Fresh start, fresher taste for Stoudt’s

STOUDT’S IS back.

Well, actually, it never really left us. The state’s first and most-honored microbrewery has been fermenting good beer for 20 years this summer.

But about five years ago, it seemed to have lost its way. Its draft ales and lagers were hard to find in Philadelphia taverns, its cherished 25-ounce bombers were on the road to extinction, and most of its beer wasn’t even made in Pennsylvania. A brewery in Maryland handled bottle production.

And then, in 2003, Carol and Ed Stoudt – the highly respected owners of the Adamstown company – came this close to getting out. “We seriously thought we’d downsize,” said Ed, “give up on packaging, and just go back to being a brewpub. ”

Back to the late-1980s, when the only way to get a taste of Stoudt’s Honey Double Maibock was to head west to Exit 21 on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, find your way behind the Black Angus Restaurant, and pick up a plain cardboard box of over-sized bottles. Maybe you discovered the beer while antiques-shopping along Route 272. Whatever, Stoudt’s seemed special in those days, like a secret, like everyone else was drinking crap, but only you knew about this incredibly flavorful amber lager made out in Lancaster County.

In those early days, Carol – a former schoolteacher – brewed the beer herself. Most of it was sold at the restaurant. The rest, she and Ed hauled to a handful of accounts. It was not unusual to find the couple sitting at the bar at Jack’s Firehouse or Bridgid’s in Fairmount, late into the night, spreading the gospel.

Things change.

More small breweries opened. After 10 years, craft beer was a full-blown consumer trend, attracting investors and larger companies with cash to buy modern equipment and advertise.

“If you’re going to package your beer,” said Ed, “you’ve got to be a certain size. You’ve got to grow. ”

Stoudt’s kept up, supplementing the output of its small brewery with 12-ounce bottles made at the Lion Brewery in Wilkes-Barre, then at the Frederick Brewery in Maryland. But everyone knew those pasteurized bottles weren’t quite as fresh or flavorful as the bombers from Adamstown.

“We tried,” said Ed, “but when you contract out your beer, you lose something. It’s just not the same. We never could get it to taste the way we wanted.

“As time went on, it became clear it was a mistake. People demanded better beer. ”

Meanwhile, as Philadelphia’s bar scene exploded, local competitors – especially Victory in Downingtown – were growing in leaps. Victory, Troegs, Flying Fish, Yards – those were the tap handles you saw around town, not Stoudt’s.

By 2003, the choice was obvious: either scale back to the cottage-sized operation of the 1980s or spend millions to grow.

“I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend all that money,” said Ed, a grandfather who will turn 67 later this month. “Here I was, in my mid-60s, thinking, ‘Do I really want to spend two-and-a half million dollars? ‘

“Eventually we decided, ‘Hell, yes. I’m not that old. ‘ ”

It turned out, after the addition of new brewing vessels and a state-of-the-art bottling line, the investment was more like $3.5 million. Longtime brewer Marc Worona left and was replaced by the Stoudts’ son-in-law, John Matson.

The new equipment and new blood kick-started the brewery. Matson and his assistants now brew four or five times a week, instead of just once or twice. In the last two years alone, production has nearly tripled, to more than 10,000 barrels (about 137,000 cases) – an output that is expected to reach 15,000 barrels in the next two years.

The beer is fresher-tasting and more consistent. Stoudt’s Gold Lager and Pils are both crisp delights. Fat Dog Stout is a massive (9 percent alcohol) imperial oatmeal stout that is so smooth and satisfying, it makes you wonder why anyone bothers with Guinness. Stoudt’s Double IPA is even stronger, but no less drinkable.

Equally encouraging, the brewery is producing new styles, including Smooth Hoperator, which Ed describes as an “American-style double bock. ” It’s a hybrid in which the sweetness of a typical double bock, like Paulaner Salvator, is tempered by a large amount of Amarillo and Summit hops.

And we can expect even more edginess, from barrel-aged brews to funky ales made with wild yeast.

Best of all, perhaps, they’re selling those big bottles again.

“I like where we are right now,” Ed said a few weeks after the brewery celebrated its 20th anniversary with a festive dinner. “We’ve evolved. We’re still small, but we’re big enough to show a small profit. Some of the years were kind of bad, a little negativity, like, ‘Why did I do this? ‘

“But I don’t feel that way these days. I’m passionate. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t have a beer. It’s a wonderful business. ”

Stoudt’s other great contribution to the local beer scene is its Great Eastern Invitational Microbrewery Festival. Since 1991, it’s run two or three of them every summer, attracting the finest area breweries and thousands of beer-drinkers to its outdoor beer garden.

Besides the suds, the festival is known for its “Best of the Wurst” sausage buffet and good dancing music from the Daisy Jug Band.

The next fest is tomorrow, with four-hour sessions at noon and 7 p.m. Tix are $27. Info: 717-484-4386.

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