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.
Tending the Fire
Located at the mid-point of the Southern Reach section of the DiscoverNEPA Brewer’s Loop, our friendly craft beer travelers will find Stoker’s Brewing Company.
Descending southbound out of Hazleton, after a notable drop in elevation, PA Route 309 – at once a traveler’s preferential line to Philly via the Wyoming and Lehigh Valleys – squeezes through a break in the lowland ridges of the Appalachian chain. Dramatically pitched roofs and domed turrets peak out among hilltops, stone churches and the angular geometry of a town stretching for suitable purchase on the climb from stagnation to modernity.
Not long ago, this quaint hollow carved its name into the pillars of American industry. Hard coal was king, here. Such a designation sparked a mythology espousing immigrant heroes, damning the well-heeled and poetizing labor troubles. Men climbed, fought and fell over greed and the conditions it wrought. And through it all, the people worked. They fed to their children a blue-collar ethic borne of infectious pride. Despite industrial futility, or economic infirmity, they built a city here in the belly of this little valley. And hence, its survival became their singular vocation.
Day in and day out, the fight begins anew. Shops open up their doors. Bakeries fire up their ovens. Traffic pushes along Broad Street and bleeds throughout a city committed to course correction. A new energy radiates from the central Five Points intersection. There’s an enthusiasm here fueled by passion, artistry and hereditary grit. And it’s all driven by a forward-thinking breed of entrepreneurs, restauranteurs and community leaders.
Brew Kits to Biergartens II: The Out-of-Control Hobby Boogaloo
At the heart of it all, a quiet, dedicated man brews his beer in the back room of a former dry cleaner. His story, along with those of the beer, the building and the town welcome some odd cosmic lineage. Each spills its lesson like a secret into every pint – whispering to willing ears, “Full steam… Onward!”
The name of the town is Tamaqua, and this gutsy craft brewery illustrating its rise from the slag heap of quiescence is Stoker’s Brewing Company.
Let’s have a tour and drink some beer, shall we?
A necessary disruption to the order of things.
An overhead view of Tamaqua reveals a beautifully compact marvel of grid planning. The eye and even the flow of traffic directs inward to the Five Points business district. One street, however, disrupts all of that planning and forethought. It shears off in the opposite direction at almost an exact 45-degree angle. Mauch Chunk Street is an anomaly. It defies the order prescribed by the universe and the forces deemed worthy to shape it. Simply put, it’s an oddball of a city street. It’s also precisely where you’d expect to find this idealistic brewer at work.
The brewhouse at Stoker’s sits tucked away in a dark corner of the building. The room’s industrial, brick and steel aura juxtapose a bready bouquet of boiling wort. It’s a tight, cramped space, but it’s certainly nothing a modern brewer monk can’t manage. A small window block directs just enough natural light to set aglow busy steel kettles. An aged concrete floor swallows up the natural accidents of labor. Scattered notes, pens, hand tools and tubes lie about – their utility suspended perhaps by a momentary visit of the muses.
Stoker’s brewhouse, like the chef’s kitchen, the poet’s desk, or the artist’s studio, is a sacred temple. It’s as much a space of the mind as it is of cinder blocks and ceiling joists. And in this checkpoint of ideas, insecurities and inspirations, the lessons of little mistakes prove more valuable than the time and effort expended in making them. Nowhere is that more evident than in Stoker’s wide selection of masterfully crafted beers.
If only tables could talk…
The relatively small taproom at Stoker’s Brewing Company welcomes a creative distortion of time and space. Light swamps the room via massive, vintage glass block windows. It floods over painted golden tabletops, stout stools and barrels. Suddenly, the room expands horizontally between the inky black ceiling and the dark reddened finish of the original wood floor. Despite the trickery of light, color and shape, the taproom is simple and charmingly sparse.
The design, in a weird way, smashes together comfortable elements of two distinct geographical styles. A Western European biergarten vibe mingles with the bare bones approach of an Old West American saloon. The obvious stars of the show are the authentic, imported German Oktoberfest tables. These mustard-hued beauties happily bear the bruises of boot-shaped steins and perhaps an Oompah-inspired table dance or two.
Just beyond the taproom, Stoker’s also features an adult game room. Visitors can settle debates with a classic game of Rock Em’ Sock Em’ Robots. And, if looming childhood frustrations need revisiting, how about a game of giant Jenga or Connect Four? Then, when the competition gets to be a bit much, step outside.
In warmer months the taproom extends outdoors. A wide-open backyard biergarten complete with a carpet of soft green grass fills with tables and cornhole boards. It even wraps around the building revealing a semi-private side yard with more seating. You can also soak in the vibes of the street at a few sidewalk bistro tables.
Honest, time-honored brewing with the occasional twist.
There’s little fussing about when it comes to the beer here at Stoker’s Brewing Company. Sure, you’ll find some of those fun, experimental creations, but, for the most part, the brewing is consistently traditional. During our visit, we found ourselves awash in aromatic, seasonal ales and expertly crafted, reliable classics.
The board featured 14 different beers — each delivering remarkably on its advertised profile. The heady Oatmeal Stout was creamy, deliciously coffee black and nearly strong enough to awaken an involuntary Irish brogue. Their fantastically simple “Patch Town” Nut Brown Ale opened like a dusty lunch pail. An immediate bready warmth lingered over sweeter notes of nutty toffee.
Stoker’s impressive selection also featured pinches of tart, autumnal fruit and festive spice bouquets. Spotting subtleties between the fruity and clean Pomegranate Wit and Cranberry Wit proved a delightful trial of deduction. This theme continued, though a bit more robustly, in the “Krik” Kriek. This gorgeously brown ale enjoyed a long sit over sour cherries where it developed an inexplicably nuanced balance between sweet and sour. Outside of a largely European-inspired tap list, they also feature a pair of hazy IPAs. These cloudy creations stay true to the style with delicate citrus notes on top of a heavy hop intro.
All told, Stoker’s tap list covers an eclectic range of light and dark, bold and bright, clean yet complex. There’s a beer for every palate, and a few to pique even the least curious among us. Stop by Stoker’s Brewing Company on your next craft beer adventure. Grab a seat. Try a flight and go make a friend out of a nearby stranger.
Take a Look Behind the Scenes
Cranberry Wit – Fresh and clear cranberry essence mingled with a bit of orange zest
“Fantasiful Dream” Hazy & Juicy Anniversary IPA – Creamy, hoppy, tropical
Black Cherry Rauchbier – Distinctly smoky and aromatic, sweet cherries and spices