelihood. Through it all, the fighting spirit of this place remained.
This little coal town wears its perseverance proudly in the cut of renovation and repurpose. Old, useless train depot? Nah, new county transportation hub. Empty Center City storefronts? Nope, hip coffee shops and award-winning restaurants. For decades, Pottsville’s leadership, both in business and politics, have surveyed the city’s once storied streets with an eye toward reinvention. Alongside them, a new class of young entrepreneurs is reimagining the Downtown experience.
There’s a palpable, new energy coursing through Pottsville. It sweeps along Centre Street, repairing and repainting Late Victorian and Greek Revival facades. It carries day trippers, newcomers and, yes, even some old timers in and out of charming sidewalk shops. In some, it injects a sense of wonder and possibility. For others, familiar with the economic ebb and flow of this town, it awakens a long dormant sense of pride. “This town’s still got it,” they think.
Past, present and future walk into a bar…
Perhaps no place within Pottsville’s renaissance tends to connect the past with the present, the old with the young, one generation’s “way” with another more so than Black Rock Brewing Company. The Centre Street microbrewery makes its home in the historic Sheafer Mansion, the longtime site of Pottsville’s YWCA. The building itself illustrates the town’s determination to reclaim its destiny.
Black Rock Brewing is, in a sense, a neutral ground where “old” Pottsville reconciles with the new, modern version of itself. The opulence of this late 19th century Greek Gothic landmark – Ionic columns capped with scrolled volutes – meets the frequent squeak of thick, rubber-soled sneakers. Ghosts, some smudged and clanking tin lunch pails, others, prim and looking up from ledgers over tortoiseshell spectacles entertain a shy curiosity. And equally so are the “interlopers,” in baseball caps and shorts, dually enchanted by barrel-vaulted ceilings and an enduring millwork.
And that’s just how they get you in the door. There’s a charm at Black Rock that goes beyond architecture and an affinity for the town’s rich, enduring spirit. It echoes from that space where modern influences classic and vice versa. It exists in innocent hopefulness, warm pretzels and cold, fresh craft beer.
Let’s go take a tour and tip a few over, shall we?
Classic and cool meet fresh and new.
The taproom at Black Rock Brewing invites a playful separation of perspective. Before you sit and your mind makes its turn toward libation and socialization, there’s almost an air of exclusivity. For a moment, as you glance around, you find yourself feeling invited – as if, in a sense, you’d been summoned (to drink beer, I guess).
It’s a stately space. Little expense was spared in its construction nearly 130 years ago. Dense plaster walls and ceilings reveal hardly a handful of cracks. Chunky and masculine, turn-of-the-century millwork frames each entry. Massive, eastern facing windows flood the entire cavity with half the day’s sun. The design elicits a natural sense of movement. Slim rooms carry conversations from end to end. Light crawls along alabaster walls and over the original, polished floor. And it all leads in the same direction – toward the bar.
Once you’ve gotten past the impressive, original features of the space, you’ll want to find your way to the beer. Now’s as good a time as any to divulge that Black Rock Brewing also shares the space with Spring Gate Winery. The horseshoe design of the entry level allows for a natural separation of each unique endeavor.
On the beer side, the taproom is where the line between “Wow, late 19th century architecture!” and “Let’s drink some beer!” breaks. The star of the show here is a unique Bottoms Up draft system unlike any you’ve ever encountered in NEPA. The system fills each pint from the bottom of the glass using magnetic discs as stoppers. Trust me. It never gets old. And you get to keep the magnets as collectibles. Think Pogs, 90s kids. The slate typically features up to ten Black Rock brews. And they save a few spots for fellow Skooks, Yuengling and Pilger Ruh.
Yeah, it’s a beer blog, but these guys have so much Pennsylvania wine, we’ve got to at least give it a shout. On the Spring Gate Winery side, you can get a break from the suds with delicious wines by the glass or bottle. The tasting room also doubles as a store with like hundreds of bottles to choose from (if that’s your thing).
Both spaces are connected by a long, open corridor filled with high tops and low tables. And if you can’t find a place to sit, well you may just have to try the courtyards. Yes, there are two. These wide-open, flagstone patios offer ample seating, fire pits, a little bit of nature and some Centre Street scenery. It’s also where you’ll find live music during the warmer months.
And, now that we have the place properly laid out, let’s move on to the beer.
Just clean, simple, blue-collar kind of beer.
Black Rock’s not reaching for any particular style points when it comes to their beer. They understand their audience. Keep it simple. Keep it honest. That’s the name of the game here. It doesn’t mean you won’t find any juicy, hazy IPAs, or fruited sours. They leave plenty of room for that. But when it comes to their staples, fresh, clean and true-to-form are the guiding principles.
We ran the board during our visit. On the lighter side, we started with the Lantern Light. This local favorite exploded with a surprising bready sweetness and a subtle bump of hops. And at 4.5%, it epitomized crushability. Next up was the gorgeously pale and malty sweet German Pilsner. The sweet/bitter balance on this one was spot on – like summer in a glass.
We rounded out the easy drinkers with their freshly-tapped Strawberry Wit. The golden pink pour on this one brought to mind one of those summer sunsets in NEPA. And it went down just as easy. We got that signature, crisp tartness up front and it was backed up by the lightest touch of sweetness from the strawberry. This one’s a summer staple at Black Rock.
The slate featured only one IPA. Black Rock’s Caged Canary IPA isn’t s big puncher at 5%, but it’s certainly a heavy hitter when it comes to carefully-tuned hop flavor. The slightly cloudy, golden pour revealed a delicate citrus aroma backed by a robust resinous bite. You couldn’t ask for more from your workhorse IPA.
We then took a quick leap over to the dark side with Black Rock’s Coffee Stout. This hearty ale poured foggy black with a velvety, tan hat. Straight away, it exploded with notes of roasted malt lightened up by a slight toffee sweetness. From the first sip to the last, this one delivered a meticulous balance between coffee and caramel.
Finally, we closed our liquid tour with what was notably the star of the show – Black Rock Blonde Ale. At 7% ABV, this clear, golden beauty was the heaviest hitter in the lineup. Despite its curious strength, you truly can’t ask for a more approachable beer. It was bright and slightly fruity and malty with a subdued hop character. It screamed summer.
From top to bottom, Black Rock’s tap list offers a little something for everyone. From the lunch pail beer to the lawnmower beer to the superstar-of-the-summer-patio beer, you’d be hard pressed to find one that didn’t fit your mood.
Some breweries just get it.
Soft pretzels are typically nothing to write home about. Sure, they’re warm, soft and salty, and they pair perfectly with cold beer. At the end of the day, they’re just pretzels. Full disclosure: I’d never turn down a soft pretzel. In fact, in some instances, I might fight you for one. I normally just don’t get too excited about them. What I found at Black Rock Brewing, however, has changed my entire worldly perception of the humble snack.
They call them Pretzel Logs. They’re a cross between the most delicious, buttery, salty, soft pretzel you’ve ever tasted and your favorite bar snacks. That’s right, Black Rock’s Signature Pretzel Logs come stuffed, or I should say – bursting with classic fillings like buffalo chicken, ham n cheese, or hot dog n cheese. You can get them on the sweeter side with cinnamon apple and sweet cream, or Nutella twist. And if you’re really feeling those NEPA vibes, you’ll have to try the famous pierogi stuffed Pretzel Log. If ever there was a food item destined to pair with beer, it was this one.
In addition to their Pretzel logs, Black Rock also dishes out sandwiches, salads, fresh salsa and chips and heaping trays of perfectly crispy French fries. And don’t forget the sprouts. Yep, Brussels Sprouts. I understand that bringing up the very existence of Brussels Sprouts in a brewery borders on blasphemous, but hear me out. These little gems are roasted, crispy, perfectly seasoned and drizzled with a creamy garlic aoli. And it turns out, in the entire universe of possible food/beverage combinations, the natural, culinary counterpart to a crispy, garlicky roasted Brussels Sprout is a cold beer.
All told, the good folks at Black Rock Brewing Company have created one hell of a craft brewery experience. From expertly crafted beers to a perfectly, beer-friendly menu to an indoor/outdoor atmosphere that welcomes relaxation and good times, this Pottsville landmark has got it all.
We made our way to Black Rock Brewing Company on a sunny afternoon in May. They kicked open the doors, cranked up the tunes and got all types of charitable with their beer and food. Our trip brought to a close that story of “what ever happened to that little microbrewery that was about to open right before… you know?”
They’re here. The dream survived. And the story’s only just beginning. Go check em’ out.
Caged Canary IPA – Perfectly hoppy and balanced with slight tropical notes — 5% ABV
German Pilsner – True-to-form pilsner, clear, distinct malty sweetness — 4.5% ABV
Black Rock Blonde – Subdued fruit background with near perfect hoppy/malty balance — 7% ABV