The key ingredient
To make a good craft beer you need the right basic ingredients, a little artistic flair and the passion for beer. A few Clarion University alums doesn’t hurt either.
When CU alum Andrea Maitland Estadt ('92) floated the idea of brewery in her then Sixth and Main Market, it didn't take long for the idea to ferment and for Clarion River Brewing Co. to have a home.
Estadt was put in touch with Doug Caldwell ('01), another Clarion grad who is a brewmaster. Caldwell believed Clarion was the right location for a brewery and was surprised there wasn't one already in Clarion.
"It's perfect," Caldwell said of the Clarion location.
He said the location has the makings for a successful brewery with it being in the county seat and its proximity to the university, Interstate 80, Cook Forest and the river. It didn't hurt that weren't any other breweries in the county.
The closest breweries are in Titusville, Slippery Rock and DuBois. "Clarion would be the next logical place for it," Caldwell said.
That isn't to say the brewery didn't have to go through the long process of securing a brewer's license, a liquor license and all of the necessary permits. The brewer license was finally secured in August 2016 – two years after they began the process.
"There is a huge process. You just have to be persistent," Caldwell said.
Estadt said the process probably should have taken them much longer but they had the support of the community, the borough and elected officials like Con. Glenn G.T. Thompson (R-5). They also managed to obtain a liquor license quickly and were able to open before they secured their brewer's license. This helped them stay afloat while they were awaiting the brewer's license.
"We kind of did things the opposite way and were able to succeed," Estadt said of
opening without a brewer's license.
Fellow business partner Bryan Smith, who manages the pub side of the business, was able to obtain the brewing system, Estadt said.
"Everything just fell into place for us," Estadt said.
The endeavor seems to be paying off with reservations almost necessary on a Friday or Saturday night.
"Overall, the community has been very supportive," said business partner and restaurant manager Jeremy Borkowski, ('06, '07).
The process of making beer
The first steps of making a craft beer are to have the basic ingredients of malted barley, hops, water and yeast. Other flavor enhancing ingredients like corn and chocolate come later.
The first step is the infusion process.
"It's where I start to mix grain and water together to convert starch sugar into fermentable sugars," Caldwell said.
Time and temperature are key in this step with one batch of grain and water blending together for eight-12 hours depending on the beer type.
The next step is known as the sparging or the rinsing process in which the brewmaster rinses the sugars from the grain to get the sugar water known as wort.
Next comes the boil kettle where the wort spends the next 60 to 90 minutes.
Then hops are added and the beer is chilled to a fermentable temperature. Beer will ferment anywhere from three days to two weeks depending on the type of beer, Caldwell explained.
After the fermentation process, the beer is placed in the bright tank.
"It's where I let it age and blend," Caldwell said. "It needs time for flavors to blend and develop."
The beer is then carbonated and taken to the tap. Caldwell has bottled some of the product but the beer is primarily stored in kegs. Clarion River Brewing Co. is hoping to bottle some beer to release during this year's Autumn Leaf Festival.
The beer is made with ingredients from a national supplier. However, Caldwell is hoping to acquire hops from a local grower this fall.
The final step in any brewing process is the cleanup.
"Ninety percent of my job is cleaning," Caldwell said. "Sterilization is key."
With its equipment and space, Clarion River Brewing Co. has the capability of brewing once a week.
The right atmosphere
In addition to the brewery, Clarion River Brewing Co. is known for its foods that range from quick sandwiches and burgers to four-course meals. Some its best-selling specialties include a giant soft pretzel served with beer cheese, spinach artichoke dip, Chicken Oscar and Salmon Wellington.
Estadt said the menu has always had traditional favorites with a twist and people enjoy it making foods into staple menu items.
"So far the food reviews have been fabulous," Estadt said.
Borkowski said Clarion River Brewing Co. likes that the community has been so responsive and it aims to please its customer base which is why it evaluates its menu every six months.
"It's a way of providing them what they've asked for but trying to change things so
it doesn't get old," Borkowski said.
The attention to customer needs is why the restaurant now offers $8 to-go options Thursdays and Fridays and crowlers (aluminum cans) and growlers (beer served airtight in a glass, steel or a ceramic jug) to-go any day the establishment is open.
While Estadt is no longer involved in the day-to-day affairs of the business, she said it was always her vision that the names of the craft beers would have a local historical flair. With craft beer names like Leatherwood, Iron Furnace, 1841, Clarion River, Voycheck & Stupka, and Autumn Leaf Fiest, it creates conversation starters with customers and connections with the Clarion area.
Estadt said sometimes locals will suggest a beer name and it gives the brewmaster an idea allowing him to be creative.
"I think it's developed into its own identity," Borkowski said of the establishment.
On any given day you can find business colleagues having lunch or couples on a date.
"What we're trying to do is provide more of an experience," Estadt said.
It's also become a local hotspot for fundraisers with its dining-to-donate program, rehearsal dinners, family parties and showers. The Clarion Free Library recently held a fundraiser there with local celebrities serving as bar tenders.
The pub side has a rustic atmosphere and is made with recycled barn wood, while the restaurant side offers a spirited and colorful setting partially from its time as Sixth and Main Market.
"He really put his heart and soul into that," Estadt said of Smith's bar design.
Clarion River Brewing Co. also has entertainment every weekend and open mic nights the last Saturday of every month. Participants of open mic night receive a free drink for their performance.
The perfect partnership
The proximity of Clarion River Brewing Co. to Clarion University has provided for a solid partnership between the two organizations, as well as with many other area entities.
"By bringing something to town that does have the longevity, you're able to create
partnerships," Estadt said.
For one, it's given them a pool of employees. There are 28 employees at the establishment, 11 of whom are college students and four of whom are alumni.
Because Clarion River Brewing Co. is connected the Clarion University, it struck up a partnership with Gary Greenberg, assistant professor of art, to create pottery mugs/beer steins for a special mug club promotion in the pub, Borkowski said.
Those who join a special year-long membership will receive a mug/stein which stays at the pub. When the year is over, members get to take a mug/stein home.
The process of creating the mugs involved alumni, students and members of the ceramic community.
Greenberg worked with a former student Frank Rodgers ('07, '09) to create the mugs. Rodgers maintains his own studio, Oil Creek Pottery, in Oil City. He said they used the kiln that his predecessor, Jim Brashear and his classes built.
The Anagama style, wood-fired kiln is located between the two ball fields in Clarion.
"Each firing takes approximately 12 hours to load, 36 hours of continuous stoking and two-and-a-half cords of wood which must be hauled, cut, split and stacked in advance. The kiln then cools for a week, before unloading. The firings involve my students, former students, students from other schools and members of the local, regional and national ceramic community," Greenberg said. "The necessity of communal endeavor, and the unique qualities of wood-fired ware are the primary reasons the mugs were fired this way, which are the things I wanted to highlight in working with CRBC, to increase the profile and visibility of CU ceramics."
The hope is that Greenberg will make the next batch of membership mugs when the year is over.
"It was my understanding that the brewery wants to commission new sets of mugs for their mug club each year or so, choosing from prototypes submitted from different individuals or groups. With that in mind, I look forward to the future possibility of involving Clarion Association of Ceramic Artists or established former students to participate in the process more fully," Greenberg added.
The collaboration with Greenberg isn't the only partnership Clarion River Brewing Co. has with the university. Borkowski said they've been working on a fundraising idea with President Karen Whitney and North Country Brewing Co. in Slippery Rock. While the project is still in the works, they hope that it can benefit the scholarship fund in some way.
Estadt said they've had partnerships with local high school and CU art departments by having art shows or by having them design things for the business like caddies for take-out beer. A local industrial arts program built the frames for the flagship beer posters that adorn the walls of the restaurant.
"It was really just a way to show these small departments. By involving the local community it can keep these departments going," Estadt said.
The right time
Borkowski said employees enjoy working at Clarion River Brewing Co. because it's a fun atmosphere and they know they're part of something special.
Borkowski, who has worked at such well-known restaurants as the Captain Loomis Inn in Clarion and the Allegheny Grille in Foxburg, understands what makes a successful establishment.
"You want to make sure it's an experience," Borkowski said.
He also believes Clarion River Brewing Co. is coming to Clarion at the right time as it's attracting not only locals, but also travelers which is helping to revitalize the downtown – an integral part of the community.
"There's a hustle and bustle in the area," he said. "It's exciting."
For Estadt, it's nice to see her idea fueling other people's dreams referring to the people who manage and work at the establishment.
"It's something that hopefully will stay for years to come," Estadt said.