Note: Originally Appeared in BeerAdvocate Magazine Issue 44. Old Forge also features prominently in my book.
Craft beer means different things to different people. To some it means high doses of alcohol and copious amounts of hops. To others, it is typified by well-made, low-alcohol beer served out of a cask. It is dark, it is light, it is hoppy, and it is sour. The one thing it isn’t – is mass produced.
That fact is never forgotten at Old Forge Brewing Company, a small brewpub in the heart of Danville, Pennsylvania, where virtually everything in the Mill Street location was crafted by local artisans.
“The main reason we wanted to do it that way is I feel like I’m making [the beer] by hand. It’s craftsmanship, it’s my art how I make the beer,” said Damien Malfara, Old Forge’s founder and brewer. “For better or worse, whether you like it or not, this is how I’m making it… Same thing goes for the rest of our place – for better or for worse that’s what our bar looks like because somebody made it. That was his creativity; that was his passion.”
Old Forge started, like most brewpubs, as a dream in its founder’s head. Malfara, who has a background in research chemistry, was a little tired of driving across North Eastern Pennsylvania to go to a decent brewpub, so he took a big leap and decided to bring the mountain to Mohammed – so to speak.
“We just complained, ‘Why isn’t there a brewpub closer? There should be one closer,’” said Malfara, who was joined in his lament by his wife Maria. “We thought about it more and more, put together a business plan and looked for locations. We got lucky finding this spot.”
The next step was to fill that empty space with all the standard trappings of a great brewpub. The 5-bbl, direct-fire Premier Stainless brewhouse was purchased used and Malfara began to price and source plates, glasses, mugs, and booths for the dining area.
His first thought was to check the big suppliers that could fill Old Forge with items stamped with “Made in China” on bottom, but the discounts didn’t make up for the generic quality of the items.
“I’m looking at booths and tables and all of this other stuff, not that it was crap, but it was mass produced,” Malfara said. “I don’t know, I mean, it wasn’t even like it was that cheap.”
Malfara understood that a brewpub’s atmosphere and aura is about as important as its beer and food, so he began to ask around for local artisans that could do the job. He was just looking for standard stuff, but he found local artists and craftsmen that were willing to lend their artistic genius at a reasonable price for a fellow local businessman.
Keith Kocher of Lightstreet Custom Woodworking went wild with the wood to craft the bar, furniture and fixtures, and local artist/sculptor J. Mark Irwin gave his artistic touch to the unique tap handles at the bar.
“I gave them the freedom to do it because they’re the experts,” Malfara explained.
But perhaps the most stunning of the local contributions are the mugs and plates designed by local potter Mike Hart. Each piece was hand crafted by Hart, and every piece is unique. When a customer joins Old Forge’s mug club, all they have to do is say what they want it to have written on the front. The next time in there’s one of Hart’s masterpieces waiting for them with their name on it.
Room To Grow
When Malfara found the Mill Street location, he knew that it was smaller than he would have preferred. However, he figured that the biggest concessions would have to be made by the brewer, and since he was the sole brewer he didn’t mind sacrificing his space for the sake of the restaurant.
Unfortunately, this meant that with only three 5-bbl fermentors, keeping all of his beers on tap to meet demand was difficult. Old Forge has been a popular spot since it opened in December, 2008, and Malfara has had to juggle the fermentation space to keep a supply of his most popular beers – T-Rail Pale Ale, Endless Summer, and Underbite IPA.
Because of the supply issues, Old Forge recently underwent an upgrade, as Malfara added two 10-bbl fermentation tanks to fill with the hot sellers, as well as some extra dining tables to accommodate the large weekend crowds.
“I’ll be able to keep more beers on tap and allow us to play more with the beers and get adventurous,” Malfara said. “The type of things I’ve wanted to do for a while, but didn’t have time or space to do it.”
Malfara’s family also recently underwent an expansion, as his wife Maria gave birth to their first child. Since giving birth, she has left her job as a teacher and has become an integral part of Old Forge.
“She’s such a huge part of this,” Malfara said. “I can honestly say if it wasn’t for her, it never would have happened. She was willing to take the risk with me, leaving my job and the steady income, and take on the whole project. She supported me 100 percent the whole time, even through the difficulties.”
Malfara is also in the planning process of finding a larger space for a production brewery that could supply his beers to the region as well as take some of the burden off of the pub.
Don’t Forget the Beer
As noteworthy as Old Forge Brewing Company’s hand-crafted mugs are, as necessary as the expansion was, and as delicious and innovative as the food is (this writer loved the turkey & pesto grilled cheese), the heart and soul of every brewpub is the beer.
Perhaps it comes from being a perfectionist, or from knowing that there is nobody to blame but himself, but Malfara is never completely satisfied with his beer – even if everybody else is.
“I’m just aiming for something that’s drinkable,” he said. “I don’t have any formal training, so I guess I was a little bit intimidated when we first opened. I guess I still am. I still think that my beers need to get a lot better.
“I enjoy brewing them, and I like making things that I want to drink and that are interesting … but for the most part most of these recipes were me trying to follow the style guidelines generally, but with me putting my own interpretation in it.”
The result is beer that is not only drinkable, but in high demand. Old Forge offers two IPAs, and both have a dedicated following. Underbite – a well-balanced English IPA – is a popular seller, while Overbite – a hop head’s dream – was intended to be a one-time creation. However, once the locals got a taste they demanded that Malfara add it to the rotation. Perhaps that should be a sign to Old Forge’s brewer and founder that his beers are more than just “drinkable.”
There are a few constants at Old Forge Brewing Company – the food, the service, the beer, the atmosphere; but fermentation space at times has hindered the amount of beers available on tap. The upgrade has ameliorated this problem, but ultimately, it was part of the price of good beer. After all, craft beer is not mass produced.
Sean Lewis is a freelance writer and homebrewer. He is currently working on his first book.