IWOULDN’T WALK 500 miles for a Molson, like the commercial says, but this week, I drove 150 for an Oakham Jeffrey Hudson Bitter.
And, as is usually the case, it was the people – not the beer – that made the trip worthwhile.
The bitter from England’s Oakham Brewery is this year’s champion beer of the Great British Beer Festival. B. United International, a beer importer in Chappaqua, N.Y., that specializes in rare, medal-winning ales, got its hands on 18 firkins (or small casks), and one of them showed up at Kclinger’s Tavern in Hanover, Pa.
Hanover – home of Utz Potato Chips and Snyder’s Pretzels, but otherwise firmly entrenched in the middle of Nowhere – is a helluva lot closer than London. I grabbed my cigars and headed west for the two-and-a-half hour beer run.
This is not a trip for Bambi-lovers, at least not at this time of the year. It’s deer-hunting season, and the highway is full of heavily armed farmers with bloody carcasses draped across the hoods of their mud-encrusted Ford F150s.
I’m no expert, but it looks like its pretty easy pickin’s this year. I think I saw one guy in an orange hat pull onto the shoulder of the Turnpike, lean out his window with a rifle, and nail a 7-point buck grazing on McDonald’s wrappers. Five minutes later, AAA showed up to give the dude a jump and field-clean his buck.
It’s a part of Pennsylvania we city folk don’t get to see much.
Two pit stops, a wrong turn and a couple phone calls for directions later, and I was leaning on the long, warm bar at Kclinger’s, with a pint of Oakham in my hand.
But first, the tavern’s name: It’s coined from the partners, Bill Klinger and John Clinger, a coupla ex-printing plant workers who own the place with Bill’s girlfriend, Cindy Braid. Together, they’ve turned a vacant Italian restaurant into one of the best beer bars in America.
The joint has 39 spigots and more than 600 different bottles in the fridge.
Very little of the space is wasted on industrial swill. Instead, you’ll find 30 different German weizen beers, 25 lambics, 20 barleywines and a dozen bocks. All of the Belgian trappists are there (even two flavors from impossible-to-find Westvleteren), and so are some brews I’ve never seen in Philly: Astral Polar Beer (Chile), Trompe la Morte Double Bock (Germany), Midnight Sun Kodiak Brown Ale (Alaska).
Like I said, it’s not just the beer. This place is as comfortable as your living room . . . if your spouse worked for tips. Good food, big TVs, a foosball table and blues on Wednesday nights.
“We built it as a place for us to hang out,” Bill said, “and we do, quite often. ”
“We didn’t know much about the business when we started,” he continued. “But we all liked good beer. Somewhere around here, there’s a photo of me from 1972, drinking a real Lowenbrau. So, we started with six taps – you know, Heineken, Guinness – and we built it up from there. ”
The negative types had a field day with the partners. They’d tell them, “You’ll never make it selling expensive beer. ” This is shot-and-a-beer territory, where old men milk an 8-ounce Bud all afternoon and mill workers get hammered at night.
“But we figured, if we like the stuff, someone else is bound to like it. The worst thing that can happen is you get a little egg on your face,” he said, pausing two counts for the set-up, “and I like omelets. ”
Naturally, there was a bit of a learning curve.
“We’ve educated people,” Bill said. “When I see a table with people drinking Miller Lite or Coors, I try to talk to them, try to introduce them to something different.
“But forget the Bud drinkers. You can’t get them to switch. Auggie Busch must put something in his beer to keep them hooked on it. ”
Like other beer bars, Kclinger’s has a tasters club. Drink 120 different labels, and you get your name on a plaque. The club has 4,500 members – not bad, considering the entire population of Hanover is something like 14,000.
When you hit 1,000 beers, the tavern finds a brewery to make a few kegs in your honor. This month, it’s V-Twin ESB, made in Maryland, and named in honor of a Harley rider named Scott Alwine.
“We had one guy in here, he’d sit at the bar and just drink Miller Lite after Miller Lite after Miller Lite. One time, a woman sits next to him and she’s drinking a Guinness Stout. He tasted it, and never looked back. ”
Mike Bixler, 56, of Hanover, was much the same way. Before Kclinger’s opened seven years ago, he said, “I’d drink something like Killian’s Red, at best. ”
Then he got a taste of Newcastle Brown Ale. After that, it was the drafts from local micros. And after that, it was onto 1,000. Rogue brewed him a stout for his millennial beer.
“I’m lucky because I live only four miles away,” Bixler said. “That’s the biggest complaint you hear from other customers – they live so far away from it. ”
In this part of the state, you’ve got a brewpub in Gettysburg, a couple bars and a brewery in Harrisburg, and not much else. More than half of Kclinger’s mailing list lives better than 15 miles away.
People will go a long way for a good beer. My Oakham was smooth, with a nice bitter tang. At under 4 percent alcohol, it’s the kind of brew you can handle till dawn.
But as I found, Kclinger’s customers don’t make the trip just for the beer.
“The people in there are so pleasant,” Bixler said. “It’s like the old ‘Cheers’ thing, everyone feels at home, they know you by name. And you never see fights in there.”
Joe Sixpack, by Staff Writer Don Russell, was written this week with glass of Rogue 5000.