Meet the brewery with a large family and history
Saturday 02 July 2022
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Ask any experienced brewer, and they’ll tell you the industry is a roller-coaster. But with six generations of family brewers under its banner, Pittston’s Susquehanna Brewing Co has been riding that rollercoaster for longer than most. Since 1849, the family has run one of the state’s largest-volume breweries, swallowed up competitors, been brought to its knees, and then surged back under a new generation’s leadership.
The story starts with Charles Stegmaier – the great-great-grandfather of Susquehanna’s co-founder, Fred Maier – who emigrated from Germany in 1849, in search of work in the land of opportunity. Astonished to find there was no lager available in Philadelphia, the enterprising Charles set up his own brewery. By 1851, he had moved to Northeastern Pennsylvania, where he bought out a local competitor and renamed it Susquehanna Brewing Co.
This incarnation of Susquehanna Brewing Co. closed in 1919, though the family also owned Baer & Stegmaier Brewing Co. and Maier Brewing Co. in Los Angeles. All was not well though; the group’s quest for commercial success had definitely paid off, but at the cost of quality, as Fred explains.
“In 1947, Stegmaier was one of the largest and most advanced breweries in the country at 850,000 barrels. Unfortunately, like many breweries at the time, the beer was becoming industrialised. Quality came after marketing, and there wasn’t a ton of respect for the consumer,” he says.
Predictably, customers rebelled and volumes fell off a cliff, down to a level that today would be considered normal for a mid-sized craft brewer. For a macro brewer though, the impact on its margins was catastrophic. By the time Fred’s father, Edward Maier, started working at Stegmaier in the ‘60s, it had been a very long time since the brewery had seen any real investment, and it showed in the poor quality of the beer.
While this certainly marked the end of one chapter, the Maiers have beer in the blood, so the story was destined to continue. Having seen first-hand the perils of putting volume over quality, when Edward and Fred decided to resurrect the defunct Susquehanna Brewing Co. brand in 2010, they did so with a commitment to brew what they wanted, without compromise.
“The key difference is that we know exactly what goes into our beer,” explains Fred. “Our hops, malt, grains, fruit and other ingredients are hand-taste-and-sniff-selected according to texture, flavour, aroma, and even the dirt and climate they grew in.”
The brewhouse itself is definitely in the Germanic style, and you can imagine the frustrated brewers at Stagmaier salivating over its upward-infusion mashing and Bohemian decoction kettle. It’s also distinctly American though, channelling all of the family’s historical expertise into an obvious passion for modern, inventive, hop-forward beers.
Fred acknowledges that Susquehanna is now a small fish in a big pond of craft brewers; the US had around 1500 breweries when the decision to resurrect the brand was taken, a figure that has risen to more then 9,000. This means, like everyone else, it has to constantly innovate to stay relevant, applying its generations of brewing know-how to new styles and techniques. For Fred though, it’s hard to beat the classics.
“I love a crisp Helles or Pilsner,” he says with a grin. “Those styles really highlight the entire process for me. From the choice of ingredients, to the brewer’s skill and even the right equipment, everything has a significant impact on the final result. There’s just no hiding flaws. That’s really what I love most about beer in general, though. It’s as much about the process as it is about the ingredients.”
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