A few months ago, I was marveling at the seemingly endless list of craft beers at the Federal Taphouse in downtown Harrisburg.
I asked my long-time friend Andy Shaffer, “When was the last time you ordered an imported beer?”
Andy couldn’t recall, and neither could I. Long gone are the dark days when beer lovers were forced to choose between imports and wimpy, watery American brews.
With the craft beer revolution in overdrive, the number of quality American breweries has exploded in recent years. And nowhere is this more evident than in the Harrisburg metro area. New brewpubs are sprouting up everywhere, including five in just the past year alone.
“Making Harrisburg a beer destination point is a big thing,” said Kristin Messner-Baker, owner of the Vegetable Hunter, a downtown Harrisburg restaurant that started serving its own beer in February.
Being a beer connoisseur (some might say “beer snob”), I set out to visit all the brewpubs in the immediate Harrisburg metro area. I ordered samples of their beers, or a flight, and then picked my favorite. I focused mainly on beers that are available year-round.
No two people have the exact same taste in beer. I prefer full-bodied, strong-flavored brews, usually with high alcohol content. I am a generalist, meaning I can appreciate quality beers across a wide spectrum of styles, though I gravitate toward porters, stouts, IPAs and Belgian ales. I am particularly fond of beers that are solid representatives of their types but that have subtle and complex flavors resulting from a creative mix of ingredients.
Below are brief descriptions of the breweries and my selections.
Al’s of Hampden / Pizza Boy Brewing Co., 2240 Millennium Way, Enola
This establishment brews so many beers that I couldn’t try every one. I found the quality to be consistently high, so it was difficult to single one out. In a very close call, I went with the double coffee stout over the Murren River IPA, which I also loved.
Sunny Side Up Double Coffee Stout, 9.5% ABV
This stout has such a strong coffee flavor, courtesy of Little Amps Coffee, that it might turn off some stout lovers. But for me, it has the heart and soul of a great stout. It’s full-bodied with an extremely complex flavor, including a very subtle sweetness that complements the rest of the beer. This is right up there with my favorite Harrisburg-area beers.
Appalachian Brewing Co., 50 N. Cameron St., Harrisburg
There was a period when I avoided ABC because their beers tended to be watery. But I feel ABC has raised its game in recent years. Besides my selection below, I loved the Outta Focus Double IPA and the Chocolate Avenue Stout.
“Jolly Scot” Scottish Style Ale, 5.9% ABV
I instantly liked the ale, and it got better with each sip. It has a tinge of fruitiness that gives it character but does not dominate the overall flavor. I can taste a little bit of maltiness but no hoppiness. It’s right up my alley, but not for hopheads. I sat at the downstairs bar next to a visiting beer-lover from northern Virginia, who said this was his favorite ABC beer.
Boneshire Brew Works, 7462 Derry St., Harrisburg
This small brewpub is one of the new kids on the block, having opened its doors in October.
LazaRIS Unrobed Russian Imperial Stout, 9.5% ABV
This was my favorite in the flight of five, and master brewer Alan Miller described it as his “flagship.” It’s extremely smooth with a beautiful head. It has just enough texture to make it a satisfying stout. I taste a very subtle sweetness that is pleasant but does not overwhelm the classic Russian imperial stout flavor. It has a very pleasant aftertaste, and it went down easily in a way that made me want another.
Ever Grain Brewing Co., 4444 Carlisle Pike, Camp Hill
Ever Grain has gotten off to a flying start since it opened in September, which explains why it has been packed every time I’ve visited. The beers are so consistently strong across the line that it was painful to choose a favorite. All of the IPAs were first rate, and I also really liked the Udder One nitro stout. My bartender Brian said it best: “It’s an honor to pour these beers.”
Kaboo Pale Ale, 5.5% ABV
I actually preferred the IPAs (especially the Surf Breaker and the Doose Juicy), but I was startled by this beer, which I enjoyed far more than a typical pale ale. It has a mild but extremely pleasant hoppy flavor that is a perfect introduction to the world of IPAs for people who normally don’t like hoppy beers.
Harty Brewing Co., 146 Walden Way, Mechanicsburg
This is a very small brewery that opened in 2015. If you visit, I highly recommend the seasonals.
Hefeweizen, 4.9% ABV
I’m one of those snobs who think Americans still have a lot of catching up to do with the Germans when it comes to wheat beers. But this hefeweizen comes razor close to German classics such as Paulaner and Hacker-Pschorr. This beer is tasty and thick-textured. The German yeast gives it its flavor, but I could also taste the underlying German hops. Extremely satisfying.
Lancaster Brewing Co., 469 Eisenhower Blvd., Harrisburg
This Lancaster-based brewery has been around since the mid-1990s. The sampler tray consisted of a whopping 13 beers, which ran the gamut—I loved some and hated others.
Boss Hog Double IPA, 9% ABV
This double IPA compares favorably in my mind to any IPA brewed in the United States, or anywhere else, for that matter. It has a strong hoppy flavor, but unlike some IPAs, the hops are in the Goldilocks zone—they are not overdone, they are just right. And it has an extremely smooth and thick texture that makes it an absolute pleasure to drink. And by the way, the Hop Hog single IPA ain’t too shabby either.
The Millworks, 340 Verbeke St., Harrisburg
The Millworks started serving its own beer in late 2016 and features a small but excellent list of other Pennsylvania beers.
Rye Whiskey Barrel Aged Barley Wine, 10% ABV
This extremely strong-flavored beer is definitely not for Bud or Miller Lite drinkers! The malt is prominent, but this high-alcohol barley wine gains its distinction from a strong whiskey flavor resulting from barrel aging. I also detected a very subtle caramel and oak flavor in the background. The taste is better on the back of my tongue than on the tip. A bitter aftertaste lingers quite a while.
Tattered Flag Brewery & Still Works, 1 S. Union St., Middletown
This is another new brewery, having opened last July.
Bourbon Barrel Aged Warbonds Stout, 9.2% ABV
I normally don’t find beers mixed with bourbon to be particularly appealing, but I could drink this stuff all night. It has just enough bourbon taste to give it a distinctive flavor, but it does not overwhelm the underlying stout. The high alcohol content gives it a real bite. This is a very well-crafted and highly original beer, but I agreed with the bartender when she said, “It’s not for everyone.”
Tröegs Independent Brewing, 200 Hersheypark Dr., Hershey
Along with ABC, this is the granddaddy of local breweries. And like ABC, Tröegs has been very generous to startups, loaning equipment and supplying hops in a spirit of brotherhood among craft brewers. Tröegs’s flagship line is strong, but like several friends of mine, I tend to prefer the seasonals (especially Nugget Nectar and Mad Elf) and some of the scratch beers.
Nitro Chocolate Stout, 7.1% ABV
The nitro gives this stout an ultra-smooth, creamy texture. The chocolate flavor is just right—strong enough to make it interesting but not overbearing or causing the beer to lose its classic stout character. It has a mellow but complex flavor, with almost no bitterness. It has a very pleasant, slightly sweet aftertaste.
The Vegetable Hunter, 614 N. 2nd St., Harrisburg
Another of the newbies, with four beers on tap during my recent visit.
Veg Halen Porter, 5.6% ABV
This mellow porter has a tinge of coffee and coconut flavor in the background that blends in beautifully with the classic porter taste. And it’s full-bodied, while avoiding the tartness and fizziness that ruin some porters. It also has a very pleasing aftertaste that doesn’t linger too long.
The Vineyard and Brewery at Hershey, 598 Schoolhouse Rd., Middletown
As one might expect, this establishment brews sweet-tasting beers that seem to be catered toward wine lovers.
Chocolate M.I.L.F. Brown Ale, 5.2% ABV
I admit this is a guilty pleasure. I like this brown ale a lot, but the strong chocolate flavor and light texture will turn off some hard-core beer lovers. The sweet chocolate flavor is so dominant that it almost tastes more like chocolate milk than a traditional brown ale. Still, I really like it for reasons I cannot explain, though I preferred some of the seasonals.
Zeroday Brewing Co., 250 Reily St., Harrisburg
This brewery has improved tremendously from when I first visited two years ago. Over a very strong line, I gave the edge to the triple IPA over the seasonals Grievance Ale (a winter warmer) and the DTF Douglas Fir Saison.
Large Ass IPA (Triple IPA) 12.4% ABV
This beer lives up to its moniker: it kicks serious ass. It has a wonderfully full texture and a bold hoppy flavor that stops just short of crossing the line into the realm of hoppiness-for-hoppiness sake. I could drink this stuff all night, but with its high alcohol content, someone better be available to give me a ride home!
Clearly, craft beer aficionados in the Harrisburg area have no shortage of options, and I didn’t even include high-quality breweries in Carlisle and Lancaster County. If you love craft beer, I urge you to check out all of these establishments. Your list of favorites probably won’t overlap with mine, but you’re guaranteed to find beers that are right up your alley. Harrisburg-area brewers have overachieved in both quality and quantity. Our region has indeed become a destination for beer lovers!
To learn more these beers, visit the breweries’ websites. Also check out the film, “Brewed in the Burg,” on YouTube to find out more about the rise of craft beer in our area.