Brewing in Coal Country
I’ve mentioned my appreciation for the nearby Appalachian Malting in Portage, PA, and how lucky I feel to be able to take advantage of that kind of terroir in my brewing. Yesterday I got the chance to talk to a professional brewer who feels the same way: Mike Kutchman, who emerged from the back of his new brewpub, Coal Country Brewing, shortly after I, my partner Rachel, and our friend Lucy has settled in at the bar.
Mike indicated that he was buying all his base malts from Appalachian, wheat and rye as well as two-row pale, and was looking forward to trying their buckwheat in a gluten-free offering. This wasn’t entirely surprising, I guess, since they were such near neighbors, but he also said that the father and son owners were great guys, and admitted that he didn’t even ask what they were charging the first time he ordered grain from them — “How could I not take advantage of something like that?” He also indicated that Appalachian Malting had plans to start kilning malt soon, so by next year he might be able to get almost all of his specialty malts from them as well.
Incorporating local terms, mining-related or otherwise, into the names of beers is obviously a priority at Coal Country Brewing. But lots of breweries do that sort of thing. What’s important to me is that they walk the walk, incorporating as many local and regional ingredients as possible, including not only malt but also hops, cider, and maple syrup. I asked Mike if he had any plans to use wild yeast, and he said he hoped to soon. One of his students at nearby St. Francis University’s Fermentation Arts program had isolated a promising yeast culture from the chapel grounds, he said.
Often when local restaurants and bars put old tools and historical photos on their walls, it feels random and kitschy, but the coal mining decor in the pub was all tastefully chosen and felt authentic as hell—especially when the bar began to fill up with guys who looked like they could’ve just come off-shift at a nearby mine. As Kutchman told the Johnstown TV station when they opened, “My whole family worked in local mines here. It’s kind of our tribute to them.”
This part of Pennsylvania has long been a blank spot on the map to craft beer aficionados, who even dubbed the Altoona-Johnstown-State College area the Bermuda Triangle due to the (former) scarcity of breweries here. And of course, the coastal elite think of us as Pennsyltucky and Trump Country—when they think of us at all. So proudly embracing the fraught industrial heritage of the region, while brewing a wide range of highly creative beers from local ingredients that should make the most pretentious locavore hipster raise an eyebrow, is a huge “Up yours!” to those kinds of snobs. I’m not saying that’s how Kutchman thinks about it—he seemed like much too nice a guy—but I certainly felt more and more local pride the more of his beers I, um, sampled. Funny how that works.
All photos by Rachel Rawlins.