Longtime craft breweries ABC, Tröegs among those fostering brew culture in Central Pa.
If someone wanted to start a craft brewery in Central Pennsylvania 20 years ago, they likely would have had to leave the area to gain experience at an established brewery.
The midstate then wasn’t flush with breweries. Formal brewing science education also was lacking.
So aspiring brewmasters, including several who have found success in the midstate, gravitated to beer-rich areas in Colorado and the Pacific Northwest to get their start.
Some enrolled in professional brewing programs in Chicago and California before landing jobs with craft breweries.
A few found their way back to the midstate or came here for the first time, including the owners of Tröegs Brewing Co. and Appalachian Brewing Co. They are now helping to turn the Keystone State into a hub for brewery jobs and education.
“Pennsylvania has turned into its own Bavaria, if you will,” said Dan LaBert, executive director of the Brewers of Pennsylvania, a trade group for the state’s breweries.
ABC and Tröegs
Colorado was where it began for John Trogner of Tröegs and Artie Tafoya of Appalachian Brewing Co., also known as ABC. Both breweries started in Harrisburg in 1997.
Today they are two of the biggest names in the region, and over the years they have provided opportunities to many brewers.
Some of those brewers have gone on to bigger roles at other breweries or started places of their own.
Examples include the brewery at the Millworks in Harrisburg, which is run by a former Tröegs brewer, and The Brewery at Hershey in Londonderry Township, which is run by a homebrewer who worked for ABC, though he didn’t learn to brew there.
For Trogner and Tafoya, seeing people leave is never easy. But the craft beer industry is a tight-knit community, where larger breweries routinely help smaller startups. Occasionally they even collaborate on new beers.
“I love to pay it forward,” said Trogner, who opened Tröegs with his brother, Chris, after moving home to Central Pennsylvania. “It’s important for me to have as many breweries as possible do well.”
Tröegs moved from Harrisburg to Derry Township in 2011. Today it is a top 50 craft brewery in the country, according to the Brewers Association.
“When we started out, a lot of great breweries helped us out,” Trogner said. “It takes a community to pull all this together.”
Out of college, Trogner worked at Oasis Brewing Co. in Boulder, Colo., alongside other aspiring brewers.
“It gave us a great place to learn and hone our skills as brewers,” he said.
Trogner has further refined those skills at Tröegs. The brewery produced 100 different recipes last year. And its beers are now distributed in 11 states.
There is a sense of pride, Tafoya said, when brewers move on to new opportunities. There also is some concern: “Did I give them enough to be successful?”
Tafoya, director of operations, started his first brewery, Hubcap Brewery, in Vail, Colo., in 1988. The Colorado native then moved to Steamboat Springs and opened Heavenly Daze Brewery in 1992.
Before moving to Harrisburg to start ABC, Tafoya worked as a consultant and helped about 20 breweries get their starts.
With more local breweries and a program for brewing science in place at HACC, Tafoya believes success may be easier for those looking to break into the beer business today.
“There are more resources now than ever before,” he said.
Still, small breweries can have trouble filling jobs.
“It is hard for us to find qualified candidates,” said Brandalynn Armstrong, who co-owns Zeroday Brewing Co. in Harrisburg with her husband, Theo. Few local people have a general understanding of the brewery process.
Small businesses don’t always have time to teach new hires everything they need to know. The HACC brewing program may give more people baseline knowledge of how a brewery works, Armstrong said. That should help small breweries grow and improve their quality, which could attract even more people to the beer industry.
The program, which has 11 students in an inaugural class that began in May, trains students in everything from the brewing process to industry trends. Students also enjoy behind-the scenes tours of local breweries, while creating and marketing a beer from scratch. Internships also are available.
HACC officials hope the brewing program eventually includes more students and becomes an associate degree program, said HACC’s Abby Peslis. Expanding the program to other HACC campuses is another goal.
HACC officials said they also hope the program’s students will find jobs. Local breweries are optimistic people are out there to hire, whether or not they have worked at another brewery.
“It’s about finding the right personality and someone who is smart with good attention to detail and is hardworking,” Trogner said. “We can train them on how to brew.”
Jeff Musselman, brewmaster at the Millworks, saw the value in going back to school to be a brewer.
When he was 26, the Perry County native decided that his job in medical research wasn’t providing the “connection” he was looking for, so he decided to enroll in brewing classes at the University of California, Davis.
The education helped land him his first job in 2007 as an assistant brewer at Weyerbacher Brewing Co. in Easton.
“Having the educational component helped me get that first job,” he said.
But Musselman admits there is a difference between book work and the practical side of the business. He said he learned that everybody has a different process and that a new brewer must adapt.
“As you progress, you see things that work and don’t,” he said.
He left Weyerbacher after about 18 months for a job at Tröegs. It was an opportunity to brew at a larger scale and make different beers.
Musselman spent more than four years at Tröegs before switching gears to become manager of cider operations at Hauser Estate Winery in Adams County.
After two years in the cider business, Musselman returned to beer. The Millworks began its brewery operations this year with him at the helm.
It’s a transient industry today. Experienced brewers may leave for larger breweries, they may leave to start new, small breweries or to help a restaurant, as in the case of Millworks, add a brewery.
Musselman said he probably wouldn’t have tackled the brewmaster job without both experience and education.
“The biggest thing you have to learn is that you’re brewing something people are going to be spending money on,” he said. “People vote with their money.”
Ryan DeLutis of The Brewery at Hershey is a self-taught brewmaster.
He worked at ABC for about five years, but never learned to brew there. However, a variety of jobs, including bartending and helping out on packaging days, inspired him to start a homebrewing hobby that led to his current gig.
DeLutis has been brewing professionally now about three years, but still sees himself as a homebrewer. He uses a small homebrew system for test batches of his latest creations, including a sweet potato amber ale.
His main system is custom-built using older equipment he could find and afford to buy.
“You don’t have to go to school,” he said. “I think understanding of the processes is necessary. You’ve got to come in with an open mind.”
It’s also important for a small brewer to get around and learn about other brewers’ processes.
“Everyone has a question they want answered,” he said.
Collaboration leads to higher-quality beer, which can build credibility for the area, he said. “The area needs good beer.”
When he started, he said, his beer was drinkable, but he’s learned how to improve it. He’s also part of the HACC program, and he has an assistant who is learning his process.
“You used to have to leave the area to learn it, but not now,” DeLutis said.
One challenge for new brewers is a changing consumer palate, LaBert added. “That has created a different skillset. You have to be a chef, a scientist and a brewmaster.”
But the more recipes evolve, like the brewers that come up with them, the wider the audience.
“The foam is still rising,” LaBert said.