It was the mid-1990s, and Harrisburg residents Jack Sproch and Shawn Gallagher were two local guys interested in starting a microbrewery.
At the time, this was a far-fetched idea, since Harrisburg restaurants were closing faster than they were opening, and nobody was really drinking anything but Miller and Bud.
So, Sproch booked a ski trip to Colorado for some respite and research, as the state was home to an emerging brewing culture. That’s where he met Artie Tafoya, owner of Heavenly Daze Brewery & Grill in Steamboat Springs. Tafoya was a restaurant veteran and self-taught microbrewer, so Sproch asked for advice and guidance for his idea.
Tafoya had started his brewery in 1988, a business borne out of a homebrewing hobby. But with a new idea on the table, he boldly uprooted himself from his home state of Colorado and relocated his entire family to Pennsylvania to help Sproch and Gallagher with their startup.
The partners’ first objective was finding a building to house the business, a monumental task considering the amount of space large-scale brewing equipment requires.
The three discovered an abandoned warehouse, one of a string of forlorn industrial buildings along Cameron Street. At more than 100 years old, the Harrisburg Trolley Corp. building used to store parts for trolley repairs. It was next to a building, no longer standing, where the actual repairs took place. That the warehouse was still standing was itself a small miracle.
“The roof on this building had failed six or seven times, and it was in such disrepair,” Tafoya said. “But I told them it could work. They saw that vision, and I’m still amazed at all the work they did.”
That vision ultimately became the first location of the Appalachian Brewing Co., known locally and affectionately today as ABC.
It wasn’t without hard work. The 50,000-square-foot structure was a labor of love, taking nearly two years to rehabilitate. But in 1997, ABC finally opened its doors and gave the public here its first taste of local brews. At first, only the bottom portion of the building opened, serving beer and a limited menu that included salads and pizza. By time the building was renovated, the partners had limited resources, so there wasn’t much left for the restaurant portion, Tafoya said. But they managed to buy a pizza oven and make it work.
“People in the community gathered around us and carried us those first few years,” Tafoya said. “We were on the cutting edge, and we were investing in Harrisburg when so many weren’t.”
ABC’s Water Gap Wheat and Jolly Scot Scottish Ale are two of the original beer recipes and remain crowd favorites today. These beers also are a toast to the process that helped build the ABC menu of flagship and seasonal brews.
“I always tried to develop beers for the places I was consulting,” said Tafoya. “You are never going to have the same tasting beer wherever you go because of the water, so you don’t always use the same ingredients. I always try to give the beer some regional flare when I am helping somebody out.”
ABC may be celebrating two decades in Harrisburg, but it takes more than time to become an institution. It’s also about paying attention to customers as times change.
“The consumer has become so smart,” Tafoya said. “Beer drinkers are very educated. I can’t make something and just call it this or that. They know that a pilsner should be this way or an IPA should be that way. You have to be true to the customer and provide them with something different and interesting all the time.”
Since opening on Cameron Street, ABC has grown at that location and expanded to offer more eclectic beers, as well as music in the upstairs Abbey Bar. The flagship location also has numerous spaces for event bookings and an outdoor patio for enjoyment during milder weather—all of it a long way from that dilapidated warehouse. ABC has opened five additional locations throughout central Pennsylvania—in Mechanicsburg, Gettysburg Gateway, Gettysburg Battlefield, Collegeville and Lititz—with each offering visitors a unique experience tailored to the space.
To mark the brewery’s 20th anniversary month in May, ABC will host a number of events, beginning May 2, when there will specials every day. Among the features are old menu items at 1997 prices, buy-one-get-one burgers and free root beer floats. The month-long celebration pays homage to ABC’s endurance as the first brewpub of its kind in the Harrisburg area.
With two decades down, what do the next 20 years bring? The group has a plan.
“Soda has been our biggest venture, and its growth is limitless,” Tafoya said. “We have moved our (soda) manufacturing operation to our Mechanicsburg location to expand.”
The greater philosophy, though, remains unchanged from those early days, when, to most people, the term “craft beer” might just refer to drinking Coors Light on a boat.
“We always want to be different,” Tafoya said. “We never want to get stagnant.”
Appalachian Brewing Co. is located at 50 N. Cameron St., Harrisburg. For more information about the brewpub and details about the 20th anniversary celebration, visit www.abcbrew.com.