Sunday, January 24, 2010

A Visit to Selin's Grove

The story of Selin's Grove Brewing Co. is the story of a couple of over-achieving, modern day beer-steaders. Steve Leason and his wife Heather McNabb opened Selin's Grove in 1996, at the peak of the second wave of the American Craft Beer Renaissance. They had started brewing together years before in a fisherman's shack on the Maine coast, where they worked as innkeepers. A journey out West, including a stint at the burgeoning New Belgium Brewing Co. in Ft. Collins, Colorado and an inspirational, slapdash trip to Belgium fomented their dream of opening Selin's Grove.

They jumped at the opportunity to house a brewpub in the basement of a very singular property Heather's parent's owned: PA's 3rd governor Simon Snyder's old stone retirement mansion, in the central PA town of Selinsgrove (pronounced CEE-LINS-GROVE). Built in 1816, and archivally preserved, the building is on the National Historic Register.

Heather and Steve have really put all of themselves into the business and it shows: a comfortable historic locale, good food, friendly community-minded service, beer done with an amazing care to detail. They are supported by a enthusiastic local following that had the staff filling up growlers non-stop while we were enjoying our lunch before talking to Steve. It's a lot of work supervising staff, keeping the tanks full, the books balanced and raising 3 young'ens in their apartment above the pub.

Stepping into the basement level Colonial era pub displaces time: dark wood, open hearths and candle glow. Certainly a contrast to most other brewpubs that are modern and bright, but it did make taking photos a bit more difficult.
Steve is really humble and easy going with a literate sense of humor. He comes off as a bit of a hermetic brewer: practical, studious, pseudo-mystic. It seems like every brewer we talk to has something else besides beer that also really gets them going: Steve's current obsession's are mycology and trail running. He didn't want to be recorded talking about a mushroom beer, but we will say when we asked he certainly seemed to have given it some thought in the past

The brewpub started with a patchwork 3 bbl system, that Steve and Heather cobbled together with their tight resources . The 3 barrel system drove Steve to his wit's end brewing constantly to keep up with demand. The upgrade to their current 7 bbl. system was a welcome and necessary investment that re-inspired Steve's brewing.
The brewhouse was relocated to a converted shed behind the pub allowing the brewing to take place at any time of the day, without space restraint (a feature I'm sure the guys at Bullfrog are jealous of). That said, it does require that all of their beer is kegged, and hauled to the pub: no easy serving tanks for their tap system.

Steve does a yeoman's job producing a broad range of beers with precision. He has a definite bent toward organic practices, with 3 organic beers on tap for our visit: Baltic Porter, Shade Mountain Oatmeal Stout (that he has been tweaking) and a really well executed Pilsner. Many of the organic beers we've encountered seem to leave a bit desired; not so at Selin's Grove. Steve has been happy with the quality and diversity of organic malts available, though he admits many organic hops from New Zealand and the US are behind the curve. He looks to Europe for organic hops.
Steve's Stealth Tripel was really exceptional, showing no higher alcohol flavors and lots of honied fruit. He uses a mix of Trappist yeasts: the "Bastogne" strain from Orval and Westmalle's strain to help the 9% abv beer attenuate.

Market Street Fest is a proper, long lagered (5 months), traditional marzen that relies on an extended boil for chewy melanoidins, eschewing the one-dimensional, caramel sweet marzens too often found in brewpubs that rely on excess specialty malts . It is rare to find a brewpub that does lagers this well, they require time and tank space that most small breweries are not willing to invest in.

Another excellent beer was the hop drowned SNAFU IPA. Steve uses judicious amounts of high alpha Amarillo and Simcoe (the same combination that seems to be dominating the IPA market these days) conjuring strong pine and resin, and well balanced with enough malt sweetness to support the booming bitterness. IPAs are all about freshness, and having one fresh, and properly handled at a brewpub is hard to beat.

Steve has a cultish following for his fruit beers. While we were there, they had Saison de Peche which can only be described as being a peach nectar of the gods. Steve let us in on one of the secrets to the success of his fruit beers, he adds fruit juice to the beer late in the process, at a point when the sugars and fresh flavor of the fruit are preserved into the beer in the glass. A friend recently cracked open a growler of Framboise he had hauled back from Selin's Grove and it had the same huge fruit preserves character as the Peche.

Steve has also garnered acclaim for his Pumpkin Ale. Serving it on nitro both gives it creamy mouthfeel and exclusivity (since it cannot be put into a growler). Crystal malt and a late dose of spices in secondary make it one of the top rated pumpkin beers in the country.

As we were winding down and preparing to leave, Steve ducked back behind the bar and reappeared with two glasses of a secret stash of 8 year old Russian Imperial Stout brewed for his son Owen's birth, that Steve hoped would last 'til Owen's 21st (Steve is thinking he'll be brewing another batch to bridge the gap). The space-black beer shows little signs of oxidation, remarkable bitter chocolate and dark fruit depth and drinkability. It's the only RIS Steve has produced and we're thinking of starting a petition to make it a regular seasonal.
Thanks to Heather and Steve for doing everything right.

1 comment: