Brew Biz: Werts and All

North Country Brewing
141 S. Main Street
Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania

Brewer: Sean McIntrye

Written by Ken Carman for

Ken Carman is a BJCP judge; homebrewer since 1979, club member at Escambia Bay and Music City Homebrewers, who has been interviewing professional brewers all over the east coast for over 10 years.

Apologies for any errors that may have slipped into this edition of Brew Biz, or lack of decent pictures. I have been visiting with the Professor just about edit time and the Wifi dumped where we were posting: the only source of Internet here. He asked me to go ahead and post anyway as soon as I could.

A few years ago Millie and I were visiting Sprague Brewing in Venango, PA. I had enjoyed Brian’s brews earlier in the year and wanted Millie to try them. We were outside, gazing over the farm, chatting with Minnie the brewer’s wife, when Brian came out to chat too. Brian Sprague; brewer, chainsaw sculpture artist and deep space astronaut. (Yes, I’m kidding about the deep space stuff, though one picture I’ve seen of him has him looking out from a brew kettle looking much like he’s in a space capsule.) Brian recommended we stop by North Country Brewing in Slippery Rock. Being teetotalers at heart we went straight home. End of story.

What? You’re still reading? Don’t you have anything better to do? Maybe drink craft beer?

Well, you’re in luck because I just told a fib. We did go to North Country, but for some reason what they had on tap that day did nothing for us. Perhaps we were just “beer-ed out.” I know that happens sometimes in competitions and festivals we help with, or judge at. And it couldn’t have anything to do with spending too long at Sprague, right? Nah, not that.

Last year I went to The Church in Pittsburgh, a favorite haunt, and decided to slide through Slippery Rock on the way home. Wow. This time I was impressed. My writing calendar was full and I really wanted to meet the brewer, or his assistant, before I wrote this edition of Brew Biz, so I saved my review for this year.

Now, even on that first visit, we were impressed by the woodwork. The attention to detail here is incredible. Even the shelves at North Country have little figures carved into the sides “holding” them up. The door to the bathroom and the door to the brewery have funny, wood carved, signs. Little wooden, mythical, beings cut into the tables. A nice old clock hung up high; mixed in with the even more fancy woodwork. Stain glass window hangings dangle like artist paintings. If the folk at Pennsic, held close by every year, don’t stop by to cool armor heated bodies at least once they’re really missing out. During the Summer Pennsic is “joust” down the road.

High humor folks probably consider that joke so low it’s evil. Low humor folks consider it “evil:” they don’t understand the pun. So, I guess, for the rest of us it’s just… ready? …medieval.

Just in case you’re curious about the origin of the name, Slippery Rock, there’s a stream with that name nearby. Apparently, back when the whole area was called Centerville, someone slipped, fell, and seriously hurt themselves. Luckily they chose Slippery Rock instead of what another resident back then suggested: Slimy Rock. No, I’m not making another terrible joke: that tale came straight from the post mistress the day I visited North Country.

The building North Country is in started as a tavern: owned and built by Peter Uber. Then the Ubers turned into a mortuary; hence humorous sign on the door to the brewery. Then it went back to being a tavern. In brewing consistency is important, so they didn’t miss a beat. They went from pickling people, to pickling people, back to pickling people. Not even the corpses sang, “How Dry I Am.” If they brewed Heineken here it might be downright spooky: urban legend says Heineken uses formaldehyde in the brewing/bottling process.

“Finally,” you say, “he’s going to write about beer?” Sorry. Won’t do it again. (Sure I will.)

I had been told by “Bob,” via the net, that the brewer wouldn’t be in the only day I had available to visit. “Sean’s vacation starts on Monday, but you could could talk with his assistant.” Well, that was fine with
me… sniff, sniff. So, Monday, lunch time, I walked up the ramp with the woodsy hand railing. I waltzed in… got scores of 10, a 7 and an 8 on the “are you drunk already?” scale from the patrons for the effort …and had a Stinky Hippie. No, that’s not another joke, it’s the name of the beer, though the younguns who sat next to me probably thought I was referring to myself when I kept hanging around: ordering a second pint later on… after sampling a few other brews.

Stinky Hippie was described at a “hoppy pale ale” by the tender. It was on cask. It was very, very good. If any hippie drank enough of this he wouldn’t have to have incense to cover the pot smell. Hell, he probably wouldn’t need the pot. Very grapefruit nose. No, not pot, the hops! Though they are related. I would assume this has at least some Cascade, or at least Cascade-related hops. Hop taste was a bit grassy; almost as if fresh hops had been used. It had a nice firm hop bite, so bittering was appropriate. While the body was good enough for the style, the hops were the star here. Creamy long lasting head that helps fill the mouth with bitter and appropriate body sense. I’d call it a slightly over the top IPA; less a pale ale… for the east coast. Probably more an aggressive west coast pale ale, or decent IPA, ala’ Anchor’s Liberty… only better cause it was on cask.

Firehouse Red tasted as if it still had live yeast in it. Yum! I swear I could hear the little beasties scream as they slid down my throat. The brewer told me they really don’t filter all that much: confirmed by other samples I had. I knew there was something I liked about the beer here. Over filtering? If that’s what you insist on doing to beer maybe you should forget brewing and just put in an Ultra Lite tap next to the H2O tap. Note: some folks might order water by mistake and think it tastes more like beer.

How’s that for an insult?

Firehouse Red was lightly hopped: a bit earthy/spicy/Fuggles-y. Good caramel nose, and caramel malt-like sense on the palate. Tis a red with malt more the focus, though that Fuggles-like sense did insist on expressing itself in the background. Red. Of course it’s Red, didn’t you see the name?

Slippery Rock Dew tasted like it might have a bit of Mountain Dew in it. The brewer said “no.” The tender insisted, at first, it was not a wheat beer. I pressed the issue upon second taste (“Are you sure?”) and she went off somewhere to ask. Yup. Wheat.

I told you! I told you!

Beer geeks really can be a pain, can’t they?

Pale yellow, hazy of course. (That’s what you’d expect with little to no filtering and wheat too.) To me on the palate it actually tasted a bit mead-y. When I savored I swore that background mead sense cried out, “HONEY! I’m home!”

I’m not claiming it has honey in it, just referring to my sense of the mouthfeel.

The Stone House Stout was very creamy: almost as if poured from a Guinness tap, and quite fresh tasting. Had a sweet coffee like aroma. I started to ask the waitress, “Oatmeal?” …looked down at the beer menu… yup. It dern near seemed like pure silk going down, which would most likely be from the oatmeal. Have you ever noticed writers use phrases like “goes down like silk” and don’t understand that actually having silk go down your throat would leave you a bit “choked up?” OK, damn you… it went down SMOOTH. Satisfied?

^%$#@ picky readers.

My note from the pub says, “This is a damn decent stout.”

The Breakfast Blend Mild had no nose (or even a sinus cavity) except a slightly sweet malt sense as it warmed. Red to light brown, hazy (as expected here), nice rocky/pillow mix head in glass, no hops to the taste (often expected for the style) and caramelized malt dominant with perfect lighter-Mild body… Breakfast is exactly what it claims to be.

The tender told me their IPA was hoppier than the Hippie. Sort of. Sort of not. If you’re looking for more of that American-ized, Cascade-ish hoppy beer with a nice bite, bite into the Hippie. (But make sure he changes his clothes first. After something like Woodstock they taste REAL disgusting.) However the IPA did just a bit more of that nice Chinook-like, high alpha, bite. As it warmed the dry hopping expressed itself a bit more, nose-wise… but not much. I was told it had Paleo hops in it. I thought the Hippie a bit more balanced. The higher hop-sense the tender may be referring to may also be due, in part, to a body that I felt could have expressed itself just a tad more. I felt it could have used more support, body-wise. Not way off… just a tad. All this also depends upon what you’re most sensitive to: high alpha bitter, or the myriad of what makes up this beer-y experience; grassy, fruit, spicy; to mention a few, that can accompany all the variety of hops and, of course, aroma, mouthfeel. Mouthfeel was the ever so slight problem here, balance-wise.

To me the Hippie had more, “more” of all four of that “beer-y experience:” taste, aroma, bitter and mouthfeel. The IPA was just more of the bitter, perhaps in part to a malt sense that was a bit less expressive in the mouthfeel. I like the bite, I just prefer a bit more body along with that bite to balance it all out, and a bit more complexity: which the Hippie had. (Unlike the more airhead editions of its namesake: some 60s hippies.) I admit I am comparing a cask to a tap beer: not all that fair a comparison.

A brewer is, in at least one way, like a high wire walker: it truly is often “all about the balance.” If it goes really bad there is no net below. Now there may be salvation… but more on that when we get to Sean’s great suggestion for homebrewers.

Though not my style, I was impressed by the Eat a Peach. Apparently they keep one fruit beer on tap and that varies, fruit-wise. More nose peachy than taste, but still firmly in the background. Some peaches added very late in the boil, or late in fermentation tanks?

A Ken recommendation is due now: there are devices one can attach to a tap to run tap beer through hops before serving. Eat a Peach would be even more tasty if one could do that with peaches… as perhaps a “one off” version of the brew. Of course you’d have to change it often and probably use the harder, more firm, pieces of peach. Soft pulpy peach pieces might create impossible to handle great globs of goo. The harder pieces aren’t as tasty, but I think avoiding the “goo” would be important. I know: I’ve been working with peach a lot in my pyser recipe, a spin off of cyser I invented. Well, as far as I know no one else has done it yet.

Their Key Stone Swankey is a steam beer-style… think Anchor Steam. A steam beer, historically, was brewed to compete with lagers, using an ale yeast… often fermented at colder: lager temps. Some brewers use the less traditional lager yeast for this style, and I seem to remember the menu saying a lager yeast was used… but to be honest I would almost suspect an ale yeast. Lager yeast often, not always, has at least a lightly sulfuric sense, to me. This didn’t. Either way: well done.

Swankey was deep gold in the glass. No hops sensed. (Expected, but maybe a hoppy Steam might be a worthy brew to consider as a seasonal in addition to brewing Key?) Nice caramel malt-like sense with a hint of kettle caramelization too. Rocky head. (Bullwinkle was too busy yapping seductively with another moose-patron, so it was just… Rocky.) It did have a corn/DMS nose, but considering the style: not unexpected. Nice decent body. (Like the seductive moose teasing Bullwinkle over there in the corner.)

Amber Waves of Grain was lightly hopped to the taste… but no nose. A malty nose that presented itself an almost a Marris Otter sense, though the brewer said there was no MO in there. Lightly carbonated (Most of the beer here is: fine with me.) Bit of a pillow-ish head. Malty finish that seemed to fill the mouth, but the body was actually medium light. Neat trick. Not sure how that’s done.

Now as everyone who reads my beer column knows I always have at least one criticism, and as good as the beer was… this was an easy task. Did I just order the wrong dish, or a great dish on the wrong day? The menu seemed so interesting with a great vegetarian section, a gluten free section… but being a carnivore at heart, one who needs to limit red meat (not by choice), I ordered the Leroy Chicken. It had thinly crusted onion rings on the sandwich, which were stale. The chicken had been so over cooked it was hard to chew. and the cheese: simply a dried out something on the sandwich. Kaiser bun which was fine, barbecue sauce OK.

A great concept and, at about $9, it seemed fairly priced for what I got: til I bit into it. Guess I’ll have to try something else next time. Having worked in the restaurant industry for many years, when I was a hell of a lot younger, I know every dish can’t be perfect, and every place has what they do well, what needs improvement. Even the best dish may not come out of the kitchen right from time to time. I understand: it happens.

I forgot to ask… who in the name of the Holy Great Garfunkel is “Leroy?”

Good news! I did get to meet the brewer: Sean McIntrye. (I had to call to get the spelling. By the time I did meet the brewer I had sipped a tad too much and forgot to ask. E-mailing questions was impossible, as the caveat in the beginning explains.) Sean said he has been brewing 14 years, started by homebrewing, and became the brewer at North Country in 2005. Josh is his assistant.

They have a 7 barrel system and brewed 1500 barrels last year. (Busy, ain’t he?) The equipment came from the Augusta Oldenburg brewery. This is the first brewery he’s brewed at. He did go to college, but for Wildlife Tech. He laughed at my comment that now he’s helping others have a “wildlife.”

He answered, “We dry hop all casks,” to my question about the Hippie’s somewhat grassy nature.

They did have a hop contract when the crisis hit.

“Hippie…” “Grassy…” Hm, not unexpected, right?

His advice for homebrewers: “Support your local homebrew shop and don’t just dump a beer if you think it’s gone bad, or isn’t right. See if you can ‘move it over’ into something else.” He said he’s had several homebrewers come in saying they dumped a brew simply because they found out they hadn’t brewed to style, or something was in there that didn’t belong there according to their plans.

Note to homebrewers from writer: “HEY! Where did you think all these ‘styles’ came from? Someone probably screwed up and said to themselves, ‘Oh, maybe this could be…’ Think of it like the inventor of the Post-It-Note: he was trying to ‘brew up’ a super glue. Did he succeed? Actually, yes, he did…. just not at what he had preplanned. But if he had just tossed out the result we’d all still be writing notes to ourselves on our hands like old folks who refuse to use newfangled tech do.

Well, the note on my hand said I had an appointment and it was time to leave. Maybe next year I can do a Brewer Profile on Sean for The Professor. Might be nice to see what Sean came up with himself on his way to something else.

Brewing certainly can be a grand creative endeavor, right? Just pause look at the marvel that was carved out of, and the smooth, pleasing elixir brewed in, downtown Slippery Rock… and I’m sure you’ll agree.


Brew Biz: Werts and All, is a column dedicated to reviewing, discussing and commenting on all things beer including, but not limited to: marketing, homebrewing and homebrew/beer related events, how society perceives all things beer. Also: reviews of beer related businesses, opinions about trends in the beer business, and all the various homebrew, judging and organizations related to beer. Essentially, all things “beer.”

©Copyright 2011
Ken Carman and Cartenual Productions
All Rights Reserved

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