Producing beer that emulates nature
Saturday 02 July 2022
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Suburbia passes by windows thick with dust, in a sepia blur. Some towns are quaint and tidy, with painted houses and well-kept lawns, others peel, lean into the weeds that grow between red bricks, and scratch at a rust that’s shared by wires running alongside the track. Before flags, porches, and baseball practice pitches give way to fields and factories, most towns are at least partly concealed by thick vegetation and luscious trees that afford a charm to everything the rust touches in rural Pennsylvania. I am on an Amtrac train from Philadelphia to Harrisburg. From there, in the absence of further rail or buses, an Uber drives me an hour and half further inland, to Lewistown, home of Shy Bear Brewing.
Walnut street is long, quiet, and lined with a single row of houses that are connected only by the road we drive down, the absence of footpaths a sure sign we’re bordering on the middle of nowhere. But I’m not thinking about how I’ll get to Hershey when the driver pulls into Meadowbrook Lane, the brewery and its surroundings immediately colonise my interest. It’s small, and covered in wooden shingles, with the entire surface of the slanted roof hosting solar panels; I can’t help but think of the brewery as an extension of the forest and vegetation that characterises the area.
Jason Ufema, Shy Bear’s Director, is already moving and shaking by noon, and when the car pulls up, he immediately offers me a spectacularly warm welcome. The entire site immediately feels a home away from home, with the brewery, taproom, kitchen and outdoor bandstand area exuding a comfort that can only be created by people who do hospitality as well as Jason and Jen, his wife and business partner.
Shy Bear has only been operational since 2018, but Jason’s relationship to the brewery, it’s buildings and the surrounding locality far predates that, making Shy Bear’s beers uniquely of and for the Lewistown area. Jason’s childhood home, where he and his family now live, sits on a hill overlooking the brewery - door to door, they’re probably 100 feet apart.
“My father started the Rich Coast Coffee business is 1978” says Jason. “As it grew, little by little, we needed a new building and had to expand, then it needed another building and had to expand, until, by the late 90s and early 2000s, we were so large that it became uncomfortable; for a service company we were stretched too thin for the territory. From there we made some acquisitions of smaller companies, and shrank in many ways but became more efficient in shrinking - and from there we realised we didn’t need a lot of these buildings for their initial purposes anymore.
“My plan was always to convert this into something hospitality related, and we wanted to make a space that people would use” says Jason; and that he has. Shy Bear hosts an eclectic mix of musiciens most nights of the week, people come from far and wide to enjoy the varied food menu, and more recently, the conversion of an adjacent barn (that used to belong to the coffee business) into a banquet hall used to host everything from weddings to school reunions, has made this little patch of Lewistown a day-out destination as much as a place that brews great beer.
“We started this about 7 years ago, 8 in concept, and it took about 3 years in planning and constructions to then open in 2017. From there we ran into some issues with the township, so we weren’t able to open until early 2018, but it was around 2013 when we made the first push to do this”.
Townships are something I hear a lot about over the course of this trip; they’re essentially a variety of local governments that operate within the various boroughs of a county (Shy Bear is located in Lewistown, Miflin County) and make decisions about things like zoning ordinances. These seem to be the make or break of a lot of businesses, breweries in particular, trying to find their feet. In the case of Shy Bear, Jason tells me that the brewery was the first of its kind to be opened in the county, and the local township looked upon everything Jason did as a horror story, anticipating runoff and pollution that would damage the surrounding ecosystem. Of course these concerns are valid, but considering what Shy Bear is today, those fears couldn’t be further from the reality of how this nature based brewery operates today.
“Less than 20 miles away lies a series of mountains called the seven mountains, we’re right at the base of that range so we’re getting all of this top lying water that doesn’t have a whole lot of limestone residue, it’s silky and has all the minerality you’d want so all we do here is carbon filtration to remove chlorine in the water and that’s it, there’s no need to try strip out all this calcium and then build it back up” says Jason.
In combination with the spectacular water supply right on the brewery’s doorstep, Jason speaks highly of the character and nuance of wild and mixed fermentation beers brewed in the area, and says he’d like to expand Shy Bear’s programme to support the production of more farmhouse style ales; “The feeling here is that you’re immersed in nature, and we want to make beer that emulates that”.
Beyond that, the brewery isn’t known for producing any one kind of style; “We try to switch up textures and flavours so you can come here and kind of get a passport to beer culture. We obviously move on the basis of what we get good feedback on - we want to sell and produce beer that people enjoy- but there are certain lines we don’t want to cross. With super sweet overly fruited sours – I feel like that is the step away from getting people to enjoy beer for what it really is.”
When all is said and done, beers have been shared and photographs taken, I thank Jen and Jason for their time and tell them I’d better hail a cab to the next brewery. They look at me with sorry dismay, wish me luck convincing a driver to pick me up and say “Welcome to the middle of nowhere”, all the while starting to phone around friends to see if anyone nearby had plans to head back to Harrisberg. I can only offer my sincerest and most heartfelt thanks to Kristen, Jason and Jen’s friend and co-worker, who drove me, in Jason’s truck, all the way to Hershey, from Lewistown (a two hour round trip). The exceptional kindness and hospitality of the Shy Bear team will stay with me.
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