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.
Where Homage is Paid by the Pint
Way, way off in the far northern reaches of the Endless-Pocono Run section of the DiscoverNEPA Brewer’s Loop, we happened upon Iron Horse Brewing Company.
The road was long, but easy enough if you simply pointed yourself north on 81 toward the last exit before New York. Many travelers, it’s told, experience their first and somewhat unceremonious visits to the Empire State by way of this one missed exit. Fearing that the highway’s hypnotic hum, the lure of a limitless drive in a warm car on a cloudy, winter day and a playlist pushing us forward would undoubtedly carry us halfway to Binghamton before we knew it, we exited early.
We hopped off the interstate in Lenox and saddled Tunkhannock Creek via scenic Route 92. After roughly 20 miles twisting through snow-painted farmland broken occasionally by roadside thickets of tall pine, we crossed into NEPA’s stunning Viaduct Valley. Mountain streams coursed like inky black veins through the foggy, white landscape. Gray, wind-whipped barns and wire fences testing the margins of their utility, in some odd way, looked humanly cold in the stillness.
Nearly two centuries ago, pioneering Pennsylvanians took to these rocky forests with mule teams and stone axes. They carved bluestone from the rugged, unforgiving hills and laid out one of young America’s most crucial stretches of railroad. The lines connected New York City to the midwestern heart of the industrial United States. The original New York and Erie Railroad largely spanned the Empire State’s vast Southern Tier. In one brief stretch, however, as it skirted up to the Susquehanna River, the course dipped into NEPA.
They called it Susquehanna Depot then. Some still do. It was born of the railroad industry. Even today, the town’s slim design alongside its namesake river reveals a birth of necessity and convenience. Work multiplied exponentially. A few years prior to incorporation, hundreds of immigrant stonemasons and laborers erected the stunning Starrucca Viaduct nearby. Many stayed and planted roots in this odd, little hub of industrial activity. They made rail cars, worked in the foundry and the roundhouse. And, when passengers took to the rails, they, too, found themselves piqued by the curious hamlet. Soon, Susquehanna became a welcome respite for hungry, rail-rattled travelers.
By the mid-20th century, vast highway networks sired an efficiency that no railroad could match. Soon, the daily toil of entire generations sputtered to a halt. The ping of hammers on steel, the squeal of steam boilers, hungry travelers crowding into Starrucca House Station between whistles – one day, it seemed, it was all simply packed up and taken away.
Inevitably, everything slowed. Even this bustling, little blue-collar town. The people stayed. They forged ahead. They held on to something, though – a shared history perhaps, a story that required telling. One that starred Susquehanna, a minute sliver of sand and rock along the river that, more than most towns, helped build a nation.
Today, we tell this town’s story with beer. And why not? There’s steel and steam and the kind of plucky, make-your-own-way work ethic that once laid iron highways across this uncharitable landscape. We found a comfy, little brewpub on Susquehanna’s charming Main Street. Here, the town’s pioneering spirit is celebrated with every pint. They call it Iron Horse Brewing Company.
Let’s go take a tour and grab a pint, shall we?
Polished steel and steam.
Susquehanna was a true railroad town. People came here to work. They knew it wouldn’t be easy, but that’s precisely their legacy. Soon, they plotted farms along the river and they conquered the hills with iron and steel. And, eventually, they made something of this odd, little turn in the river.
Main Street perches prominently over the riverbank where it once looked out on the railyard and train depot. In just about every direction, the foreboding rounded humps of the Appalachian Plateau inspire Sagan’s familiar “mote of dust” feeling. It’s all, at the same time, picturesque and uniquely unpolished. You can envision yourself and the whole scene in a meticulous scale model in some hobbyist’s basement. And that’s precisely the beauty of it all. This place has changed a bit with time, but it’s definitely all real. There’s still a connection in this town to all the things that made it. Most places have long lost that.
The brewhouse at Iron Horse Brewing Company dials into that nostalgia. Steam billows from boil kettles. An industrious hum resonates – broken only by the random clank of latches clamping shut. Hoses and steam vents hiss. Daylight darts through the glass roll-up door bending around the polished steel bellies of brew tanks. The percussion of hurried bootsteps, the light jingle of the hoist chain — it’s the symphony of creation.
The whole display reveals a universal appeal to the performance of honest work. One of the simple pleasures of craft beer is that it welcomes a deeper connection between the beer, the place, those who make it and those who drink it. And that’s what you’ll find here at Iron Horse.
The bar at Iron Horse creates a line of distinction between the busy brewhouse and the angular aesthetic of the taproom. On one side, the chaos of brewery work distracts and draws you into a world of creation. On the other, sleek wooden stools and cushioned booth benches implore rest. Natural light floods in from front to back, setting aglow the electric blue sky on the wall-sized mural of the Starrucca Viaduct.
The industrial history of the town and the region haunts the space. From floor to ceiling to the view into the brewhouse, the region’s heritage is ever-present. Steam engine blueprints and model trains confront you at every turn. The polished, black bar radiates reflected overhead light from the center of the room. It bounces and burrows into the dimpled surface of the rough iron spikes-turned tap handles.
As with the brewhouse, the tap room at Iron Horse offers up a connection – something that goes beyond clever marketing and flashy trinkets. There’s a warmth here. Maybe it’s in the friendly smiles, or the beer doing its work. It’s certainly possible that it’s the fragrant, bready mash cooking away in the brew kettle. Then again, they’re firing up fresh pizzas in the kitchen as well. My point: you’ll never figure it out. And perhaps you don’t need to. Just sit back and have a fresh one.
Pro tip: don’t forget the golf clubs. Iron Horse’s tap room also houses a full virtual golf simulator. They rent the indoor simulator bay by the hour for up to four players at a time. Tee off on your choice of nearly 100 championship courses. And here’s the kicker: full beer and food service is available. The golf simulator bay features a high top and chairs and a rack for your clubs.
OK, now we can talk about beer.
A simple approach – just brewin’ up a little something for everyone.
There’s quite a bit going on at Iron Horse Brewing. But there’s certainly no doubt that the star of the show is the beer. The line up includes an impressive list of 8 straightforward, simple and fresh beers (well, 6 plus 2 seltzers). They also include a few guest taps featuring other delicious Pennsylvania brews.
We started off in the shallow end of the pool. Saber Blue Berry Blonde, a local favorite, delivered that crisp, summer-y bite you expect from a classic blonde ale. It was delicately hopped and backed up by a distinct, yet inoffensive sweetness of blueberry and honey. We then filled our bellies with The Black Maria, a beautiful, hearty oatmeal stout. It entered through the nose with notes of black coffee and dark chocolate and finished with a rich, floral sweetness.
Next up, Spring Forward Lager. This traditional Marzen came in a little heavy at 6.6%, but all the classic toastiness was there. It delivered a near perfect balance of rich malt sweetness and spice. This one, like a true Oktoberfest lager, left just enough on the tongue to keep you wanting more.
And on to the IPAs… First, the board offered up one of its popular Gone Too Soon Series beers, GTS Tangerine. The fruited IPA weighed in at around 6.8%, and packed a very forward citrus punch. This poolside sipper led off with a tropical sweetness and carried it all the way through with minimal interference from the hops.
And finally, we were in the deep end. Iron Horse’s famous Turkey Woods Double IPA is a hefty lumberjack of a beer. This copper-hued beauty smacks you right up front with heavy hoppy bitterness. A light malty sweetness leads into grapefruit and honey. And it all plays neatly in the throat tickling warmth of the high ABV.
From light to heavy, pale to dark, Iron Horse Brewing cooks up a respectable and tasty range of styles. And they do it confidently – without apology. Their approach is enviable in its simplicity. A proper tap list should include a beer for everyone. And this one certainly does.
I guess now I have to say something nice about their seltzers. Well, they’re cold and seltzer-y (that’s about as far as I can go with seltzers, sorry).
Also, if you taste something you like, you can get it to go. Iron Horse also offers fresh-filled crowlers and 4-packs to go.
Happy little pretzel man…
All beer aside, for a moment, another reason for visiting Iron Horse Brewing Company is the food. Susquehanna is quite a haul for most craft beer travelers. And, sometimes the hunt for that hidden gem of a local beer requires a little extra fuel. Iron Horse’s kitchen fires up comforting pub classics designed to complement their robust selection of beers.
From hand-tossed pizza creations and a formidable burger menu to a slate of beer-friendly, sharable starters, they cover it all. Pair your beers with hearty subs and sandwiches, crispy wings and overstuffed Stromboli. Iron Horse also features locally-inspired, seasonal favorites.
Thanks to the talented and incredibly generous kitchen team at Iron Horse Brewing Company, we made the return journey with full, happy bellies. First came the massive Bavarian Pretzel accompanied by brewpub mustard and beer cheese. These should be mandatory in every craft brewery, by the way. It took four of us to finish it off. We thought we were done there. We were not.
Next, they brought out two gorgeous, homemade pizzas. One, a grilled chicken and jalapeno ranch specialty. And the other featured mushrooms, pepperoni and hot Italian sausage. Both sat upon perfect, oven crisp crust that would shatter even the staunchest NEPA pizza expectations. Again, we were happy to end it here with these ridiculously delicious pizzas. We couldn’t.
Finally, they placed before us the famous Iron Horse Bourbon Burger. This hefty, locally-sourced, grass fed burger is a favorite among beer tourists and Susquehannans alike. It was topped with crispy onion rings and bacon and saturated with a sweet bourbon BBQ glaze. There was melted American cheese, fresh lettuce and tomato, a toasted bun. As quickly as it entered our lives, it was gone. And we were fat and happy for it.
We popped into Iron Horse Brewing Company on one of those unique, late February days. The air carried a hint of spring. Blue skies and sun poked through broken patches of gray and threats of wild flurries. This rugged, though approachable town in NEPA’s northern plains greeted us warmly. At every turn, in every brick, Susquehanna shares its fascinating stories. And, in one place, over a few cold pints of beer, we felt, momentarily, like we lived them.
Put this one on your list.
Turkey Woods Double IPA – Explosively hopped, lightly resinous and delicious – 10.8% ABV
Black Maria – Creamy, dark and delicately balanced between sweet and bitter – 5.4% ABV
Saber Blue Berry Blonde – Light and easy-drinking, subtle tart sweetness with a sticky honey backdrop — 4.9% ABV
The Iron House Bourbon Burger – Our videographer, who swallowed the thing whole in just under 12 seconds, assures us it was absolutely delicious.