There’s a little brick café in downtown Harrisburg filled with surprises.
At the Vegetable Hunter, not only can you order veggies and smoothies and organic coffee; you can also sit back and enjoy a handcrafted beer.
Owner Kristin Messner-Baker, an attorney who once feared being stuck in her first job as a waitress, seems surprised at her double success—first opening a vegan and vegetarian café in meat-and-potatoes country, then following that up with a boutique brewery offering a line of crisp, clean craft beers.
Messner-Baker first opened her restaurant in June 2014 with her husband John Baker and their kids.
“I realized no one else in the area was targeting vegans and vegetable lovers,” she said.
Despite her fear of failing, she plugged away, pleasantly surprised when folks kept coming back and, a bit later, when her café won several local awards for organic and vegetarian cuisine.
Messner-Baker’s café kept evolving, but people wanted more, and someone mentioned that a brewery might be a good addition. She secured a brewer, but, by the time the zoning and licensing came together, the brewer had left.
That’s when her friend, Derek Markel, also a home brewer, came to mind.
“I knew Derek made great beer,” said Messner-Baker. “And I knew he’d won all kinds of awards.”
In fact, Markel had received numerous accolades for home brewing, including first-place prizes. He’s also cofounder of the All-Grain Gangsters homebrew club, the homebrewer liaison for Harrisburg Beer Week and the co-organizer of the 2017 Battle of the Homebrewers.
When the Bakers approached Markel about their brewery project, he was hesitant because he already had a full-time job as a computer programmer.
“However, I always kind of had ambitions to take my brewing to another level, and I felt this may be the best opportunity I would have to be able to brew professionally without leaving my full-time job,” he said. “I knew the size of the equipment we would be using would not be much larger than what I was using as a home brewer, so that made it a little less intimidating. I also really enjoy the artistic side of brewing.”
Markel guided the Bakers and their staff through everything needed to get the boutique brewery up and running. The basement of the snug eatery now hosts the brewery equipment, and Markel brews on the weekends.
“Our goal is to have a variety of styles on tap at any given time,” said Markel. “So, I take that into account when planning the schedule for the beers we brew. I think about what seasonal ingredients may be available and would work well with the beers. I am also trying to utilize some ingredients which complement the food available in the restaurant.”
There are both advantages and disadvantages to brewing on a very small scale, Markel said.
“The main disadvantage is that it takes about the same amount of time to brew a half-barrel batch as it would take to brew a much larger batch size,” he said. “With nano-brewing, there is a lot of time and money invested, and the end result is a few kegs that you can go through very quickly in a busy restaurant or taproom.”
The advantage, though, is that it allows for flexibility—the ability to experiment and to release new beers quickly.
“Nano-brewing allows us to have a constantly changing lineup, which I feel is important in today’s craft beer market,” he said. “There are a lot of craft beer drinkers who are always seeking out new beers to try. This trend has partially been fueled by social media and mobile phone applications such as Untappd.”
I had the pleasure of tasting several of Markel’s brews: the Veg Halen Coconut Porter (playfully taken from the band, Van Halen), the Drink Floyd IPA (another take from a great band) and a unique, pink-colored Punk Rock Girl Hibiscus Saison (after the popular 1980s Dead Milkmen song). Markel said that he plans to utilize local fruit, vegetables, hops and honey during the summer months.
I also found that the beer complemented perfectly what was on the menu at the Vegetable Hunter, items like a walnut lentil burger, vegetarian sandwiches, homemade hummus and innovative salads.
“A positive atmosphere in the kitchen is reflected in the food, and in everything we serve,” said Messner-Baker.
The Vegetable Hunter is located at 614 N. 2nd St., Harrisburg. For more information, visit www.craveandco.com or the Facebook page: The Vegetable Hunter.
Author: Cathy Jordan