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All Hail the Billtown Craft-Beer Revolution! (part 1 of 2)

The Old Guard

It was sometime during the first few years of the 1990s when two men living in the sleepy city of Williamsport, Pa.--once known as "The Lumber Capital of the World" and famous today as the location of the Little League World Series--had a conversation that would eventually change the town forever.

Bob and Steve Koch, founders of The Bullfrog Brewery, were the two men (Bob is Steve's father). Steve had just returned home to Williamsport after a seven-year stint at Evergreen State College, an experimental liberal arts school in Washington State, where students receive faculty evaluations in place of actual grades.

Right around the time Steve was entering Evergreen, microbrewed beer was just beginning to gain popularity in the United States. According to Steve's father Bob, it wasn't long before the younger Koch had fallen in love with the brewpub scene that was popping up all over his newly adopted city of Olympia. And by the time Steve finally earned his diploma and moved back to Northern Pennsylvania, craft beers and the pubs that brewed and served them were nothing less than a full-fledged obsession.

So Steve sat down one afternoon with his father, and as Bob himself explains it, Steve tried to convince the family that they should all go into the brewpub business together.

Bob was less than enthused by the idea. After all, he was already a successful entrepreneur; he owned the Dixie Baseball Card Shop in South Williamsport, and at the time business was still good. This was long before the rise of eBay and other Internet trading sites and due partly to the shop's auspicious locale inside the Little League International Complex. Bob had thus far managed to support his family through the practice of buying and selling baseball cards for nearly a decade. But Steve refused to give up on his dream, and after three years of pleading and cajoling with his father--three years during which the baseball card business had increasingly moved online--Bob finally said yes.

At the time, Bob was 54 years old--a fact that wasn't necessarily considered a benefit in the craft-beer business, which was, and to some degree still is, a young man's game. There were other hurdles, of course: when the Koch family first went after financing, they approached a local branch of Sovereign Bank only to learn that Sovereign had recently financed a brewpub in nearby State College that had subsequently gone broke.

In the mid-1990s, even in the craft-beer epicenters of Colorado and the Pacific Northwest, the financial success of a brewpub or a production microbrewery was still a few years away from being considered a safe bet. And in Lycoming County, where the prevailing weekend entertainment included such folksy tourist traps as the Animaland Zoological Park and Clyde Peeling's Reptiland, well, the idea of a themed brewpub offering overpriced, bitter ale for snobbish beer connoisseurs was just plain weird.

"So it wasn't very encouraging," Bob says, chuckling contentedly to himself. "But that was the history we were up against."

The Young Pioneer

Mike Hiller is a 36-year-old native of South Williamsport, which lies just beneath Williamsport proper on the opposite side of the Susquehanna River. In 1997, however, Hiller was living in Richmond, Va., where he briefly held a job managing the accounts of a large-scale beer distributor.

At the time, Hiller wasn't especially passionate about the culture of beer--it was just a job, really--but after being immersed full-time in the quickly evolving world of beer for close to 12 months, he was offered a plum job as a brewer at Richmond's Legend Brewing Company, the oldest microbrewery in Central Virginia. Hiller's new appointment at Legend Brewing was worlds away from his old life as a pencil pusher, and it wasn't long before it began to take.

By the time Hiller eventually relocated from Richmond to Boston, where his wife Kira planned to study for a graduate degree, nearly four years had passed, and he had managed to pick up nearly everything there was to learn about the craft of small-batch brewing. It wasn't until Mike and Kira settled in Boston, however, that he fully began to realize what he'd given up. So on the couple's third anniversary, Kira presented her husband with a gift: a home brewing kit.

It wasn't long before Hiller was spending all his spare time on the couple's outdoor balcony, whipping up five-gallon batches of surprisingly competent beer with recipes that were becoming more complicated and more creative with every passing pint. This growing obsession would eventually lead Hiller to found Bavarian Barbarian Brewing Co. in 2007.

Rumblings of a Revolution

When Bob and Steve Koch, along with Bob's wife, Harriet, finally opened the doors to The Bullfrog Brewery on Williamsport's West Fourth Street in 1996, there was literally nothing else like it for perhaps 90 miles in any direction. The pub's main room, which doubles as a bistro-style restaurant, features an imposing collection of nine stainless steel tanks behind its beautifully restored wooden bar. Upstairs is the brick-walled Jeremiah's, a banquet room where jazz and blues bands often perform on their way to New York from bigger markets in the west, such as Cleveland or Pittsburgh.

It didn't take long before locals and visitors alike began developing a taste for the unusually complex beers being created by brewmaster Charlie Schnable, a longtime friend of Steve's who'd been perfecting his craft as a homebrewer for years.

"Charlie was a Penn State graduate in biology," Bob explains, "and that's very helpful in the brewing field."

Schnabel stayed on at the Bullfrog for a very successful five years, but after the Kochs' turned down his idea to open a second Bullfrog location in State College, the team parted ways. "We felt that 45 employees were enough to handle in one location," Bob says, by way of explanation. "But we're still friendly."

Today, Schnable operates a thriving brewpub of his own: Otto's Pub and Brewery in State College, which in 2003--only its second year of business--earned a very respectful rating as the 37th best place to have a pint in the United States by BeerAdvocate.com, a popular craft-beer website.

Of course, by the time 2003 rolled around, Schnable and his quickly-expanding brewpub, which sits about an hour's drive west from downtown Williamsport, wasn't the only competition for the Bullfrog's business. Selin's Grove Brewing Co., which is also about an hour's drive from Williamsport, had opened for business in 1996--the same year the Bullfrog opened its doors.

And although the Selin's earliest brewing equipment was nowhere near as sophisticated as the Bullfrog's--the popular beer writer Lew Bryson, for instance, referred to it as a tiny, Frankenstein system--the brewers, who had learned their craft while working for Colorado's New Belgium Brewing Co., nevertheless knew their stuff--and knew it well.

It was becoming apparent that the microbrew trend, seemingly for reasons of pure coincidence, was beginning to gain serious ground in Lycoming County.

 The story of Lycoming County's craft brew revolution continues...click here to read Part 2

Dan Eldridge is a small business and entrepreneurship journalist based in Philadelphia. He is also the founder of Young Pioneers Media. Send feedback here.

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Inside the Bull Frog Brewing Company

Taps at the Bull Frog Brewing Company

Mike Hiller of Bavarian Barbarian

Bavarian Barbarian on tap

Brew Master of the Bull Frog Brewing Company Terry Hawbaker tends his vats

All Photographs by Brad Bower
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